The line would have been out the door – if there had been a door. Instead it just spilled out into the concourse.

We were all hungry and harried travelers awaiting connecting flights in DFW Airport, and the sandwich shop was the only food option still open in the terminal. It was, by any measure, a mirthless processional full of people nervously checking the time, hoping to get a sandwich before our flights were called. It was mirthless, at least, until we made it close to the counter.

Engagement at the sandwich shop

There we encountered possibly the most engaged sandwich maker any of us had ever seen. The man at the counter not only took each order, he celebrated it. He matched his warmth and enthusiasm with a remarkable ability to take each order with both speed and great care. Through it all, he somehow made it seem like there was nothing he liked better than the tall task of working a very long line and the even taller task of brightening the sour countenances of tired business travelers and frantic and fussy families.

At that moment I wished I had job to fill – any job - because whatever it was, I would recruit this guy to do it. Because people who are engaged in their work are dedicated to the cause, vigorous in their efforts, and absorbed in the task at hand. Not surprisingly, engaged workers are more productive, make fewer errors, contribute more ideas, and are less likely to leave the organization.  

Importantly, engaged workers not only put more into their jobs, they get more out of them. Engaged workers are healthier, happier people who feel optimistic about themselves and their careers.

So, where did the guy in the sandwich shop get all this engagement from? And more to the point, where can you and I get some?

Admittedly, many of the correlates of work engagement are profoundly beyond our control. Useful feedback from your boss, autonomy in your work, a sense of fairness and socially supportive colleagues are major contributors to work engagement.

However, about 40% of the variance in work engagement lies within the person. Put another way, two coworkers with the exact same job, reporting to the same boss, receiving the same kind of feedback under the same social conditions are apt to fall as much as 40 percent apart on measures of work engagement. That is, the sandwich maker had somehow made himself more engaged in the same task that his coworkers clearly found less inspiring.

How is this possible? Because much of what makes you engaged in work lies not within the work but within you.

Three Engagement Challenges

1. Engaged workers do not let themselves get stagnant using the same skills over and over and over again. Regardless of what your job entails, challenge yourself to master a new skill that would contribute to what you do. Imagine how different the sandwich maker’s job became when he tasked himself with not only putting the right cheese on the sandwich but with making the customer smile. Suddenly a task that offers virtually no meaningful variation and calls upon no new skills becomes endlessly varied and rewards all manner of learning.

2. Engaged workers celebrate the organization. Do you think the sandwich maker was thinking about how much he disliked his employer? Did he seem embarrassed by his work? Of course not. He worked with pride in what he and the shop did there. From a certain perspective, it was just a sandwich he was making. But from another, he was providing an essential service to a large group of highly receptive customers. It’s up to each of us which way to look at it. Cynicism feels cool, but it won’t make work any easier or more fun. So wear the company logo with pride. Look for things to love in your work. When people ask what you do, instead of apologetically saying you are looking for something better, challenge yourself to make them jealous that they don’t have your job. 

3. Engaged workers believe they can get the job done. Challenge yourself to take note of what you accomplish every single day. Email yourself before you leave at night with a list of things you did well that day. Keep track of all the compliments that come in any form. However success is achieved in what you do, measure it and celebrate it. All this will be an invaluable resume builder, but even more, it’s a greater builder of self-confidence and efficacy. As the evidence piles up, you will make real and tangible your unique abilities and increase the value you derive from work. I’m certain the sandwich shop had higher sales when the Zen master of sandwiches was on duty – I hope he charted that, because if he did he would be reminded that his level of engagement wasn’t simply a personality quirk, but a priceless career and life asset.

For a review of work engagement research:

Schaufeli, W. 2012. “Work Engagement. What Do We Know and Where Do We Go?” Romanian Journal of Applied Psychology 14: 3-10.

About the Author

David Niven

David Niven, Ph.D., is a social scientist who teaches at the University of Cincinnati. David's books include It's Not About the Shark and the 100 Simple Secrets series.

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