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September 11, 2015
Control vs. connection: How to build a connective culture at work
By Dr. Dalton Kehoe

The problem: Only 30% of US 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 the structure of the workplace.

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The structure of our mind

Mindful Management book cover
"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 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.

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, their 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 mind 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; principal’s offices as distant, fearsome places).

Our mind stored this information so that when we became a manager, 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 them in decisions
  4. If they 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.

Jim Clifton, CEO of Gallup, summed up this problem in an editorial on why most workers are miserable at work (and coincidentally 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 (reduce their uncertainty), and (2) that they care about them (reduce any threat to their 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.

Building connective cultures

To engage employees, the control dynamic in the critical couple must change. There are two ways organizations do this:

  1. Get rid of managers—eliminate the critical couple. In 1970, The Morning Star Company—a very successful food processor—was built as a company of “self-managing professionals.” There are no titles; anyone can spend company money and employees negotiate responsibilities with peers, including compensation decisions. Morning Star generates $700 million a year in revenues with only 400 employees. 
    Meanwhile, online shoe retailer Zappos, has a similar self-managed structure. In 2011, they generated $2.2 billion in sales revenue with just over 1,400 employees. 
    In these companies, a connective counter-culture works because control kills commitment and quality.
  2. Keep managers, but remove their power in the critical couple. Remove managers’ ability to directly affect the fate of employees. At Google, managers can’t unilaterally hire, fire, promote or give bonuses to employees. With no control, managers can only help. The company also builds flat, open workspaces for all employees, and has destroyed the other basis for hierarchy—informational control. 
    Transparency is a key cornerstone of their system. Interestingly, as children, Goggle’s founders grew up in low-structure Montessori schools. They argue that control kills creativity.

Start where you are

There have always been managers who have ignored situational cues that evoked controlling behavior. Like them, you can wake up to your situation, get “out of control,” and lead consciously and connectively. Follow the 5 C’s of mindful management:

  1. Connect. “Manage by talking around.” Get to know your employees. Be friendly or at least courteous and respectful.
  2. Caring clarity. Be clear about the work to be done and your idea of work “well done.” And when it’s well done, say "thanks."
  3. Collaborate. Tell less and ask more. Engage your employees’ minds in telling you about their work and how it can be done better. Decide with them.
  4. Credibility. Keep your promises—and if you can’t, explain why in a timely fashion.
  5. Calm. In difficult situations, downshift your emotional responses so your employees will “read” a non-threatening approach to solving the problem.

The first four guidelines get you “out of control” and the fifth allows you to regain connection when things go badly. To enhance productivity, revitalize your critical couple. Connect.

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Dalton Kehoe

Dr. Dalton Kehoe is the author ofMindful Management: The Neuroscience of Trust and Effective Workplace Leadership, and has been a teacher, organizational change practitioner and communications consultant for over four decades. He retired from York University after a 41-year career and is now a Senior Scholar of Communication Studies, a top-rated seminar leader for the Schulich Executive Education Centre at York University, and President ofCommunicate for Life, Ltd.Mindful Management[Communicate for Life, July 2015] is currently available viaAmazon.

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