The Neuroscience of Performance and Culture Change Through Compassion

Neuroscience reveals the human brain contains at least three different types of emotion regulation systems.

As Professor Paul Gilbert, a world expert on compassion explains, “Each one designed to do different things, but also to work together as a system and to be in balance with and counterbalance each other”.

The three main systems are

1. Drive emotions that promote excitation, wanting, achieving, consuming and push

2. Threat emotions that promote protection and safety-seeking, anger, anxiety and disgust

3. Soothing emotions that promote affiliation, safe-kindness, balance and compassion

What’s essential is that each system links with motivation.

A motivation to utilise all three; because without, there is no balance in the interplay between each and instead we as individuals and organisations resort to an unhealthy bias.

A bias that stimulates too many attack, defend, fight, flight and freeze based relationships that ignite

  • Staff and customer disengagement
  • Leaders that force a pace of change that creates overwhelm, numbness and staff burnout
  • The implementation of new structures, targets and deadlines that destroy long term performance, morale and motivation
  • Increased attrition and lower discretionary effort through climates of fear and mistrust
  • Unhealthy performance cultures

If we misunderstand emotion we can’t understand performance

The miss-appreciation and mismanagement of our emotional systems is one of the hidden reasons why organisations and new generations of leaders return to the same drive and threat based behaviours and mistakes of previous eras.

So, here’s a short recap: To create high levels of engagement and sustained, motivated performance, future organisations will

  • Understand the three emotional systems
  • Learn how to balance and counter balance each
  • Realise all three require motivational attention
  • Avoid sticking to a personal and cultural bias of one or two systems

Leadership responsibility

One of the frequent challenges lies within the leaders themselves, who may have created personal success and forced a level of results without ever cultivating a healthy balance of compassion and interplay of all three systems.

Some leaders have personality types that default to drive emotions, and when perceived threats enter the workplace such as changes in the market, increased competition, political manoeuvrings and take-over, they return once again to drive emotions and behaviours.

They go from a level of wanting, leading to achieving and therefore pushing, into a higher level of pushing, then achieving and finally wanting. In between, they’ll probably feel threatened (albeit unconsciously) and won’t know what else to do but turn back once again into more drive!

Often this leads to igniting the threat based emotions in those around them. Staff therefore feel anxiety, anger, fear and disgust and so they disengage. They often try to keep the disengagement hidden on the inside, as they battle to not let it be seen how they are truly feeling about the climate of fear based change.

While the leaders continue to stay up-beat about how positive and brilliant their level of push is, they are completely unaware of the fear they’ve ignited. This is something they find hard to acknowledge.

You don’t have to visit many organisations to see this in action and you probably know that only a quarter of all UK staff are actively engaged. It’s no wonder that this is because very few leaders and organisations know how to blend and regulate all three emotional responses.

To support their drive emotions, leaders tend to implement new targets, measures, standards and rewards. They do this under the misconception this will improve staff motivation.

These are misconceptions and all too often they prove to be ill-judged attempts at motivation because they have no idea of the emotional position of their staff. In fact, in their unconsciousness, they are applying such things for themselves and their way of thinking and feeling.

Financial goals don’t improve performance

This is often seen within new financial incentives to drive performance that of course appeal to their own psychology. It’s no coincidence the most recent motivational research disproves the old myth that increased performance is sustained by increasing wealth based incentives.

But let’s not give drive based emotions and behaviours a totally bad representation. These are not the villains of the peace, it’s the imbalance of all three systems. Both drive and threat emotions have their place in the survival and achievement mechanisms of being human. Both stimulate great outcomes when they are balanced by the soothing emotions and behaviours of compassion.

Now, in many western cultures, (and no more evident within today’s corporate culture) we’ve never understood the power, place and impact of compassion. Compassion is essential to improve performance, engagement, our physical, emotional and mental health within the workplace.

It’s probably why compassion and empathy are so misunderstood, perceived as weak, given lip service (in empty corporate values) or simply just pushed to one side.

The reality is, from neuroscience, psychological and performance points of view, human achievement thrives when it blends with compassion.

Glenn Bracey

Glenn Bracey

Glenn is the co-founder and inspirational learning and performance director of Future Vision. He is a trainer, coach, conference speaker and passionate advocate of developing learning that makes a tangible difference to your business, its people and customers.

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