5 Brain Smart Tips to Retain Your New Hire

We’ve all had our first day on the job. Do you remember what that first day was like for you? Did you have a mixed bag of emotions that ranged from excitement to anxiety? Chances are your new hire is going through the same experience. To understand why we have this common experience, we need to know what is going on inside our brain because deep down our we are all wired the same way. We all need to feel Safe, Belong, and feel Valued (SBV).

Our first day on the job is no exception. Our new hires on their first day are asking themselves: Have I made the right decision (Safety)? Will I fit in (Belonging)? Will I be successful here (Valued)?

To have a better understanding of these needs, we can look to the field of social neuroscience to explain the way people relate to one another and themselves by studying how our brain responds to social and environmental stimuli. We can apply the findings from this field of study to how people behave in the workplace and to inform our management practices and shape our employee interactions.

What Triggers That “Deer in the Headlights” Response?

Brain studies have shown that much of our social behavior is motivated by evaluating our experiences as either a THREAT (fight, flight, freeze) and activated our amygdala (fear center) or as a REWARD which activates dopamine in the brain.

Early survival instincts which are triggered in the reptilian and limbic system parts of the brain have not evolved much since our caveman ancestors. Our brain responds to real or imagined threats with a fear response that triggers the 3F emotional hijack: Fight, Flight, or Freeze.

When the brain is hijacked with a fear response, decision making and critical thinking abilities are compromised. The key with onboarding your new hire is to minimize experiences that trigger the 3F response and maximize reward dopamine experiences. Read on and you’ll learn some tips on how to do that!

Why Does Social Pain Feel the Same as Physical Pain?

According to neuroscientist, Dr. Matthew Lieberman, our brains are socially wired to connect. We learn from fMRI brain scans that social pain (exclusion from the tribe) trigger the same brain areas as physical pain.

Our need to connect with other people is even more fundamental, more basic, than our need for food or shelter. This research has profound implications for managing our teams and implementing brain friendly workplace practices.

Management practices have primarily focused on work being a pure economic transaction between the employee and the company but our social brain experiences the workplace as connections to people. You’ve heard comments like “people don’t leave a company they leave their manager” or “what I miss the most are the people” when someone leaves a job.

Focusing mostly on economic incentives as rewards leaves social brain resources untapped that could be harnessed to provide employees with brain friendly reward experiences. For your new hire, a healthy balance of job learning with opportunities for social interactions will help her decide she made the right decision!

How Do We Become Brain Friendly Managers?

As managers or HR practitioners, how can we use this knowledge to increase our own and our team’s performance, innovation, and engagement? We can use the PACER model inspired by the work of Dr. David Rock, Director of the NeuroLeadership Institute . PACER looks at five levers that influence our social experience: Predictability, Autonomy, Community, Equity, and Rank.

1. Predictability — we want to know what to expect when things change around us. Not knowing activates our sense of fear. The brain relies on patterns in order to make predictions about what is coming next to conserve energy. When the brain senses uncertainty, it registers an error message in the orbital frontal cortex much like a printer would register a flashing error light due to a paper jam. This process robs the ability to stay focused which affects productivity until the uncertainty is resolved.

Typical scenarios that create uncertainty (a threat response) for employees would be unclear expectations from a boss or a feeling that one’s job is not secure because the company just negotiated a merger and got acquired.

2. Autonomy — we like to feel as if we have options when we make decisions which gives us the perception of control and self-determination. Knowing we can make a decision to influence an outcome registers as a reward vs. threat in the brain.

Typical scenarios that make employees feel a lack of autonomy would be micro-management or implementing a new process without asking your team’s feedback to get their buy in.

3. Community — We like to belong, we like inclusion, and we like knowing who our tribe is. When it comes to interactions with other people, the brain evaluates the person as a “friend or foe” and belonging to an “in group or out group.” This unconscious decision making process influences our ability to empathize and feel connected to others if they are a friend and part of our “in” group but the opposite occurs if they are not.

If you think about the silo mentality syndrome in companies, a lot can be attributed to the in vs. out group brain process where people start to view other departments as out group members and potentially as a foe instead of being on the same team.

4. Equity — Brain studies by Lieberman and Tabibnia show that our limbic system responds with a threat response when we perceive that we have been treated unfairly. Employees decide fair treatment by their manager based on watching interactions with other employees in the department. A perception of favoritism on the manager’s part could undermine trust and credibility. Alternately, the reward centers of our brain light up when we experience a sense of fairness and community in our work environment.

5. Rank — We constantly evaluate our standing relative to others in our social and work interactions. Brain studies have shown that social status has an enormous influence on how we behave and make decisions. Our brain produces a threat response when we perceive a reduction in status. There are plenty of opportunities for this to happen in the work world: a demotion, a “constructive criticism” session with a manager or on a companywide and departmental level, a reorganization or merger with another company.

Close the Deal on Your New Hire’s Top 3 Questions:

How does the PACER model fit with our need to feel safe, belong, and feel valued? Let’s see how this works in the onboarding process for your new hire’s top 3 questions:

Question #1: Have I made the right decision?

Your new hire is looking for an answer to this question from the moment she steps into the building on her first day of work. Her brain is evaluating threat or reward from each encounter to validate that she made the right decision — predictability. She is looking for two things: a sense of safety and being able to predict what her future work life will be like on a daily basis (Predictability). She wants to know what to expect. This allows her brain to focus on learning her new job so she can feel competent in her new role and meet expectations (Predictability). Right now her brain is teetering between threat and reward so as managers, we want to tip the scale towards reward.

Question #2: Will I fit in?

Your new hire wants to feel like she is now a tribe member and that she belongs. She wants to prove her worth and value. It is important for her to begin cementing those bonds and forming relationships with her team. You want her to go home after her first day feeling excited to come back to work with her new tribe the following day and thereafter. She wants to feel that her team are friends, not foes (Community). She understands her Rank as a new member of the team and wants to quickly prove herself to be at the same level or eventually above if she has management aspirations. This will also go a long way to make her feel like she made the right decision.

Question #3: Will I be successful here?

Your new hire will begin looking for evidence that her strengths are valued and that she is a good cultural fit. She will look for validation of being valued from you as her manager and from her team. She will be seeking a sense of Autonomy where she is given options on how to best learn her job vs. being micro managed. She will also be evaluating how you treat her and wants to feel that you are a fair manager (Equity).

How Do You Apply the PACER Model in Your People Interactions?

What can you do as a manager to give your new hire’s brain that sense of reward it is craving?


1. Provide your new hire with a learning agenda for her first 90 days that outlines what she will be learning, doing, and with whom.

2. Clearly state expectations that outline what she will be expected to master in her first 30, 60, and 90 days. This will provide both of you a baseline to compare her performance and results against.

3. Schedule daily check in meetings to answer any questions and see how she is feeling. These check in meetings can become less frequent as her onboarding progresses.


1. Give her the option to choose how often she will need check in meetings.

2. Provide her with the latitude to make choices about how she organizes her work and learns her job based on her strengths and interests. For example, at your check in meeting, give her a choice of learning opportunities (i.e. shadow a team member or attend a live or online class) so she can decide what would be most meaningful for her.

3. As she gets more competent in her position, allow her to make suggestions for projects or make recommendations to improve a process.


1. Handle all onboarding administrative paperwork before her first day of work so you can get to community building right away.

2. Carve out time to take her out to lunch on her first day so the two of you can begin bonding. There is nothing worse for new hires to wonder who they will eat lunch with on their first day.

3. At the end of the work week, organize a small gathering after work or a lunch potluck to celebrate her first week on the job.

4. Try an innovative idea by organizing a cooperative board game hour where your new hire plays with up to 3 team members that she will frequently be working with. Cooperative board game players do not compete against one another. The team competes against the game and must collaborate, problem solve, and communicate with one another to solve the game and win. It’s a great way for team members to have fun and learn how to work together. My favorite board game is Pandemic!

5. Be consistent with implementing team building activities. Brain studies show that social connections are as important as money rewards.


1. Be sensitive to work load issues and dumping work on the new kid that others don’t want to do. Your new hire may begin to feel like she is not being treated fairly and has an unmanageable work load compared to others.

2. Include her on new projects so she can learn and feel like she is an equitable and valued part of the team.

3. As her manager, her perception that you are fair begins on the 1st day. Look for opportunities to reinforce that perception through your communication and interactions with her.


1. Find opportunities to provide praise when you see your new hire master a process or learn from a mistake. The brain’s reward circuitry is activated and status level increases when people feel they are improving and learning and are recognized for it.

2. Make yourself available and approachable. Your new hire may feel because you are her boss, you are too busy for her which increases the feeling of the status threat response.

3. Have more coaching conversations with your new hire and empathize with how she might be feeling during her first few weeks on the job. This will make you more authentic in a relatable person to person interaction.

To be an effective leader in the 21st century, we need to reboot early 20th century management practices. Having an understanding about how our brains work and influence human behavior is a critical skill that is needed to understand ourselves and others.

Adopting the brain smart PACER model and seeking to provide a sense of safety, belonging, and feeling valued (SBV) during the onboarding process and beyond will begin the journey of establishing trust and contribute towards retention of your new hires.

Ruby has over 18 years of experience in Director level positions managing Human Resources departments for technology, healthcare, and non-profit companies. She has an MBA and a BA in Human Resources Development along with 2 HR certifications, PHR and SHRM-CP.

She provides HR consulting services and has taught HR classes for the business community. Ruby’s consulting practice, BrainSmart HR, works with employers to create HR systems and practices integrated with neuroscience and behavioral economics research to create an engaged workforce.

Connect with Ruby on her twitter account at: @rubymenon or her LinkedIn profile at: Ruby Menon

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