Are Highly Engaged and High-Performing Workplaces Brain Friendly?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Scanning the literature on employee engagement yields a fair degree of consensus on the components of a high engagement work culture. Employee engagement is commonly defined as the degree to which employees in an organization are willing to expend discretionary effort at work. Models vary in focus and style, but typically include these components:

  • leadership and management
  • communication
  • culture
  • rewards and recognition
  • professional and personal growth
  • accountability and performance
  • vision and values

And after listing the facets, most models describe in more detail what sort of leadership, management, communication, culture, and so forth should be in place for a high engagement workplace. On the surface, all of the above items look important and necessary, right?
Facets of high performance work environments generally include:

  • strategy
  • structure
  • leadership
  • accountability
  • processes
  • vision
  • “edge”

High-performance cultures include many of the same components as high-engagement ones but often focus more directly on the end result— results! Both the high-engagement and the high-performance workplace components address important and necessary aspects of organizations. But what most do not include, which I feel is critical, is an aspect that addresses the “employee experience”—what it is like to be an employee in the organization.
According to The Brain-Friendly Workplace: Five Big Ideas From Neuroscience That Address Organizational Challenges (ASTD Press, 2014), brain-friendly workplaces are “organizations where people are able to do their best thinking and produce great work in vibrant, healthy environments.” Brain-friendliness incorporates:

  • good management principles and practices
  • effective leadership
  • organizational health and wellbeing
  • drive toward mission
  • humanity and respect 

When descriptions on the candidate recruitment materials or company website do not match the actual reinforced behaviors inside the organization, our brains register the mismatch as threat. Even if only at a subconscious level, we operate in a mild state of alarm in these kinds of environments. And once alarmed even slightly, we become more sensitive to additional evidence that the environment is one to be wary of. Increasing alarm begets conscious stress, adverse emotional and physical health impacts, and even long-term effects such as apathy or burnout.
If their life circumstances permit, new hires who notice and reject a work environment may self-select out of that workplace. What is left is a self-selecting organizational machine that becomes more and more like itself, increasingly insular and less innovative.


As an employee in a high-engagement or high-performing workplace, I might have a clear understanding of the organizational vision, my own accountabilities, the processes and structures I work within, and what leadership values. But though I may be willing, I still may be unable to do my best work. A culture with undercurrents of competition, bullying, or overwork can result in silent suffering, sick leave abuse, or turnover that is higher than it ought to be.


In the best workplaces, the components listed at the beginning of this article align. They reinforce each other and are built upon one another. All it takes is for one of these facets to be out of alignment with others, and there is an opportunity for distrust, confusion, fear, and eventually, disengagement.

Where is there misalignment in your organization, and what obvious and perhaps not-so-obvious outcomes are occurring as a result?

About the Author

Erika Garms works with leaders who need their teams to work, manage, and innovate smarter. As CEO of WorkingSmarts (, she uses her gift for translating powerful scientific theory to everyday workplace practice. Erika has played a number of consulting and leadership roles in her 26-year career, including serving as an internal consultant, an organization development unit manager, and an organization development/change/executive management consultant with two large, global management consulting firms. She also helped to establish start-up HR and IT consultancies. Erika has worked for and with public sector and private sector organizations across many industries – from food to finance, education to energy. She earned a BA and an MA from the University of Colorado, a PhD from the University of Minnesota, and completed a post-graduate program with distinction from the NeuroLeadership Institute/Sussex University.  Garms is the author of, “The Brain-Friendly Workplace: Five Big Ideas from Neuroscience That Address Organizational Challenges” (ATD Press, 2014) and is a regular speaker at conferences, company meetings, and management retreats across the U.S. and abroad.

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