Want Engagement to Work? Then Redefine It to Include All Your Employees

To increase engagement, redefine it. Give managers the tools they need to understand and respond to every employee’s motivational needs, work preferences, and talents.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

An insightful article entitled, “Is Employee Engagement Just a Reflection of Personality?” appeared in the November 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review. Authored by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Lewis Garrad, and Didier Elzinga, the article references a meta-analysis of 114 different studies, indicating that engagement is as much a function of personality and traits as it is of all the other factors combined, including those of a work contextual nature.

For those of us who have spent our careers studying motivation and organizational behavior, their conclusions are not surprising – it’s just nice to have the facts finally bear out what we have observed all along. Four traits in particular were linked to higher engagement: positive affect, proactivity, conscientiousness, and extroversion. It’s just a rough calculation but based upon our experience with more than 750,000 personality assessments, people possessing all four of those characteristics likely account for less than 25% of the working population.

If that’s the group most likely to show higher engagement at work, where does that leave the much bigger group who apparently possess less potential to engage with their work? Considering that so many valued employees in every area of business and industry lack some or all of those specific engagement-related traits, maybe engagement efforts at the organizational level are missing the mark. The implications of this analysis are significant, because it appears that we are simply repeating the mistakes of the past. Over the years, a great many corporate programs and experiments intended to raise levels of employee satisfaction and commitment have come and gone. Many were very appealing and seemed to be obvious solutions, but, rooted in theory rather than in science, and powered by unrealistic hopes, they all eventually fell out of vogue.

The problem then, and the problem now, is that we have sought engagement or commitment answers in one-size-fits-all group-based endeavors that ignore the individual, who is really the focal point of the whole exercise. To quote the authors, “So, if you want to truly understand engagement in your organization then you need to look at both who your people are and what they think about their work. In other words, more calibration to employee personality is needed.”

Fifty years ago, in his seminal article, “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?” – also in the Harvard Business Review – Frederick Herzberg laid out the variations of what he called Negative Physical KITA and Positive KITA. If you haven’t read this article, you absolutely need to. He illustrates the two forms of KITA with a cute story about his schnauzer. When it was little, and he wanted it to move, he “kicked” it in the rear and it moved. When it became older, he lured the dog to move with a dog biscuit. As he points out, though, in his own words, “…who is motivated – I or the dog? The dog wants the biscuit, but it is I who want it to move. Again, I am the one who is motivated, and the dog is the one who moves.”

Herzberg’s assessment aptly describes the folly of so many initiatives that we continue to repeat. They have ignored the motivation of the individual seemingly based upon the assumption that everyone will respond to the same things! Those earlier efforts to foster what we now call engagement included such fabled schemes as job enlargement, job enrichment, employee participation, and communications programs. More current engagement initiatives, often addressing recruitment and retention issues as well, don’t hold the promise of being any more successful or sustaining. Particularly short-sighted are the giveaways and corporate perks that inevitably work their way through the system. As they become more ubiquitous and expected, they lose any beneficial effect they may have once had – something like quick sugar highs.

To no one’s surprise, technology has also discovered the engagement problem (i.e. opportunity) and offered up, at my latest tally, at least several hundred software solutions aimed at everything from goal setting and performance measurement to communication, peer and social recognition, rewards for all sorts of reasons, employee surveys and feedback, group collaboration, and video learning in such irrelevant subjects as yoga and cooking. Whew… the list is seemingly endless, and with all this help, you’d think that engagement problems should have been effectively eradicated by now!

It’s unfortunate that the research of Herzberg and his contemporaries like Scott Myers and David McClelland seems to have been forgotten of late. Their message couldn’t have been more on target: if you want to boost employee commitment and satisfaction (engagement), then you focus on who is doing what in every job, rather than the myriad of less-significant attributes that are peripheral to their work. Tapping into the intrinsic motivation of employees to help them perform at their optimum levels is really what management is all about, and what we ascribe to be engagement problems for the most part actually happen right where we’d expect them to happen: in the manager-employee relationship. They occur because a) what the employee is motivated to do is either not part of the job or enough of the job, b) the employee’s expectations for the work environment and for management are not being satisfied, and c) the employee feels that his or her talents are not being utilized in the work, and thus he or she is not really growing or developing. It’s that simple: managers have to understand and respond to the motivational needs, the expectations, and the talents that every employee brings to work. Managers must place people in the right jobs to start with so that they are using their talents and are motivated, and then manage them in a personally responsive manner. If they fail in these critical areas, no novelties, no fads, no top-down programs, and no software solutions will compensate.

We also need to rethink what we mean by engagement. The current popularly-understood connotation is so exclusive that it’s a meaningless and unobtainable ideal for much of the working population who do not wear their passion on their sleeves and who do not explode out of the blocks every morning keen to take on the world. It’s not just the “motivation seekers,” those positive, proactive, conscientious, and more interactive few who keep our organizations functioning and profitable. Just as vital and valuable are the “maintenance seekers,” the more passive, more diffident, less sociable, and less expressive many who soldier on each day even though their efforts may appear less obvious and less impactful. They don’t seek to change the world and we can’t expect them to be motivated by what motivates the more impassioned. But just like their more visible coworkers, each day they walk through the door with their own set of talents, motivational needs, and work preferences, which are every bit as legitimate. A broader interpretation of engagement must take into account these diverse personalities that collectively engineer your success.

So, if you want a more engaged workforce don’t look for a silver bullet – some easy to implement company-wide scheme that will, in the end, turn out to be just a placebo. You don’t have the engagement solution, and your employees are much too valuable to manipulate. Instead, develop your managers to increase engagement – give them the knowledge and tools they need to understand and respond to every employee’s motivational needs, work preferences, and talents. We know – our Organizational Management System (OMS) has been doing this for managers for many years.

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