According to neuroscience, there are six factors that employees need in order to feel motivated, happy and engaged in the workplace. The acronym is SPACES, and it’s also useful for creating employee resilience during organisational change and for helping to get your thinking back on track when you lose focus:

  • Self-esteem
  • Purpose
  • Autonomy
  • Certainty
  • Equity
  • Social connection

When we have these six things, the reward centre in our brains is activated and engaged. This means we are positive, resilient and energised and can focus on collaborating with others, as well as being open to new ideas.

If workers don’t identify with these factors, brains are in a ‘threat’ state. This means employees may feel and act switched off and negative because their energy naturally goes into protecting themselves and being defensive. Ultimately, the workplace is then seen as more threatening than it actually is.

SPACES can be used at a micro level to plan interactions – such as a phone call or a meeting – or it can be used on a more macro level as a checklist of how to plan a change program across the organisation.

Self-esteem

This is about creating feelings of respect and trust. If an employee feels trusted, the chemical balance in their brains actually changes. If an employee is learning and developing, this also has a positive impact on their feeling of self-esteem and their brains.

Purpose

Knowing that what we do at work is useful matters to both leaders and employees alike. When we have a sense of purpose, our resilience increases and our sense of wellbeing improves. In his book Give and Take, Adam Grant, Professor of Psychology at Wharton University, describes an experiment where he took the fundraising team of a university and divided them into two.

One group met a beneficiary of their fundraising, for just five minutes, and the beneficiary told them about the impact of their work on his life. The other half did not meet a beneficiary. Grant found that fundraising among the team who met the beneficiary increased by more than 170 per cent, and not just in the following weeks but even into the following month, whereas the fundraising of the control group remained unchanged.

Autonomy

The brain needs a sense of having some control. Identifying what employees can control and allowing them to have some influence and responsibility helps to build their resilience. Even in the most difficult circumstances, there is always something that employees can control.

In one office example I’ve seen, the company was closing and consequently people were losing their jobs. Employees were encouraged to take responsibility for recognising past successes and for planning how to say goodbye to people. Having a small amount of influence can make a surprisingly positive difference. Choice is very important to the human brain.

Certainty

The brain likes certainty. If we don’t have it, we are distracted and waste a huge amount of energy speculating. Research conducted by University College London shows that knowing there is a small chance of getting a painful electric shock can lead to significantly more stress than knowing you will definitely get a painful shock.

The most stressful scenario is when you really don’t know. It’s the uncertainty that makes us anxious.

Co-author Dr Robb Rutledge (UCL Institute of Neurology and Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research) commented: “The most stressful scenario is when you really don’t know. It’s the uncertainty that makes us anxious. The same is likely to apply in many familiar situations, whether it’s waiting for medical results or information on train delays.”

Equity

The need for fair and transparent treatment comes to the fore during change. If resources are going to be changed or limited, then employees naturally want to feel that resource distribution, for example, is equal.
This puts people’s brains into a more positive and receptive place.

Social connection

The need for social connection at work is hugely important and has been underestimated. The human brain has not evolved that much since our ancestors were hunting and gathering. If we were part of the tribe, we were more likely to survive. So our brains like to feel that we belong, that we have the protection of the group.

It’s natural for people to need to feel that someone cares for them. If an employee feels like someone in the workplace is taking an interest in them, they feel balanced; if they are excluded, their brains go into a threat state. Try considering how well connected your employees are to you. In what ways do you show people that you are interested in them?