As companies figure out how to implement vaccination mandates, brain science can help leaders develop strategies for managing employee reactions. Mandates feel like a violation of autonomy, which is one of the five most important intrinsic drivers of threat and reward in the brain. To help people feel less threatened, managers can try to offer another form of autonomy — for example, with the vaccine, this may mean allowing employees to choose when, where, or how they receive the shot. Another way to address the threat is to try to trigger one of the brain’s reward drivers. For example, the jarring nature of reduced autonomy (“Why am I mandated to do something?”) can be partially offset by increasing feelings of relatedness between employees (“I haven’t felt this close to my team in a while.”) Managers can also take steps to make employees feel greater levels of certainty, another of the brain’s reward drivers. While it’s difficult to provide absolute certainty when dealing with a mutating virus, transparency and communication can help provide clarity.
After President Biden announced a federal mandate requiring companies with more than 100 workers to have their employees vaccinated or tested weekly, leaders found themselves scrambling to understand the effects on their organizations. Questions surrounding privacy, individual rights, and collective responsibility surfaced, not to mention the possibility of imminent legal challenges.
While there are plenty of legal and technical issues to work through, a big issue will be managing employee reactions to the mandate. There’s no question that this topic has the potential to cause a lot of tension: One recent survey showed that 44% of Americans would choose to leave their company if it enacted a mandate — while 38% said they would leave their company if they did not mandate the vaccine. Like the issue of working from home, people feel passionately on both sides of the debate.
As companies figure out their next steps, brain science can help managers understand the potential conflict over mandates and develop strategies for managing this challenging situation.
Why Mandates Feel Like a Threat
Mandates feel like a violation of autonomy, which is one of the five most important intrinsic drivers of threat and reward in the brain. (The others are status, certainty, relatedness, and fairness.)
Autonomy is a feeling of being in control and having a choice. When we have choices, we experience natural rewards of feeling positive. Research shows that even affording a little autonomy can go a long way: When employees at one company were given the opportunity to choose how to decorate their workspaces, their productivity increased up to 25%.
On the flip side, when we perceive choices being taken away, we feel stronger reactions of frustration all the way to anger, which can significantly diminish our ability to focus, not to mention collaborate.
With a mandate, you’re removing some employees’ ability to make a personal choice. If someone has been pro-vaccine from the start, this won’t feel like a loss. But for people who are hesitant about the vaccine, the mandate removes some autonomy and throws a person’s brain into a “threat state.”
In general, there are three levels of perceived threat in the brain:
Level 1 threats do not seem to pose immediate danger. Think about hearing that a hurricane is making its way toward your town: Your brain is aware of the threat, but you don’t feel alarmed.
Level 2 threats are those in your vicinity, which cause your heart rate and stress hormones to increase as your body prepares you to go into fight-or-flight mode. You may become hyper-alert, causing certain cognitive resources to become inaccessible. Taking our hurricane analogy, this is how you feel when the storm makes landfall near you.
Level 3 threats are those upon you. The hurricane is coming right towards you and your brain and body are in full-on panic mode. You’re making decisions reflexively and actively recruiting every bodily resource to fight or flee. Minimal complex thought takes place.
A mandate could move someone who is hesitant about the vaccine from Level 1 to either Level 2 or 3, causing them to feel overwhelmed, and potentially instigating unnecessary conflicts.
To help people feel less threatened, managers can try to offer another form of autonomy. With the vaccine, this may mean allowing employees to choose when, where, or how they receive the shot. Any form of choice, especially if it is unexpected, will help reduce the threat to autonomy.
Triggering the Brain’s Reward Mechanisms
Another way to address the threat is to try to trigger one of the brain’s other four reward drivers — in this case, offering employees a sense of relatedness. Maybe you have the whole team go to a vaccination site together and get lunch afterward and talk about life outside of work. The jarring nature of reduced autonomy (“Why am I mandated to do something?”) can be partially offset by increasing feelings of relatedness between employees (“I haven’t felt this close to my team in a while.”).
Managers can also take steps to make employees feel greater levels of certainty, another of the brain’s reward drivers. While it’s difficult to provide absolute certainty when dealing with a mutating virus, transparency and communication can help provide clarity.
In the wake of a company vaccination mandate, employees may be asking questions like:
- Will our jobs be at risk if we don’t get vaccinated?
- Is it fair to allow religious exemptions to the vaccination mandate?
- Is this the beginning of my employer being deeply involved in my health care?
For some of these questions, your response may be, “I don’t know.” But even when leaders don’t have the answers, they need to respond to questions. As organizations work through this process, it’s critical for managers to communicate often to their teams and share information regularly in multiple channels (for example, email and Slack).
Equally important is sharing the complete truth, even if it’s not what everyone wants to hear. Research shows that getting an answer you don’t like is better than not receiving one at all. Any way you can provide useful information, even if it seems small, can help increase people’s sense of clarity, if not certainty.
We all have various biases and belief structures, and it can feel chaotic right now to navigate all those responses and figure out this mandate. But ultimately, understanding the brain’s response to threats and rewards could help the vaccination mandate roll out more smoothly. Using the brain’s reactions to mandates as a central frame for thinking through your policies is one of the clearest paths we have.