Addressing our employees’ social needs have often been characterized as the “soft” side of leadership and organizational development, and the intangible nature of these needs meant that they were given a low priority. Frequently, they often became yet another underfunded HR initiative in today’s enterprises.

However, you have probably started to notice neuroscience - or more precisely the prefix neuro - appearing in front of most anything related to business and its advancement. While the hype can be annoying, the research is providing quantifiable evidence that businesses should address their employees’ social needs as part of their development programs. Understanding this side of business behavior is an enormous opportunity for organizations to enhance the engagement and productivity of the workforce. Employee coaching is one way to implement and reap the benefits of neuroscience in learning and development solutions.

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Klaus Grawe’s Consistency Theory (Neuropsychotherapy: How the Neurosciences Inform Effective Psychotherapy, 2007), when applied to organizational and leadership development, offers some foundational thinking for employee coaching in organizations. Essentially, Grawe proposes that humans have four basic social needs:

  1. Attachment: Our need for social interaction.
  2. Orientation and Control: Our need to manage our environment.
  3. Self-esteem: Our need to grow and protect our self-worth
  4. Pleasure and Pain Avoidance: Our need to increase what feels good while evading what makes us feel bad.

When we are denied the fulfillment of these social needs, our brains react just like they do to physical pain. In turn, this triggers our biological threat response and - depending on the level of personal insult - our higher level cognitive abilities start to shut down and we stop delivering our best work. This can manifest as anything from a private internal struggle where an employee tells herself to “suck it up” and live with the circumstances, to more overt examples of office conflict. Keeping these needs in mind when organizations design their employee coaching programs provides foundational ideas about human behavior which can really improve a program’s effectiveness. Let’s use our need for attachment to illustrate how this model can be applied in employee coaching.

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This basic need starts at birth and becomes central to how we socially operate as adults. Brain scanning has uncovered the neural substrates involved and has shown that individuals who are engaged in a reliable and secure social interaction release oxytocin, popularly called our “trust hormone”. It is here where the science directly supports most coaching methodologies which hinge on establishing and maintaining trust. So, when a coach starts a new relationship with a coachee, getting the oxytocin flowing should be their first priority.

Our need for attachment also suggests that coaching in organizations should extend beyond just high potential employees and executives. One employee segment that should be prioritized are new hires. New employees are generally in an uncertain, vulnerable state when they enter their new work environment. Offering them the benefit of an experienced coach provides a fast path to fulfilling their individual attachment needs as well as their needs for orientation and control, self-esteem, and pleasure. By supporting fulfillment of these internal needs early, the organization can expect faster cultural adjustment, greater productivity, and elevated rates of retention from these new hires.

Remember, muting fulfillment of your employees’ basic needs can feel like a psychological punch in the nose and puts that person in an emotionally threatened state. When they are in that zone their motivation and productivity within the organization will suffer. Coaching towards mindful promotion of their four basic needs is brain friendly and will ensure greater success for your employees as they contribute to your organization. By the way, coaching towards these needs is good for the organization’s coaches, too. When a coach uses these concepts in their work, they are more attentive to addressing their own basic needs. When our organization’s social interactions include the fulfillment of everyone’s basic needs we create a virtuous cycle where everyone can deliver their best work.


users-pictures%2F2da4a0ef-8f6b-4b20-a006-7a63d242c9a5%2FAce-Up+Executive+Coach+Dana+De+NaultDr. De Nault is an expert at defining and converting leadership and change strategy into creative, high return alignment and results. He uses positive, systemic approaches and neuroleadership based coaching to collaboratively improve leadership, organizational learning, performance and stakeholder health by diagnosing and empowering clients, so they can eliminate human generated barriers. He is mindful of advanced behavioral theory and motivation practices that market-based business metrics and popular change methodologies are not designed to diagnose. He is the founder of the Attentive Leadership Model ©, a consulting approach that includes the mindful intertwine of Transformational Change Practices with Agile Strategy Execution – a model that respects a client’s time and resources.

Learn more about Dana De Nault