Control vs. Connection and the ‘Critical Couple’

With over 4 decades of experience as a teacher, an organizational change practitioner, and a communications consultant, Dalton Kehoe, PhD, knows how to manage well and drive engagement. Dr. Kehoe, author of Mindful Management: The Neuroscience of Trust and Effective Workplace Leadership, has some tips for our readers.

The problem: Only 30% of U.S. workers are fully engaged in their work. As Gallup’s research indicates, the level of employee engagement has barely increased since the turn of the 21st century. Why? The answer lies in the structure of the human mind and in the structure of the workplace.

The Structure of Our Mind

Thirty years of neuroscientific research has demonstrated that we have two minds—rational and emotional—that work together to shape how much and how well we work. The emotional mind constantly “reads” every situation we’re in, instantly comparing it to habits of perception buried in long-term memory, and then floods the rational mind with impressions, feelings, and reaction patterns to choose in the next moment.

As a result, most of our behavior is driven by situational cues triggering our habits rather than by conscious choices about what to do next. Employees’ situations drive their work engagement.

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Manager and Employee: The ‘Critical Couple’

We now know that the emotional mind is wired to seek persistent positive emotional connections with others—a state of trust. It’s also wired to protect us in that pursuit by avoiding uncertainty and any threat to our conscious sense of self-worth. When managers positively connect with their employees, these neural needs are served, employees’ minds become positively aligned, and positive motivational energy infuses their work.

Organizational success begins with this critical couple. Why not align its dynamics with the needs of the emotional mind? Not as easy as it sounds.

To Manage, Be in Control

We learned to view managers as controllers of people as our emotional minds recorded the behavior of every person who controlled our lives and each situation in which they were doing it (e.g., teachers at the front of the classroom; principals’ offices as distant, fearsome places).

Our minds stored this information so that when we became managers, the classic pattern for “manager as controller” would simply appear. The pattern comes complete with character guidelines (e.g., be dominant, intelligent, and decisive); and action scripts, including:

  1. Be distant and demanding.
  2. Protect your objectivity by not caring about employees; offer little recognition for work well done (“That’s what they get paid for”).
  3. Never involve employees in decisions.
  4. If employees raise issue, tell them to “suck it up,” because “smart, dominant, and decisive” people don’t listen—they give orders.

As a result, many managers kill the emotional connections that motivate employees.

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Jim Clifton, CEO of Gallup, summed up this problem in an editorial on why most workers are miserable at work (and, coincidentally, he spoke to the power of the emotional mind). He said employees are miserable because they have managers who can’t clearly communicate two things: (1) what the employee’s job is (to reduce his or her uncertainty), and (2) that they care about the employee (to reduce any threat to his or her self-esteem).

Employees’ emotional minds react to this kind of behavior with wariness, even foreboding. They can’t fight or flee, so they disengage and work less.

In tomorrow’s Advisor, Dr. Kehoe explains how to build a connective culture, plus the 5 C’s of mindful management.