There’s a little rush of a chemical called dopamine inside the brain when you take a bite of chocolate, or when you hit on a winner at the card table, or when a big fish bites your line. It's the neurobiological mechanism behind why we find something pleasurable. It’s hard science.
Similarly, when you are recognized for good work by your employer or receive an incentive for a job well done, you get that same jolt of pleasure in your brain. That’s part of the message keynote speaker Rodd Wagner will deliver at the RPI Annual Conference in Fort Lauderdale. His presentation, entitled “Inside the Mind of an Employee: The Good, the Bad and the Neurobiology
,” explores the science behind employee reciprocity and how good companies use that science to their benefit.
Wagner is the New York Times bestselling author of Widgets: The 12 New Rules for Managing Your Employees As If They're Real People
. He’s also a regular columnist in Forbes
, and Vice President of Employee Engagement Strategy at BI Worldwide, based in Minnesota.
“You could make the case that we don’t need to know what's going on inside people’s brains,” said Wagner. “I can prove survey research and performance data that there’s every reason to ensure a company recognizes solid performance. I don’t need the brain science.”
Yet for years, Wagner says employee engagement has been considered a “soft science” because it could not be observed in the same way as operations, accounting, or one of the more traditionally concrete aspects of running a business. He believes sharing the evidence of what predictably happens inside employees’ brains has the potential to help skeptical executives understand how the science of motivation is just as reliable as any of the other disciplines.
“Getting recognized at work tickles something in a part of the human brain, and people who are happiest reciprocate that emotion with dedication. Humans are very reciprocal creatures,” he said. “We find that when companies take a genuine interest in keeping people happy, those people will take a genuine interest in making the company succeed.”
Wagner enjoys doing a little myth-busting in his columns and speeches. One he has taken on lately is the widely circulated idea that a minority of people are “engaged” at work. Engagement could be better, he said, but “there is no crisis.”
“Most people at least like their jobs, and some love them,” Wagner said.
He also argues with current assertions in the engagement industry that employee happiness is not the right goal for a business.
“Happiness remains very important to employees,” he said. “It’s still the overriding reason people take a job and stay in a job. Any properly fielded and analyzed research shows the pattern.”
Wagner frequently speaks on similar topics to business and industry groups around the country. While some of his keynote will be taken from his most recent book, he will also be showing first at RPI new analyses from the most recent of BI Worldwide's annual studies on employee’s relationships with their employers.
Among the lines on inquiry in his most recent study is what psychologists call “theory of mind.”
“It’s a uniquely human characteristic to be able to estimate what the other person is thinking or intends, and it’s turning out to be an intriguing area for engagement research,” Wagner said. In his most recent study, Wagner asked people three questions about their companies' intentions, among them the statement, “My employer is seeking to make me happy.”
“Now, of course, people don’t know for certain what their leaders’ intentions are, but it is fascinating to me how predictive these types of core motivation questions are of a person's commitment to the company,” said the author. “Employees are most driven to perform when they believe the company is not investing them just because of the potential return, but because they feel a moral obligation to their people.”
Wagner wrote about the results in a recent Forbes column
, where he advised employees to calibrate their commitment to their companies with those core intentions of the firm. “Organizations often deliver similar perks and benefits for different reasons.” he wrote. “A mismatch between your company’s intentions and yours can hurt your career
For more information on Wagner’s keynote and a full schedule, please visit the conference web site