Stop Employees Running On Autopilot & Engage Their Brain
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Stop Employees Running On Autopilot & Engage Their Brain

Some employees only engage their brains to do their jobs just to the level so they won’t get fired. Little if any discretionary effort comes from these employees and they may never choose to change their engagement preference.

However, if an organisation increases the invitation to be engaged, most employees will respond in a positive way. Here’s a checklist of strategies to engage your employee’s brain.

If the organisation provides safety and security for employees, then employees will provide the organisation with their brawn. But what about the brain? That is a different issue.

Money buys employees’ brawn: you can see them at their desk by 8:00am and see them leave at 5:00pm. You observe them walking the halls with papers in hand, working at their computers, talking on the telephone, and in other ways physically doing their jobs. They appear to be working hard and the employer pays for the fundamental tasks the employee was hired to do. But, is the employee’s brain engaged? Are they satisfied with their current level of production and on autopilot? Are they just going through the motions to get a paycheck?

In production jobs where people are hired for their brawn, brain engagement is not a major issue. However, it is a different story for people with information jobs. People who are paid to think need reasons to keep their brain engaged and keep it from wandering into La-La Land: thinking about the weekend, plotting how to get even with the person in the next cubicle, or surfing the Internet for wakeboards. Brain engagement of employees is a clear leadership challenge.

The brain has many levels of intellectual and emotional involvement and employees decide on an hourly basis how much of their brain they will share at work, how much creativity they will give to solving problems, and how much they will flex to get along with co-workers. The amount of brain effort they choose to give is called discretionary effort.

People who are paid to think need reasons to keep their brain engaged.

To better engage employees, organisations can employ a variety of methods – such as offering monetary rewards, giving opportunities for personal development and education, recognising employees for outstanding accomplishments and achievements, extending the leadership of a team assigned to a plumb project, etc. The ideas for engagement are numerous and once the organisation has matched their method with the employee, the level of an employee’s intellectual engagement and the amount of discretionary effort they choose to give will increase.

Discretionary effort equates with energy at work. There is a difference in the level of effort and energy one is capable of bringing to an activity or a task, and the effort required only to get by or make do, which requires little discretionary effort. It is the difference between the minimum acceptable versus the maximum level of energy and discretionary effort an individual is capable of giving and is related to the integrity and trust between an employee and the organisation.

This places the level of employee engagement and discretionary effort squarely on the shoulders of leadership.

To engage your employees and earn discretionary effort, use these strategies:

1. Give your employees stimulating tasks

This gives them positive expectations and a sense of excitement to come to work. It engages their creativity, improves their brain activity and increases the pleasure of working.

2. Assign employees to find answers to tough problems

This honours them by showing you believe in them and their abilities. Human nature will make them knuckle-down and bring you solutions.

3. Make employees accountable with deadlines and mid-points

Just like a teenager secretly appreciates the enforcement of rules, deep inside people feel good when they meet deadlines with integrity.

4. Explain the organisational vision and mission

Ask them if they can align personally with the objectives and goals. Just like in a sales process, you can uncover and overcome their objections to business strategy and in the process and discussions, make them a more loyal employee.

5. Take note of their completed tasks in their performance review

See if their completed responsibilities support the goals and objectives of the department. This audit will help you determine if they have inadvertently veered off target.

6. Provide team building activities and relationship training

So that employees can intelligently solve problems, resolve minor conflicts and understand how to collaborate.

7. Reward them and recognise them for their contributions

Rewards and recognition give employees a sense of self-esteem, and individual pride increases when they are thanked for their contributions in front of their peers.

8. Teach managers how to be relevant to their employees

Relevance means you matter. Because some managers underperform, they do not matter to the employee and worse yet, get in the way of employees performing at high levels.

The fundamental building block to effective work production and customer satisfaction is employees who are engaged and excited about their jobs. Their brains are fully engaged and they willingly give discretionary effort. Their energy is directed toward task completion, solving complex problems in innovative ways, and ensuring happy customers.

By Karla Brandau
Published with permission from the International Institute of Directors and Managers (IIDM) –


Proteus Leadership is one of Australia’s premier leadership training and development companies. Proteus Leadership provides leadership courses and management training to a range of industries and assists organisations to build positive workplace cultures, implement change and Create Great Leaders. Proteus also facilitates a range of world-class management courses, workshops, conferences and events across Australia and beyond with the sole purpose of bringing leaders together to connect and grow.

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