Get Engaged Using Neuroleadership

heads containing gears
By Gina Kim, SPT, PTA

“The role of the sympathetic nervous system is often illustrated by describing the physiologic response to fear. When a person feels threatened, the sympathetic nervous system prepares for vigorous muscle activity, that is, for fight or flight.”1

Physical therapists know the role of the brain and central nervous system in learning and movement. Additionally, we recognize the connections between the sympathetic nervous system and the experience of pain. As business owners and leaders, how often do we consider the role of neuroscience in the workplace, especially in building a cohesive team?

An article in the online clearinghouse “Human Resources Today” examines a model of workplace engagement termed “Neuroleadership.” Business coach David Rock defines neuroleadership as recognizing that humans seek to reduce perceived threat while maximizing rewards.2 In the workplace, normal and routine daily activities such as providing feedback, completing evaluations, and assessing performance can be perceived as threats to well-being. (Who isn’t a little nervous when it comes time for that yearly review?) These actions can alert the sympathetic nervous system and place people on the defensive. Unfortunately, when threats are perceived, employee engagement can decrease due to this background noise in the brain of the fight or flight response. As a result, employees could be less satisfied and motivated with their contribution to the work culture.

Leaders can become more aware of how their behavior influences this phenomenon. David Rock coined the so-called SCARF model of neurobehavior on the job: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness.2

Status: As in, if people don’t know where they stand, the threat level ramps up. Rock recommends helping to diffuse the brain-fogging adrenaline by empowering employees to self-assess and use that information for change.

Certainty: All of us have been in situations involving increased FUD; that is, fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Employees who feel at the whim of management and the company lack engagement because their energy is spent trying to reduce the threat. The countermeasure for uncertainty is to increase communication and to state expectations in a manner that conveys that you are “confident and relaxed.”3

Autonomy: Likewise, employees who have more autonomy don’t feel micromanaged and feel trusted to perform their jobs.

Relatedness: Seeking to find things in common with each other via relationships and connections. Team members who perceive someone as new or different can feel threatened. Finding things in common with each other via relationships and connections is the antidote.

Fairness: A team suspecting favoritism will disengage. Leaders can mindfully act and explain their actions to help dispel this threat.

As professionals who are trained in the mind-body connection regarding movement and pain, as well as its role in health and wellness, physical therapist leaders must consider and calm the brain’s normal threat detection abilities in order to create an engaged and productive workplace.


1Lundy-Eckman L. Autonomic nervous system. In: Lundy-Ekman L, ed. Neuroscience: Fundamentals of Rehabilitation. 4th ed. St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Saunders; 2013:172.

2Nelson A. Improve employee engagement using neuroscience. Human Resources Today website. Accessed January 15, 2019.

3Rock D. Dr. David Rock website. Accessed January 15, 2019.

Gina Kim

Gina Kim, SPT, PTA, is a recent graduate from the University of Findlay Weekend College Bridge Program. She can be reached at and @DptGkim.

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