Christine Comaford on the Recipe for Emotional Engagement at Work

March 22, 2018 Christine Comaford

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As a New York Times best-selling author and former Buddhist monk, Christine Comaford has more than 30 years of experience helping both businesses and individuals navigate growth and change. She uses neuroscience techniques to help leaders around the world see their blind spots and more effectively manage teams. Former President Bill Clinton has thanked Christine for “fostering American entrepreneurship.”

Christine has built and sold five businesses as well as consulted for 700 of the Fortune 1000 and more than 300 small- and medium-sized businesses. Her latest book, “Power Your Tribe: Create Resilient Teams in Turbulent Times,” was released in January 2018.

Globoforce had a chance to talk with Christine about the importance of emotional engagement at work, how leaders can foster trust in the workplace, and how her time as a monk positively influenced her work and life. Read the transcript below or listen to the podcast above. 

Globoforce: What led you to research the neuroscience of teams?

Christine Comaford: I became fascinated with the potential of human beings when I was 15 years old. I started researching and reading about, “What is it that makes people happier than others, more successful than others?” I quickly figured out that it was really about what meaning did we assign to what happened to us. Nothing is either good or bad, as Shakespeare said, only thinking makes it so. So how is it that if it’s a cold rainy day, some people will say, “Oh, man, this is awful. This is the worst. It’s going to be so lousy in traffic.” And other people say, “Cool, rain. This is great. It’s like fresh air. And now I get to really have a little bit more time to listen to that book on audio as I drive home.” What is it that causes people to create different meaning? That meaning then affects our beliefs and our behavior – and frankly, our level of happiness and absolutely our level of success.

That was 40 years ago when I started looking at that. Then I got involved with studying in neuroscience labs and I was an engineer at Microsoft and Apple in the ’80s and early ’90s. I realized that the coolest computer on the planet is the human brain, and the software is our beliefs. And our beliefs drive our behavior, identity, capability, happiness, the environments we create around ourselves, etc.

“Power Your Tribe,” brings all of my favorite neuroscience-based tools to choose the meaning that you want to determine what happens to you and the best part, frankly, is to help your team and the other humans in your life choose, as well. This is what makes us emotionally agile. So my goal since I was 15 years old, I didn’t totally know it then, was to help people become resilient and agile emotionally and intentionally choose the experience that they want to have.

This is essential because 90 percent of our decisions – 90 percent of our behaviors – are driven by our emotional brain. So, we need to figure out how to navigate our emotions or it’s just going to be painful.

In the abstract for your session at WorkHuman, called the “Neuroscience of Optimal Teams,” you talk about activating the reward network versus the pain network. Can you explain this a bit for our audience?

Yes, we’re actually doing two sessions: “Optimal Teams” and “Neuroscience of Connection,” where we’re going talk about how to speak another person’s language and step deeply into their experience of the world, so we can establish that rapid rapport and navigate any sort of change scenarios or challenges with them.

But let’s go back to the reward versus pain network. The pain network is where our brain registers emotional pain, and we equate that with what we call the critter state. This research originally came from Naomi Eisenberger’s work at UCLA.

The critter state like an animal – safe or not, dead or not, fight, flight, freeze. It’s when we’re in the part of our brain, the limbic system, where we’re in lockdown. We don’t have the ability to respond. We’re compulsively reacting. When you get into extreme stress, you go into your critter state. So, whenever we’re in that “fight or flight or freeze,” we don’t have choice. We’re just reacting. When we’re in that limbic system override – that compulsively reacting versus responding from choice – we’re triggering the pain network, or the pain network in our body is fully alive and in pain. We’re in survival.

The reward network is where the brain registers the experience of reward and even the anticipation of it. What’s cool about living and working in the reward network is we have all three parts of our brain working together – reptilian, mammalian, pre-frontal cortex/neo-cortex – and we get to work and live in this wonderful state called the smart state, where we’re flooded with positive neurotransmitters and hormones. We feel grateful, peaceful, capable, resourceful.

How do we get and stay in that smart state? That’s what we’re going to work on in both of my sessions at WorkHuman, because once we understand that, there’s actual physiology directly tied to our mood and we can create that physiological experience. As leaders, as humans, as people who interact with other humans, we can help people become more emotionally agile and resilient. People talk about emotional engagement a lot. What is it? What’s the recipe?

The recipe for emotional engagement is one hormone and two neurotransmitters. How cool is that? The hormone is oxytocin. That is the bonding hormone. That is that great feeling that you get physiologically when somebody hugs you. You can create that experience of oxytocin in the workplace without having excessive hugging or any hugging at all.

Second, is the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin. How do we feel good at work? It’s achievement. Achievement creates that experience of pride and confidence, which then creates the experience of happiness. Happiness doesn’t come first, achievement comes first.

The other neurotransmitter is dopamine, which is the anticipation of reward. Dopamine does a lot of things, and one of those things is light up the areas of the brain that are anticipating reward. “So, we’re cold and hungry and have a ton of deadlines now, but look at the cool place we’re going. And we’re getting closer every day. Yes.” We’re going to learn some tools at WorkHuman that you can put into place that are potent, easy to use, and easy to learn. This is why we have more than 600,000 smart tribes out there using these tools. And what’s cool is you can use these tools to actually create the triggering, the lighting up of that hormone and those two neurotransmitters and intentionally create engagement at work.

A lot of people hear about emotional engagement and think it’s a bit squishy and it can be a hindrance, especially if people don’t trust the people they work with. What would you say is the most common blocker in fostering that trust in the workplace?

It’s really the lack of or lower levels of safety, belonging, and mattering. You have to feel safe, certain – as much certainty as we can have because we all know that the new standard is rapid and relentless change. We have to feel safe, that we belong, and that we’re in this together, we’re all connected, and we have equal value and mattering. “I make a difference here. You make a difference here. We each bring unique qualities to the workplace.” When we really stress the importance of safety, belonging, and mattering at work, that builds trust.

What’s one thing that managers or leaders can do to create that sense of safety and belonging?

A lot of people talk about performance management, and that worked great in the 1980s, but it’s really time for us to upgrade our systems to performance motivation. Performance motivation is awesome because it creates intrinsic motivation. In fact, job descriptions and that stuff should go out the window a long time ago. Job descriptions are boring and stupid. They don’t add value.

With impact descriptions, you take the old job descriptions, dust them off, and add just a few things to it: who we are as a company, who you are to succeed in this role, how this role matters, how this role makes a dent in the universe, and who your ultimate customers are. We’re actually painting this picture of this role creating an experience of safety, belonging, and mattering. IDPs, or Individual Development Plans, are how that person wants to stretch, grow, and evolve, and how the company will support them in it this quarter, this year, etc.

Impact descriptions help us understand how to thrive in this role. Individual development plans help us learn how to thrive in the future. So, we’re constantly looking forward, and what does that create? A lot of serotonin, a lot of oxytocin, a lot of dopamine.

We create a system that surrounds self-evaluation, where the person gets to evaluate themselves first then they send it to their leader. Their leader gets to have a week or so to look at that person’s experience, to look at their own experience, and provide some feedback. It’s a collaborative effort of what’s working and what we would like to see more of. We never want to say what’s working and what’s not working. We want to say, “Hey, what’s working and what would we like to see more of?” Because that way we don’t just shut people down and send them into critter state, where the best part of their brain is unavailable.

A lot of companies now are implementing systems that make it easier for managers and employees to have those continuous conversations throughout the year. How does that play into that framework?

Super important. We want to get rid of that annual review nonsense because it doesn’t feel fair. It’s like, “Wait a minute, I did some really great stuff in the first quarter and you forgot it by the time we got to the fourth quarter.”

Unfairness sends people into the pain network, that critter state. We don’t want to create unfairness in the workplace. It’s really damaging. We also like to make sure that when we do performance motivation we’re doing those evaluations – some of our clients do it four times a year.

With ongoing feedback, we course correct. It’s the worst to find out after six months that you messed something up. We have to make frequent and regular feedback normal. Some people see feedback as this weird, scary thing because it’s not done right. If we can use more positive and more smart-state oriented approach like, “What’s working is…” and, “What I would like to see more of is…” then we’d keep people in that receptive state. And we do it often, so they’re not wondering, “how am I doing?” So often people don’t actually know if their leader is happy with them or not, at work. If you are happy, let them know.
And it can be easier to hear when you’ve had those positive moments of feedback. It’s easier to hear something that’s a bit of a course correction.

Yes. And a lot of leaders were trained with the feedback sandwich. “Well, you’re awesome here, but you’re not so great here. But you’re awesome because I feel really rude giving you feedback.” Then the employee thinks, “Well, am I awesome or not? I don’t get it.”

People are awesome, behaviors work or don’t. If we can just look at separating the behavior from the human, we can say, these are the behaviors that are working, these are the behaviors I’d like to see more of. It’s not a personal attack at all. But we wrap up the human and the behaviors. We need to decouple those.

What is emotional equity, and why should companies invest in it?

Financial equity is really easy to understand, right? Good old stocks, bonds, and money. Emotional equity is when we actually invest in the human being.

When I just talked about performance motivation, that’s a way to create emotional equity. We build up in our emotional bank accounts with one another in our relationships with one another at work. Investing in each other increases that emotional equity. And emotional equity is much greater than financial equity. If you look at any study around what causes loyalty, it’s not money. It’s what the person’s emotional experience is.

Do they have the experience of being respected and valued? Do they feel safe? Do they feel part of something bigger than themselves? That belonging to something that’s making a difference on the planet. Do they feel that they achieve, and they succeed? That’s what creates emotional equity. I hate to say this, but I find so often people still see their people as robots. “Look, if you can’t deliver at this level… Hey, you know, Sue’s better than you, Bob’s performing better than you,” then we actually erode emotional equity.

What if we just looked at personal best? Forget ranking, forget comparing them to somebody next to them. “What’s their personal best and how can I help them achieve their personal best?” And back to decoupling behaviors from the human being, “How can I value that human being and help them foster those behaviors that actually work best for everybody?” Emotional equity is  caring enough to invest in those relationships and the cultivation of that human being.

How can you see social recognition empowering employees to perform better, to feel that sense of safety that you were talking about?

Social recognition, also called social validation, is huge. Think back to how tribal humans are. Humans need each other. When we’re little, tiny babies, from the very beginning, we learn that we’re counting on somebody to feed us and to bathe us and to provide shelter for us. We learn how to socially attach from the moment that we open our eyes. And what’s interesting is that people somehow forget that that transfers into work, as well. There’s parental transference at work. Anybody who’s ever had a direct report knows that they get some mum and dad stuff projected on them. That’s OK. We need each other.

Since we’re such tribal beings, we all want to have status in the tribe. We all want to be safe and belong and matter. When we look at the worst punishment ever for a human being, it’s not death, it’s isolation. It’s excommunication – you’re not safe, don’t belong, don’t matter.

The most meaningful validation is when we actually acknowledge and appreciate somebody for modeling one of the company’s values. We don’t just say, “Joe, high five. You’re awesome.” Joe might get like a little sugar high but then he’s going to crash afterward. “Well, how am I awesome? How can I be more awesome? How can I get that awesomeness repeated?” But if we say, “High five, Joe, for modeling our values of teamwork and accountability. You got the complex XYZ project done on time by pulling the sales and marketing together. Amazing teamwork, amazing accountability, high five, Joe.”

Then other people think, “Wow, Joe is good at teamwork and accountability. That’s something I want to work on. I should talk to Joe. I can see Joe as a mentor there.” Joe gets some more status, etc. We need to recognize people publicly. We need to recognize them specifically and we need to help them see the stuff where they need to grow and change and which behaviors are going to work better.

Totally agree. I read that you spent seven years as a Buddhist monk. Can you talk a little bit about your experience and how you weave meditation into your daily work?

Being a monk was awesome and that gave me an opportunity to really focus on my relationship with my version of God intensely for a long period of time. It also helped me to get to know myself, and I meditate daily. I find it to be an essential tool in today’s wild world. And meditation really helps me manage stress, manage the many demands on my time, my energy, and my attitude. And it also just brings me a lot of joy and gratitude. My baselines for both joy and gratitude continuously improve as a result of ongoing meditation practice.

It also helps you become more sensitive to the environment and to others. I never really got why the Dalai Lama talked about compassion versus empathy. I used to think that empathy was better. Then I was at the Aston Institute and Richie Davidson, at the University of Michigan, presented a paper on “Compassion versus Empathy,” and I finally got it.

I do hospice volunteering, and I was helping a woman die recently. She was in tremendous emotional – not physical – emotional suffering, and I was trying to help her move through that to whatever degree she was ready. But I switched into her for a second. Empathy causes us to switch in, if you will, and I felt all of her suffering and I felt myself tear up and start crying. We experience empathy when we watch a movie, and we get attached to a character and we end up suffering and so we start crying. What’s the problem with empathy, though? When we’re standing in that other person, we’re no longer resourceful. We can’t help.

With compassion, we shift over, “Wow, it’s hard over there. OK, I can hold space for them in their suffering. Yep, it’s hard over there.” With empathy, we’re at risk of becoming them and then we can’t help. With compassion, if we can honor their experience and hold it gently, respectfully, then we can validate their experience. They can shift through it at whatever pace they feel called to shift through it. But if they ask us for help, we’re able to provide it.

My last question is something we love to ask all of our WorkHuman speakers. What does a human workplace mean to you?

I love your conference because I just think it’s so beautiful, bold, important, and essential to talk about this stuff. A place where leadership has created the conditions for each person to bring their personal best to perform at the level that they are truly capable of. A place where all feel safe, all feel that they belong, all feel that they matter. A place where people are cultivated, elevated, and appreciated, and a place where people are proud to work and where they can celebrate achievements, share those challenges, and at the end of the day, they’re all in it together.