Why a simple ‘hello’ can make a huge difference to engagement

Promoting inclusion in the workplace needn’t cost a penny – and it can have a profound effect on performance and wellbeing

You are sat at your desk. It’s 8.45am and you’ve had your head down working for a few minutes. The office is quiet. You look up as you hear footsteps and spot the director walking to his office. As he passes, you bring your gaze back to your work and carry on, just as you do each day – no words spoken, just the normal routine.

Does that sound familiar? These routines we follow as we enter our workplaces, hang our coats up, switch on our computers, jostle paperwork, and send a few glances and head nods to those around us are not so bad are they? Well, they could certainly be improved.

We are social animals, not designed for isolation. Our evolutionary history shows how our very survival and ascension to the top ranks of species was reliant on banding together. Our ability to work in groups and collaborate in small communities provided support, safety, the management of resources, learning, innovation and creativity.

A sense of belonging is highly protective and has a powerful influence on emotional processes and cognitive functioning. Conversely, a lack of attachment is linked to adverse effects on health, wellbeing and adjustment. At its extreme, neuropsychologist John Cacioppo’s studies have shown that loneliness is more lethal than excessive alcohol consumption or obesity. Isolation sends our brains into a social preservation mode. We become demotivated, we focus on protecting ourselves from others, we severely hamper our cognitive capacity and our performance falls.

Have you ever experienced being left out? Not invited to the party or thinking that the clandestine conversation happening in the glass office is about you? Perceived exclusion signals social threat. Matthew Lieberman’s work at UCLA has shown that exclusion leads to social pain felt in the same areas of the brain as physical pain. It is why we refer to broken connections as hurtful – the broken heart and the wrench of rejection, for example.

On the other hand, to feel included, to be recognised, to feel a true part of a group or community, is food for the soul. Inclusion signals safety and triggers our neurological reward system sending feel-good chemicals, such as oxytocin (which is often referred to as the bonding and trust hormone), into our bloodstream. Not only does this protect our health, it switches on intrinsic motivation, increases performance and empathy, and puts our brains cognitively online.

There are several drivers of intrinsic motivation that trigger our reward mechanism, but one of the simplest ways takes just one word – ‘hello’. Genuinely noticing another, saying hello and, as a bonus, adding their name, is an indicator to that person’s brain that they are seen, belong to the ‘gang’ and are worthy of your recognition, and that you are friend rather than foe. This word shifts our mood state and primes us to promote further interaction.

Organisations exist, quite simply, because of the matrix of relationships on which they are built. The organisational lifeline is authentic, positive connections that raise engagement, motivation and performance.

And just think – it’s free. No money needed, no budgets required, no change management project team installed, just a little time to say ‘hello’.

Susanne Jacobs is programme director at Positive Group