The study gave participants an option to disavow any of their personal value statements for money. Disavowing a statement meant they could receive as much as $100 by simply agreeing to sign a document stating the opposite of what they said they believed. The disavowing was interpreted as the value statement not being sacred to the person. Statements that the participants refused to disavow were classified as being personally sacred.
Brain imaging indicated that scared and non-sacred values activated different areas of the brain. The scared values activated areas associated with right and wrong and the non-sacred values activated areas related to pleasure and rewards. In addition, the researchers found that the amygdala region became activated when a person’s sacred values were challenged.
The amygdala is the part of the brain that controls our “911” stress alert reactions of fight, flee or freeze when it perceives a threat to our well-being. It is also associated with our emotions, particularly emotions connected to perceived negative experiences, which over time creates a filing cabinet of negative memories. In our modern world people usually don’t react physically by fighting or fleeing, they react emotionally. We fight by arguing or being stubborn; we flee by disengagingmentally and emotionally, which lessens commitment; and we freeze by shutting down our creativity. It is emotional reactions like these with which a leader must contend. Therefore, developing one’s emotional intelligence is critical to effectively counter and minimize these stress responses. Organizations would be wise to establish emotional intelligence as a leadership prerequisite if they want to reap the benefit from higher levels of workforce engagement
I believe that workforce engagement issues are a result of leaders and organizations not operating from a foundation of sacred values. The Institute for Global Ethics did exhaustive surveying and research in an attempt to identify what core moral and ethical values were held in highest regard by people and communities throughout the world. No matter where they went, they found the same answers: honesty, responsibility, respect, fairness, and compassion. In essence, these are core sacred values.
Applying the brain imaging research from the sacred values study, it would seem that if any of these five core values were in essence disavowed by anyone – in this instance, a leader – it would activate the “right and wrong” areas in the brains of his or her employees and at the same time activate their amygdale, putting each into either a fight, freeze or flee state of reaction. The result could be a strong feeling on part of an employee to not trust this person and to feel that they have been “wronged,” both of which will negatively impact engagement, commitment, performance, and most importantly, trust.
Values authenticity is the core issue. Leaders and organizations who – within their heart, head, and gut – are not authentically aligned and committed to these core sacred values will never be able to fully capture the hearts and minds of their workforce nor their stakeholders.
The Gallup Organization, which has made a science of employee engagement, reported that in the third quarter of 2011, “Seventy-one percent of American workers are ‘not engaged’ or ‘actively disengaged’ in their work, meaning they are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and are less likely to be productive.” This means that 71% of the country’s workforce is emotionally reacting by fighting, fleeing or freezing.Why? Because they believe that their sacred values are absent or being disavowed. A leader cannot drive workforce engagement if he or she does not authentically hold these five core values as sacred.
When I’ve had the opportunity to talk, or should I say listen, to employees, these five values are at the core of their concerns and issues, and are the crux of their disengagement:
- “I can’t trust what my boss tells me.” (Honesty)
- “They don’t care about how these changes are going to impact my family.” (Compassion)
- “They said they would take care of this issue months ago, but as you can see nothing has changed.” (Responsibility)
- “Our benefits have been slashed. They even took away our break time, but the executives are still driving a company car.” (Fairness)
- “What really galls me is that they didn’t even tell us about these changes face to face. We got it in an email.” (Respect)
These same sacred values are at the heart of the issues that are polarizing and creating conflict in this country and around the world and thwarting people from finding solutions to their most pressing problems:
- Income inequality (Fairness, Compassion)
- Foreclosures (Responsibility, Fairness)
- Government (Honesty, Responsibility, Fairness)
- Politics (Respect)
- Healthcare and Social Policy (Compassion, Responsibility)
Leaders from all sectors of our society must develop a deeper understanding and sensitivity of how these core sacred values dynamically hold relationships, teams, organizations, and countries together, all be it sometimes in a chaotic way. When organizational and political leaders focus on and subscribe to the perspective of cost versus benefit, there undoubtedly will be tension and that tension will give rise to conflict and disengagement.
In his book Moral Courage, Rushworth Kidder states, “Successful organizations must require moral courage in their leaders and then work assiduously that it is rarely needed.” I agree, but more importantly leaders must take on the hard work – the work of authentically committing to these sacred core values and then modeling moral courage when they are challenged. To create a highly engaged workforce leaders and organizations would be better served to first look in-ward and to evaluate the depth of their commitment to these core sacred values.
Authenticity and Moral Courage are two of the Seven Hallmarks of Relationship–Centered Leadership. If you have an interest in building workforce engagement and becoming a high-performing leader, we invite you to explore the Relationship–Centered Leadership program. For more information on this program download a description from the Free Downloads tab