Engineering a Winning Workplace Culture

by Doug Claffey

It’s not rocket science. It’s actually tougher than that.

If you’ve checked the weather forecast or used a GPS, you benefited from tricky math called a “six-degrees-of-freedom” algorithm. It’s what pinpoints the location and attitude of a satellite 20,000 feet above the Earth.

Complex problems like this have given aerospace engineers — so-called rocket scientists — a well-deserved reputation for ingenuity. And after working with them for over a decade, I can tell you they’re a pretty sharp bunch. They might be launching satellites into space, but some organizational leaders are accomplishing something just as impressive: They’ve figured out how to unlock the human potential of their workforce.

Engineering a winning workplace culture isn’t rocket science. It’s actually tougher than that.

Getting humans to cooperate is challenging. It’s not due to a lack of science behind the concept. In fact, the study of human cooperation includes psychology, anthropology, and neuroscience. And there’s a lot we can learn from science to create successful, sustainable workplaces.

The human brain is immensely complex

A single human brain contains 86 billion neurons, up to one quadrillion synaptic connections, and by some accounts, an exaFLOPS’ (a quintillion calculations per second) worth of computing power. So, you can imagine getting 1,000 brains to work together is exponentially more complicated.

Anyone who has read popular neuroscience understands the human brain is more than the sum of its neural and glial cells. There’s an old theory that defines it in terms of three major brain structures, representing 500 million years of evolution.

  1. The proto-reptilian brain is responsible for primal behaviors like breathing and digesting.
  2. Our paleo-mammalian brain (or limbic system) governs memory, emotions, and social hierarchies.
  3. The neocortex – the area that finished developing only 200,000 years ago – gives us our ability to speak and reason.

The brain works together as a whole. But it’s helpful to remember “the three brains” when we look at human behavior to better understand why we react the way we do.

Our brains are wired for culture

What makes the human brain truly complex goes beyond just the “hardware.” Homo Sapiens have the unique capability to cooperate in large numbers, based on shared beliefs, values, and practices. It’s what we call “culture” and it’s an ability that saw us through the Pleistocene Era.

But along with the pro-social benefits of brains wired for culture are considerable difficulties, including greed, shame, jealousy, fear, indifference, and resentment. These emotional by-products equate to office politics at its worst.

More often than we are aware, the limbic system is calling the shots. When we feel stress, criticism, disrespect, or alienation at work, it responds as if we were still cavemen. That can mean a subtle, long-term loss of motivation. Or, it can cause a dramatic “amygdala hijack,” which is the “fight or flight” response our ancestors experienced when crossing paths with a saber-tooth tiger.

The result, in either case, creates a dysfunctional workplace with disengaged employees. After studying 57,000 organizations and 19 million employees since 2006, Energage knows engagement averages around 30 percent. That means the remaining 70 percent of employees are either not engaged – or worse — actively disengaged. And that costs organizations in the form of lost productivity, decreased quality, and poor customer service.

Humans are the solution to the great workplace culture equation

In aerospace engineering, we solve problems with models that predict and measure expected behaviors. But fixing a dysfunctional culture requires more than that. You’ve got to consider intangible needs such as safety, respect, belonging, meaningfulness, and purpose. In other words, creating a healthy culture requires that the human is the primary focus.

Clued-in leaders know this. They’re intentional about shaping culture, and they do so by focusing on four imperatives:

1. Align: The first step to a successful workplace culture is the alignment of individual and organizational values. The human ability for cooperative culture is extremely powerful, but only if it is consciously facilitated. Alignment fulfills a deep human need to belong that’s expressed in the part of the brain that recognizes and appreciates rewarding experiences.

2. Connect:  Healthy cultures also take active steps to connect people across the organization through activities, personal recognition, and communication systems. A sense of connection with others builds trust, which releases the hormone oxytocin in the brain. This settles the limbic system, reducing stress and anxiety levels, among other health benefits.

3. Coach: High-performing workplaces understand the importance of replacing old performance evaluation systems with a coaching mindset. The old method of evaluation boils down to the adversarial “perform or be judged!” This activates the amygdala’s old friend – fear. In this kind of environment thinking and cooperation are the first to suffer, followed by performance.

4. Perform:  Peak performance isn’t only about navigating around negative emotional reactions. A great culture is one where employees can fulfill their highest potential for novelty, creativity, and efficiency. Generating new ideas and evaluating different points of view engages the neocortex area of higher reasoning, where it is believed human beings’ greatest capabilities are focused.

Engineer a winning workplace culture by placing humans back in the center

Creating a great culture means taking into account the sensitive and complex computers inside our heads. To leverage the power of cooperation at scale requires designing that culture around neuroscience. It may sound overwhelming, but at the end of the day, this simply means realigning focus by putting humans back in the center. The good news is with perseverance, and an understanding of human motivation, anyone can create a winning workplace culture.