Building employee engagement: something we need to create, or something we need to stop preventing?
According to Gallup, an engaged employee is highly involved and enthusiastic about their work and their workplace and highly engaged employees are psychological “owners”, drive performance and innovation, and move the organization forward. Moreover, organizations with high levels of engagement outperform those with low engagement by significant margins in profitability, sales, productivity, and customer satisfaction, and do so with fewer accidents, less absenteeism, and lower employee turnover.
All of this makes improving employee engagement attractive to organizations seeking to maintain their edge in traditional business performance measures.
But here’s the rub: only 15% of employees globally and only 10% in western Europe report being fully engaged in their work and workplace, and per-person productivity has risen by no more than 1% over the last 40 years.
Why are so few of us engaged?
In his book, Daniel Cable argues that what most of us are missing from our working lives is activation of the “seeking system” that is inherent in all human beings. Cable describes the seeking system as urging us to have clear purpose, to explore, to experiment, and to find self-expression in our activity and that this enhances our creativity, enthusiasm, motivation, performance, zest for life, and, perhaps most significantly, eudemonic happiness, the deep sense of fulfillment known to be a huge boost to our physical as well as emotional wellbeing. Cable goes on to explain that most of us are unconsciously steeped in the doctrines of Scientific Management. Scientific Management has its origins in the early 1900s and the work of Frederick W Taylor and according to Cable it was “conceived when organizations were designed to suppress our natural impulses to learn and explore”. Cable goes on to quote his colleague Jules Goddard saying that “The language of planning and control, or targets and KPIs, of metrics and benchmarks, of efficiency and excellence, of specialization and standardization, of jobs and careers, betrays a way of thinking that is wholly unsuited to the challenges confronting firms today."
How can we build engagement?
Cable’s argument is that “What we need to do is help employees find the freedom in that frame. The freedom refers to space where employees can experiment, try new things, express themselves, and play to their strengths” and says that the new war for talent is “not wooing employees away from competitors, but unleashing the enthusiasm that is already there within employees, but dormant.” Cable shares several case studies in his book. In one of them, individuals have picked their own job titles as a way of more readily connecting their roles to the purpose of the organization; in another, a company’s new employee induction dedicates time to actively exploring and celebrating the strengths and passions of the new joiners rather than just the traditional presentations of the company materials.
Buckingham and Goodall2 highlight the same concerns about low engagement and argue strongly that the most effective way to improve engagement is through working in teams. Their definition of a team sets very high standards mind you and I think it is better to call this an Authentic Team, so we remember how it is defined. They describe the key characteristics of such a team as being:
- Focus on trust – with trust described as: people knowing what is expected of them at work; having a chance to use their strengths every day, and having the team leader “know me for my best and focus my workaround that”
- Design for human attention – with regular team check-ins, prioritization calls, and the team leader asking what they can do to help
- Learning together – individuals knowing their own and others’ strengths, developing habits and rituals that work for the team, growing and adapting together
- The team experience – with who and how you work being much more significant than where you work
- Variety – with Buckingham and Goodall recommending a primary role for stability alongside part-time roles in other teams or roles for flexibility and interest.
The common themes emerging from both Cable’s book and Buckingham and Goodall’s article are:
- The importance of everyone developing and maintaining self-awareness of their own purpose and strengths and putting these into practice; and
- The role of the team leader – with Buckingham and Goodall crystallizing this as being “to create, day-in, day-out, experience on the team that allows each person to offer his or her best, and to meld those contributions into something no individual could do alone”
Create or stop preventing?
Cable’s point that each of us has latent “enthusiasm that is already there … but dormant” is the core of this topic in my view. Building on that quality with our own self-awareness of our purposes, our passions, and our strengths, and working in Authentic Teams with inspiring team leaders are really vehicles for unleashing the enthusiasm, the engagement, the eudemonic happiness, and the benefits to our organizations. In my view, we cannot create engagement, but we can create conditions in which we each thrive as people, our workflows, and our organizations do well. Routinely and regularly working in Authentic Teams with genuine team leadership, functioning as described by Buckingham and Goodall, should be a priority for each of us and our organizations.
 Gallup: State of the Global Workplace Report 2017
 Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall: The Power of Hidden Teams, https://hbr.org/cover-story/2019/05/the-power-of-hidden-teams
 Daniel Cable, Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do, Harvard Business Review Press