How to tap into human instincts to build engagement

Our amazing brains do more than think. They have additional activities running constantly in the background, just as they have done for thousands of years to keep us alive in times of extreme danger. Most of us don’t have to worry about predators lurking behind rocks anymore. Instead we can use that hidden brain activity to help build relationships and influence others: customers, colleagues, stakeholders, friends and of course family.

So, what is going on in our brains and how can we use it? Think of our brains being not one but three systems. (I’m simplifying of course). The reptilian brain was the first to evolve and controls basic body functions like breathing, heart rate and body temperature. The limbic system (also called the mammalian brain) emerged with the development of mammals, and is responsible for what we call emotions and behaviours. The neocortex, present only in the more advanced mammals like primates, is the “thinking” brain. We usually associate brain activity with thinking. However, we need to understand more about the limbic system, because that brain activity is making us respond unconsciously.

Safety and Survival

The limbic system is there to help us survive. In evolutionary terms that was once vital, although as society has developed the risk of being killed and eaten by a tiger or other predator has greatly reduced. However our limbic system hasn’t caught up with our social evolution and is still very focussed on our personal survival.

We don’t possess sharp claws, long teeth, great strength or anything much that can help us survive against grave danger individually. Our survival depends on living within a social group. Part of our limbic system has evolved to make sure we find and maintain a safe place in a social group. There we can combine forces to ward off danger, collaborate to find food or shelter and care for one another.

Our limbic system is working in parallel with our neocortex, and much faster. It is watching out for anything that could potentially harm us, including the risk of being excluded from the protection of a social group. Instinct, reaction, response, behaviour – whatever the terminology, the trigger from the limbic system happens automatically. Those triggers are the ones we need to be aware of.

One way we can describe the limbic system’s monitoring process is by constantly scanning for a sense of Belonging, Expectations, Autonomy and Rank. These four categories (BEAR) trigger different reactions which we, with our thinking brain, can anticipate in our social interaction and use in a productive way. Scientists can measure these triggers by monitoring the release of chemicals in our bodies and observing brain activity. These neuro chemicals are associated with positive feelings (Oxytocin, Seratonin and Dopamine) and emotions that drive action (Cortisol, Testosterone and Adrenaline).


What’s going on: Our brain wants us to belong to a protective social group, so it releases chemicals to steer us away from the unfamiliar and towards the safety of a familiar “tribe”.

How we can use it: Anticipate and encourage this social instinct in many work situations. A sense of community, belonging and common purpose enhances employee engagement. At team level, social activity, regular meetings, open communication within the team, sharing ideas, experience and even meals together all enhance the positive sense of a social group. This leads directly or indirectly to improved performance. Similarly, conferences, forums, case studies and meetings where people can connect increases employee loyalty.


What’s going on: Most of us feel deeply uncomfortable if we don’t know what is going to happen next. Thousands of years ago, we were constantly alert to what might be hiding behind a rock or tree, about to pounce and eat us. We probably didn’t relax until we were in the middle of a flat grassy plain or tucked up in a cave with a guard at the door.

How we can use it: Reduce uncertainty in your team by telling people clearly what is expected of them in their role, and provide regular feedback on their performance. If you tell people what is going to happen, they will tend to stop worrying about possibilities and focus on the job in hand. This is why presentations and meetings need agendas and timescales shared early on. In times of uncertainty and change[O4] , have regular briefings so your team knows what strategies, plans and contingencies are in place. Damaging rumours are often created to fill the void caused by uncertainty, so maintain a high level of communication with your team. It is also important that this level of communication cascades down and across the organisation to benefit everyone.


What’s going on: If we don’t have choices we feel trapped in a situation over which we have no control. Our limbic system thinks this could have a bad outcome, and makes us feel uneasy. In extreme or constant situations like living in an institution or under an oppressive regime, this can even result in increased incidences of depression, addiction and suicide.

How we can use it: We need to avoid “trapping” people, by offering them choices. We are more likely to receive a positive response if we offer choices, even if we are offering options. For example “I need you to work late this evening,” is less likely to be accepted than “I need you to work late one evening, could you work Tuesday or Wednesday?” Engagement has been shown to improve where employees have been involved in the development of policies. Staff feel that they have had some representation to influence the outcome rather than havening policies imposed on them by the leadership team.

Autonomy even has a place in something as simple as document formatting to improve readability. If you present the reader with a solid mass of text with no paragraph breaks or subheadings, there is no alternative but to start at the beginning and work all the way through, with no obvious exit until the end. The limbic system responds negatively, and wants you to exercise the only other option available which is to not read it. By providing a well-structured document with at least paragraph breaks and sub headings, the reader has several choices: skim read the sub-headings, dip into interesting topics or read part of it and come back later. Not surprisingly, that’s what we all prefer.


What’s going on: In a social group, people with higher rank get the most food, best partners and the most comfortable lifestyle. That means they are more likely to survive. Therefore, rank is important for survival.

How we can use it: Think of this in reverse. If rank is important to us, it must be important to others too. We can act in a way that other people’s limbic systems perceive as a promotion to higher rank, and release feel-good chemicals. This is the root of politeness! Have you ever wondered why you like people being polite, and don’t like rudeness? To build rapport and great relationships, subtly “promote” the other person or persons. Ask questions and listen attentively to their answers. If they had had to make decisions, compliment or encourage them on their choices. Thank them for their contributions. Show you care for and value the other person. This works for teams, employees, customers, stakeholders and most of all, life partners!


Much of this may be obvious. We know it and as good leaders and nice people, we probably do it. However sometimes we forget, we are too busy or we just don’t think it is that important in the moment. Hopefully this simple explanation will show the underlying reasons for those behaviours in ourselves and others, demonstrating why it is important and enabling you to make your own connections between the limbic system, people’s behaviour and the outcomes you want.

Neuroscientists, psychologists and other academics study our behaviours and usually publish papers only available in academic journals. However thanks to people like Michael Bungay Stanier, Dr. Carol Dweck and Dean Burnett we can read more readily accessible explanations for our brains’ hidden patterns. I am very grateful for their publications and if you have an interest in the subject, I can strongly recommend their books and blogs (see links below).

Olwyn Merritt
Pure Potential Development Limited