the ceo magazine, employee engagement,
Brady Wilson, Co-founder, Juice Inc.

Do the people in your organization ever suffer from brain freeze?

No, not the after-effect of bolting down that ice-cold frappuccino. I’m talking about when employees’ and leaders’ brains shut down at work—and they are unable to access their knowledge, experience, skills and strengths.

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Many organizations are seeing this same troubling trend: they have workforces that are engaged, but exhausted.

Why is this? Brain science shows that when we are low on energy, the first thing we lose is our executive function: our ability to predict outcomes, focus our attention, regulate our emotions, see patterns and formulate strategies. These are the power-tools of value creation and innovation.

Making matters more challenging, whenever we feel like our significance, belonging or freedom is at risk—that is, we feel threatened—the brain goes into a protective fight/flight stance, further stunting our higher-order thinking.

To produce an innovative culture and an unforgettable customer experience that drives organic growth, organizations need people’s best thinking. Employee engagement strategies have historically focused on discretionary effort. But the “human magic” that leads to value-creation and innovation is generated by energy, not effort.

Here are three ways CEOs can help employees and leaders rise above “brain freeze” brought on by tension, restore people’s executive function, and release energy throughout the entire organization.

1. Seek tension, not harmony

When tension emerges in the workplace—between departments, between people and tasks, or between budgets and deadlines—leaders often unwittingly slip into negative behaviors. They may try to deal with tension by overpowering it, giving into it, or avoiding it altogether.

But believe it or not, the brain is energized by tension. Tension makes us look at things differently. It forces us to consider the opportunities between the current way and desired way of doing things.

In other words, tension can spark innovative thinking, be the source of creative energy and surprisingly amazing, sustainable solutions.

The trick, then, is for leaders to begin regarding tension as an opportunity rather than as a threat—and effectively harness the “treasure” in the tension by:

  • moving toward (instead of away from) tension;
  • taking time to “step into” other people’s worlds and drawing out what matters most to them; 
  • helping others understand what matters most to you;
  • identifying common ground; and
  • harmonizing competing needs to release productive energy.

2. Partner, don’t parent

The brain also does its best to evade the prospect of “shared responsibility.” Why? To do so means to place one’s reputation in another person’s hands, lose some (if not complete) control, have little to no certainty about the future, and live in fear of failure.

And so, when stakes are high and the pressure is on, leaders often take on negative parenting-type behaviors. This may involve leaders becoming over- or under-responsible—anything to reduce the risk and vulnerability of relinquishing ownership and control.

This approach negatively impacts employees’ willingness to offer discretionary effort—because it communicates an underlying, somewhat condescending message to employees that “there is something missing here that we need from you.”

By shifting to a “partnering” managerial style (treating employees in an adult-to-adult mode), both parties can co-author powerful solutions that everyone is willing to adopt and implement. Managers who partner with employees can offer a rich stream of feedback affirming what works, and gently nudging what doesn’t.

And to boot: managers recoup time and mind-space previously spent in parenting mode.

3. Think sticks, not carrots

When employees work amid unresolved conflict, feel excluded by their peers, are bullied or overwhelmed, they are unable to fully access their knowledge, experience, skills and strengths. Their energy levels are depleted—and they therefore work below their capacity level.

Employee engagement initiatives do not traditionally focus on identifying and removing psychological forms of interference. Instead, leaders often gravitate to cheerleading-type activities like recognition programs, incentive plans, inspirational town halls, and team-building events to boost their engagement scores. Yet negative events at work have far more impact on people’s performance than positive events.

Offering “carrots” is not an effective way to energize or get the best out of employees. The only way to do so is for leaders to “think sticks”—that is, identify and remove the psychological forms of interference that are short-circuiting employee performance.

Big gains occur when leaders learn how to move toward tension, partner with employees, and address the sticks depleting their employees’ (as well as their own) energy. In doing so, entire organizations can become hubs of sustainable passion, innovation and enthusiasm—essentially, the epitome of a truly engaged workforce.

[Image courtesy of ddpavumba at]

About the Author

Brady Wilson is co-founder of Juice Inc., a corporate training company that services organizations from Toronto to Los Angeles. This article is based on principles from Brady’s latest book, Beyond Engagement: A Brain-Based Approach That Blends the Engagement Managers Want with the Energy Employees Need. Follow Brady on Twitter (@BradyJuiceInc) or visit


Follow The Blog

   Email * 
Subscribe to Syndicate

Blog Categories

Blog Authors