The neuro-science of talent retention

Neuro-cognition is a useful lens to view talent retention as it reveals both biological responses such as ‘fight or flight’ and the mental processes behind our decisions. While it seems a ‘no-brainer’ that the main reason for high attrition is a candidate-driven labour market―latest research spotlights another root cause. It also provides a solution.

Neuroplasticity – a two-sided coin
The brain is well-adapted to thrive in proportion to its surroundings through ‘neuroplasticity’. At exit interview, leavers self-report being under-challenged, under-rewarded/recognised or over-worked. The axiom “people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers” perhaps also rings true in some instances, but the core reasons for attrition are typically neuro-cognitive in nature.

For example, in highly routine or procedure-driven work practice, brains tend to shrink because of ‘cerebral cortex inactivity’ i.e. from not needing to think. On the opposite side, the stress of intensely challenging work makes it more difficult to form new neural connections. Like the ‘synaptic pruning’ that occurs right up our late twenties―as we remove old ones, this can be experienced as ‘brain fog’. However, this slowdown in mental processing is necessary step for effective memory. Becoming aware of our ‘neuroplasticity’, and brain centric connections will help in retaining staff and maintaining well-being.

‘Survival of the fittest’

‘The fittest’, in evolutionary terms, means the best-adapted to environment generally; not necessarily the most intelligent or the best at a specific task. Typically, gains in one cognitive function (e.g. memory) come at the price of another (e.g. attention), for at the expense of every new synapse, adjacent connections weaken. We see a glimpse of this as digital skills advance―we can process new information faster but may retain it less. In the absence of written notes, we fail to link the novel with what we already know and the basis of this is neuro-chemical.

Four neuro-transmitters are particularly important for durable learning. ‘Dopamine’ influences mood, attention and motivation as it causes us to repeat what we like doing – accentuating the positives or negatives accordingly. ‘Serotonin’ is the reason that we mainly recall the ‘highs and lows’ of events and not ‘average’ personal experiences. When we learn with others, ’oxytocin’ is released which encourages more co-operation. he right level of ‘norepinephrine’ supports all the cognitive processes above but when deficient, produces sleepless nights and reduced resilience.

Managers cognisant of these neurotransmitters help to ensure staff both adapt and bond. Seeing less of each other may be less taxing on the brain in some respects, but social interaction is how we came to reason in the first place. Borrowing from that which is essential for survival itself, leads to key insights in terms of staff retention.

A ‘paradigm shift’

A brain-based approach to talent challenges how we traditionally think about the workforce and helps understand why extrinsic rewards don’t work for up 35% of staff.

The majority of managers agree with Dweck’s ‘Growth Mindset’ i.e. rewarding effort over outcomes. However, a points-race still dominates third- level entry and intelligence/psychometric tests influence ‘talent’ criterion. Individual contributions are esteemed over ‘collective effort’ and technology drives greater need for specialist expertise. Hence, it is a good time to redefine ‘talent’ and consider the behaviourist approach of ‘reward-and-punishment’ and/or stratification into ‘high or low potential’ will retain said employees.

Where Dwecks’ work is most beneficial is in emphasising the importance of belief. As Henry Ford said “whether we think we can, or think we can’t, we’re right”. We can use the ‘Growth Mindset’ as a platform to introduce new ways of motivating staff, with learning and neuroplasticity at its fulcrum.

Intrinsically-motivated staff seek mastery, autonomy and purpose (Daniel Pink) but need support to align all three. New learning technologies help build individual expertise, allow the freedom to self-direct and with the right managerial input also promote shared intent. Our brains thrive on enough novelty and variety so new neural connections to form but sufficient repetition and rehearsal for these to stick. Managers too need to believe that they can be achieve this ‘Goldilocks Effect’ – both for themselves and their teams.

‘Kind’ versus ‘Wicked’ settings

As technology advances apace, we see more combination products, inter-related systems and greater complexity. These ‘in-flux’ environments are often described as ‘wicked’ from a learning point of view. Patterns are harder to spot. More high-stakes and once-off decisions need to be made and these cause stress. The brain likes to anticipate most of all and struggles without obvious correlations between the outcomes of these decisions.

Negative emotions hurt ‘associative memory’ and prevent people from seeing the ‘big picture’. We are drawn more into the weeds. It is not just working memory that is being challenged but attention spans that suffer and our ability to focus wanes accordingly. Long-term, this often manifests in the form of anxiety disorders and ‘burn-out’.

As it happens, many ‘knowledge workers’ are mis-diagnosed with ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) but the main symptom - an inability to focus – is also common to a lesser known condition. ‘Directed attention fatigue’ results from concentrating for prolonged periods and exhausting the brains’ inhibitory function, effectively ‘short-circuiting’ our capacity to concentrate. It shows up as irritability and apathy.

The good news is that work settings can be made ‘kinder’ through scaffolding for positive neuroplasticity―the benefits are noteworthy. One solution to ‘wicked’ problems, where cause-effect links are unclear, is ‘cognitive diversity’ i.e. different ways of seeing the world.

‘Orchids’ versus ‘dandelions’

One expert, a paediatrician called Thomas Boyce, suggests that by understanding two different brain-types, we can both find hidden talent and be ‘kind’er for learning. His model may also explain why most organisations will retain 40% of workers with little effort and yet no rewards will make a difference for up to another 38%.

Boyce draws attention to the importance of difference levels and types of environmental sensitivity due to varying serotonin transporters. Neural-imaging tools (such as EEG – Electroencephalography) support this and allow us to distinguish between the 40% who are relatively insensitive to either positive or negative conditions (called “dandelions”) and another 38% who are highly sensitive (called “orchids”).

‘Orchids’ find relatively subtle changes unsettling, are prone to over-stimulation but also prove more susceptible to positive mood induction. In contrast, ‘dandelions’ are less sensitive to stress, either reward or punishment, but they can flourish in most settings.

Orchids are hard to grow - unless we know how. With the right support system, they contribute disproportionately to solve ‘wicked problems’ and generate novel solutions. However, retaining both brain-types delivers the cognitive and behavioural diversity that we need to evolve in a changing world. ‘Orchids’ will respond well to small improvements in aesthetic surroundings but suffer more where overall morale is low. ‘Dandelions’, while more extroverted, don’t necessarily gain from more pro-social events, unless these are particularly memorable.

Accessing higher cognitive powers

Even when we do understand ‘epi-genetic’ (environment-gene) differences, we also need to consider variations within our ‘dandelion’ and ‘orchid’ types. For example, peer pressure will influence retention for some ‘orchids’, whereas others are more influenced by manager-subordinate relations. Even ‘dandelions’ may still be highly sensitive to certain contexts like making presentations to an external audience.

Different brain-types helps to explain why the same managerial words or actions are perceived by some as either ‘inclusive’ or ‘intrusive’. As no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach will work, it is safest to assume that each individual has at least one ‘orchid’ trait e.g. high reactivity to a particular type of sensory variant.

Managers themselves are often ‘orchids’ or ‘dandelions’ too. To retain staff, they need to show high levels of self-regulation to quieten the amygdala at times of stress. By monitoring managerial ‘self-talk’ and thinking habits, this creates a link to the neocortex that prevents over-reactivity. Being mentally prepared e.g. for ‘stay interviews should includes ‘cognitively rehearsing’ an array of responses.

Some specific cognitive tools (still uniquely human) serve managers well:

  1. ChatGPT is like a cerebellum in that it can hear, see and speak however, it can’t generate new questions. Through Inquiry, humans don’t simply get perspectives, they take them. A question cannot be dealt with by the brains’ ‘lizard’ level as so forces us to use higher functions. For example, instead of relying on intuition, a manager can usefully ask the following to help identify likely leavers – “who thinks they’re not good enough?” (belief), “who feels they don’t belong?” (security) and “who fears the next challenge?” (safety).
  2. Dialogue is most useful as debate is more likely to trigger ‘fight or flight’ and discussion (i.e. ‘breaking things apart’)―often generating down-talking. ‘Dialogue’ requires an attentive manager who is deeply present i.e. acknowledges his/her own feelings) and who actively listens so a ‘flow of meaning’ occurs. Words need to be chosen with intent and so it helps to filter these (in order) to say what (a) can be supported by evidence, (b) is kind and (c) is necessary.
  3. There is little time for Reflection in our multi-project, fast-paced work but it is vital for healthy cognition. Otherwise, we can’t connect experience with learning and we feel ‘stuck in a rut’. Regular brain breaks help to reset both memory and attention. Reflection, even in the form of day-dreaming, ensures that short-term memories converts to long-term. Without such transitions, we lose coherence, a sense of identity and, therefore, our self-belief. The most beneficial breaks involve fresh air (oxygenates the brain), pleasant music (releases dopamine) or high-intensity exercise (boosts norepinephrine).

In order to retain staff, we need to make spaces for all three of the above and the brain will respond positively. Above all, it is the quality of ‘talent’-talk we have that will drive retention; both positive ‘self-talk’ and open dialogue. These will help determine how we interact with technology―after all - ‘we become what we behold, we shape our tools and then they shape us’ (McLuhan/Culkin).

The Engineering Skillnet will provide two FREE lunch and learns with a neuroscience theme in the coming weeks - "how to build resilient teams" on October 10th and "the neuroscience of talent retention" on October 18th - please see events and book in to attend.