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Science of Engagement: the role of purpose and mood


An understanding of some aspects of how the brain is ‘wired’ can help you to increase the likelihood of people being engaged at work and avoid creating situations that destroy engagement. There is no set of system in the brain that ensures people are engaged. It’s more complex than that but there are a number of areas that help and this series of articles – The Science of Engagement – will cover the science and the practical implications for creating an environment where people are more engaged.

Hear Jan Hills speak about ‘The neuroscience of successful engagement’ at The Employee Engagement Conference on 10 September in London. 

How can understanding neuroscience help you improve engagement? In part 3 of this article series on the science behind engagement we consider the role of purpose and mood in creating an environment where people are engaged.


You may have seen (along with 23 million other people) Simon Sinek’s 2010 TED Talk. And although it’s billed as being about leadership, and he talks about the Wright Brothers, Martin Luther King and the Apple Corporation, it’s really about how people engage with an idea.

His premise is that great companies and leaders talk about why they’re doing something, not just what they’re doing.

He calls this the golden circle. Understanding why, and being able to explain the purpose of what you’re doing, is, we have found, an essential element in creating an environment where engagement can thrive.

Sinek’s circle has why at the centre, how next and what at its outer edge, and illustrates the way most people and companies communicate their messages.

People tend to start at the outside by telling you what they do. In an HR presentation this might sound like:

“We create a nine-box grid (what) by analysing our people and dividing them into nine boxes based on their potential and performance (how). This tells us the number of high-performers with potential we have who can run the company in the future (why).”

Sinek’s insight is that the most successful companies and leaders talk first about the purpose or why.

This is because people don’t buy what you do but why you do it. Understanding “Why” hooks people in: we all like to understand the reasons for any initiative. Why creates a sense of purpose. People can more easily relate to why and apply it to their own values and interests.

Sinek claims this is a result of how the brain is structured – and recent discoveries in neuroscience support this idea.

Matt Lieberman, a neuroscientist at UCLA, has studied why we have two systems for understanding others: the mirror neuron system and the medial prefrontal cortex or default system. What he found was the two systems have slightly different jobs. Mirror neurons help us to understand how and what someone is doing. The default system helps us understand why.

We activate this system whenever we are not involved in cognitive or task type activity. It comes on like a reflex. But when we are busy, or in the habit of forcing on analytical, cognitive tasks we may be unaware of the signals the default system is sending. They tend to be presented as intuition or a nudge: that fleeting sense of concern about what the leader is saying, the discomfort registered on someone’s face.

Other research has found that a clear purpose helps people to overcome impulsive behaviour and stay focused on goals. In engagement a clear purpose shared with an in-group provides a sense of reward in the brain and helps people to push past threat. Combining this with options about how employees meet shared goals strengthens the sense of reward even more.

Positive mood

We have a natural bias to notice threat and negative emotions. This threat or negativity bias kept us alive and even today it stops us from walking under a bus, taking too much risk or getting into fights, physical or verbal, with someone more powerful than us.

There is less agreement, and less written, about positive emotions. When we think about positive emotions like joy, happiness, and gratitude they may seem to have little purpose other than to balance out the negative. But the Broaden and Build theory developed by Barbara Fredrickson is relevant to our thinking on engagement.

When you experience a positive emotion it can be rather fleeting and it tends not to come with the same urge to take action (an action urge in the jargon) as a negative emotion does.

Try this short exercise. Remember a time when you were angry or scared. Notice how it feels in your body and the urge you have. It is probably to stop thinking about the emotion or to get away and do something else. OK shake that off. Now think about something positive, a lovely sunny day or your child smiling or whatever works for you. Again notice the physical feelings and the action urge. If you are feeling joy it may lead you to be playful; if gratitude, to want to return the help.

Fredrickson says we have positive emotions because they build action urges to connect with others, and to be open to learning. Her theory also says that whilst they are fleeting they build and this building creates resilience and makes us more resourceful.

Studies by Fredrickson and others have shown that people in a positive mood notice the “the big picture,” they are more open to new ideas and learning, solve more problems through insight and make more connections across bits of information. Fredrickson uses the metaphor that positive emotions are a bit like vegetables; you know eating greens once a month won’t do much for your health. You need your five a day.

It is the same with positive emotions, you need to have a regular dose and you need to tip the balance of the negativity bias by making sure you notice the positive and savour it. In business this involves going out of our way to capture and amplify the positive. Like celebrating small successes, getting people to help each other and noticing what is going well. All important factors in bonding people and creating engagement and purpose for the job.

To create an environment where people are engaged, positivity is an essential element. A key question is how you can help people to notice more of the positive and to savour it and focus less on the negative.

The next article in this series, The Science of Engagement, will look at the role of ‘trust’ in employee engagement.

One Response

  1. This was a very interesting
    This was a very interesting read. Thanks for sharing. I do agree about positivity being essential. I’ve noticed that while negativity can spur a person to work hard, it’s never a feeling that lasts long and it leaves you exhausted. On the other hand, when you are buoyed by positivity, you keep at your work and engage better with other people.

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