Why do employees behave badly? A NeuroSmart® perspective.

There are many needs theories to explain why people do what they do in the priorities and with the effort they pursue them. Some acknowledge subconscious forces, other prefer conscious goals and decision making, and a lot of that is covered in other articles in this website. Arising from some of those ideas (including Bowlby and Epstein), combined with recent (compared to most of those theories) developments in neuroscience, Klaus Grawe described behaviour-inducing (motivational) needs and the mechanisms behind why and how they influence us. The fundamental advantage in this approach is that it combines behavioural observation with neurobiology, elevating it to a greater level of evidence and reliability.

In particular, this linking of behavioural and medical sciences achieved some useful things:

  • The ability to link stimuli, emotions and behaviours to brain activity in specific regions
  • The ability to predict emotions and behaviour based on the brain activity that occurred as a result of stimuli
  • The ability to monitor the effects of specific need deprivation and satisfaction in specific brain regions and networks.
  • The ability to monitor brain activity through monitoring oxygen usage (through blood flow), electrical activity, neurochemical and hormonal releases to identify that much of subconscious behavioural motivation was triggered by negative feedback loops that seek to achieve consistency between different mechanisms (e.g., emotional and rational processing and sense-making), as well as congruence between the desired level of satisfaction of a need (or part of a need) and its perceived satisfaction at a given moment.
  • The integration of neurobiology, perception, emotion, deep motivation, behaviours and well-being into cohesive and integral concepts

In particular, internal feedback mechanisms concerning differences in neolithic-genetically-derived (yet modern-socially-relevant) needs were identified as core generators of emotions and intuition that focus and direct actions that are perceived, at a sub-rational level, to maintain or restore equilibrium. This might seem a bit far-fetched, but it is the same as, and can indeed be seen as a part of a broader interpretation of, homeostasis in maintaining core functions such as body temperature, blood pressure, ion balances, blood sugar and so on. The Cambridge dictionary describes homeostasis as “the ability or tendency of a living organism, cell, or group to keep the conditions inside it the same despite any changes in the conditions around it, or this state of internal balance”, which places the resolution of psychological imbalances firmly within its definition.

Two important points were made in the preceding paragraph. One was about the deep need to maintain or achieve an equilibrium, which may be psychological and/or physical. The other was that achieving that equilibrium is a sub-rational process, meaning that we struggle to be aware of, identify or quantify the imbalance objectively – and neither do we attempt to resolve it objectively or rationally. Rather, resolutions are emotionally-fuelled, mostly impulsive, intuitive or reactionary. We are driven to resolve psychological imbalances as automatically as we are to resolve physiological ones, whether or not the resulting actions and behaviours are, judged objectively (which they almost certainly are not at the time), considered, acceptable or effective.

Is this helpful in modern workplaces?

In some cases those sub-rational responses are appropriate, shaped by DNA, experiences and environments, and acceptable and effective in the context they are used – this would see them as helpful adaptations. In many contexts, and likely more so in modern social environments, including the workplace, they are often not as well-targeted. Where unhelpful or unacceptable responses to achieving or maintaining homeostasis (as fulfilment of basic needs) are repeated, they are described by Grawe as maladaptations.

This forming of adaptative and maladaptive response-habits to achieve the feeling of well-being that comes with psychological homeostasis sees behavioural patterns emerge, some of which are welcome, productive, effective, healthy and socially desirable – and some which aren’t. Together, we might see these as “temperament”, where past behavioural patterns are described, and, through the highly-myelinated power and speed of habit, future behaviours predicted with reasonable accuracy.

Theoretically, due to neuroplasticity, behaviours can change in every respect on the basis that there is sufficient motivation, re-learning and repetition. In reality, for adults change is most likely possible only on the fringe – deeper beliefs and ingrained habits are difficult to discuss and explore and usually well-protected, as they form part of identity. It seems only when adults hit rock-bottom, with little left to lose or protect, that they are most open to significant change. In workplace contexts, rock-bottom is usually past the point of no-return for the employment relationship, and people have to think about their actions and commit themselves to personal development between jobs, rather than in them. More often though, our experience in speaking to job seekers, upset employees and those undergoing disciplinary processes has seen a preference to blame an environment, peers, manager or luck to preserve their preferred identity, rather than to seek and commit to long-term and significant behavioural change – their maladaptations rarely simply disappear.

How is this information useful?

Understanding that we are driven to create and maintain equilibrium between basic need level and satisfaction at a subconscious and largely automatic level to a high level of motivational influence, through both desirable adaptations and undesirable maladaptations helps us in these ways:

  • It allows us to understand why people seem compelled to act in ways that seem irrational and self-defeating – including ourselves. This knowledge can increase compassion and empathy when judging and dealing with problems.
  • It allows us to examine basic need levels, and estimate whether, based on previous workplace experiences, a workplace and role is likely to enable an applicant or employee to satisfy their basic needs in ways that are desirable, productive, engaging, sustainable and safe for themselves and others (amplifying their helpful adaptations and minimizing the likelihood they will be compelled to resort to unhelpful maladaptations).
  • It allows us to explore habits of the past in order to predict likely behavioural patterns and responses of the future, when basic needs are being satisfied or pursued in a positive (approach schema) way, or in negative (avoidance schema) ones.
  • It allows us to understand the stressful impacts of unresolved imbalances (uncontrollable incongruences, in Grawe’s terminology), and their impacts on health, employee engagement, behaviour and productive capacity.
  • It allows us to design workplaces, roles, tasks, teams, management processes and leadership habits that support need satisfaction in ways that also support others in achieving their needs, as well as the organisation in satisfying its purpose and goals. We would describe this as a
    “meta-congruence”, and see it as an ideal for any workplace, and those within and around it.
  • By creating workplaces that enable employees to create, maintain and enhance their basic need satisfaction, we can help them to, over time and reasonably sustainably in many cases, reduce their amygdalae sensitivity and increase reward and reward anticipation within that environment, and consequently enhance positive motivation, effort, cognitive capacity and learning potential (led by PFC – hippocampus strength and interaction), behavioural control, well-being and longevity.
  • Empowering employees to pursue the satisfaction of their basic needs in ways that are desirable and healthy for individuals and organisations is more likely to increase cognitive influence, in turn improving “rationality” and reducing impulsivity, in turn favouring and nurturing helpful adaptations over maladaptations

From here

Poor behaviour in the workplace is a maladaptive response to a basic need threat or violation, especially if it is perceived to be outside of the control of an individual. Sometimes workplaces and individuals are not well-matched for basic need satisfaction, or the behaviours individuals exhibit when pursuing need satisfaction, increasing the chances of maladaptive responses. Awareness of basic workplace needs, and the likely ability of a workplace to satisfy them, when recruiting is essential, as is, through “neuro”management, providing avenues of need satisfaction and empowerment for employees to satisfy their needs in ways that are healthy and helpful for the organisation and those within and affected by it.

Read more about maladaptive responses

Grawe, K., Neuropsychotherapy: How The Neurosciences Inform Effective Psychotherapy (2007) Psychology Press, London UK