Over twenty years ago I developed the concept of personal engagement at work.  The idea was that people can be not simply involved in their work, committed to it, or satisfied with it.  They could be fully engaged, throwing themselves wholeheartedly into it, to the point that there was little separation between who they really are and what they did at work.  In the decades since, employee engagement has moved from an academic concept to a full-fledged corporate tenet; it has gone from a dissertation idea to a big business.  Employee engagement is now a commonplace way for organizations to get a handle on how invested their employees are in what they and their employers do.  Many Fortune 500 companies now have Engagement Officers, whose jobs involve figuring out how to get more employees engaged.  Measuring and reporting employee engagement has become a big business, with both Gallup and Towers Perrin providing survey and consulting services focused specifically on employee engagement.  The widespread use of these services—and indeed, with  the huge investments in employee engagement efforts more generally—points to leaders’ belief that engagement pays off for companies, with reduced absenteeism and turnover, with heightened effectiveness and efficiency. 

Employee engagement is one of those concepts that get defined in various ways; the term is broad enough to encompass much of what people wish to believe about what it really means for employees to really care about their work.  A brief glance at the Gallup and Towers Perrin survey questions reveals what executives now believe to be the general sources of employee engagement.  Broadly speaking, those sources involve providing employees with well-designed jobs that call upon their strengths, recognition and praise, opportunities to grow and learn, colleagues and supervisors who value and appreciate them, and purposes and missions that matter to them.  If only managers can pull the levers that enable these conditions to be met, the thinking goes, employees will be maximally engaged, their energies and passions put firmly to their given tasks and roles. 

These conditions are useful, and correct, as far as they go.  But they do not go nearly far enough.  My work over the last decade has involved helping organizations identify more closely why engagement is lacking even when the right levers are being pulled.  This has meant moving well beneath the survey items—which measure general conditions over time—and into the messiness of employee’s actual experiences in the moments that make up their days at work.  In the process, I have discovered a reality at the core of the struggle for employees to get and stay engaged at work. 

The reality is this:  Employees are engaged only to the extent that they are emotionally available to be so.  This may seem obvious, but it is not—at least, to managers who are so focused on pulling the levers that set engagement in place.  It is at their own peril that they ignore the reality of the emotional components of people’s abilities to be engaged.

What Really Happens

Consider these situations.

  • A manufacturing firm downsizes several of its larger divisions.  The layoffs are sweeping, hitting some areas harder than others, but everyone is affected.  The survivors are in shock.  They are asked by their managers to take up the slack, to do the work that has to be done.  The remaining employees go through the motions of their work.  Some feel angry and betrayed.  Others are saddened by the loss of good friends.  Still others are guilty, having survived while others did not.
  • An R & D team at a major pharmaceutical company nears a major milestone after a year of work developing a promising new drug.  Without advance warning, the Senior VP of the division announces to the team that the company has decided to slow the team’s progress and assign its members to two other teams formed to pursue other opportunities.  The team members are outraged, veering between bitter anger and sadness.
  • The Budgeting Director of a large financial services firm is suddenly fired.  The budgeting department members have little idea as to what occurred, knowing nothing but the raft of rumors swirling around them.  The members are uncertain as to what this will mean, for them and for their department, despite the bland admonishments provided by the VP of Finance in the emailed announcement.  Their uncertainty is accompanied by frustration and resentment, and for some, a sense of personal loss.
  • The Senior Team Leader of a consulting team in an accounting services firm is under investigation by within the firm.  Internal security agents are in the office constantly, poring through documents, interviewing team members, digging up information.  The team leader is “on leave,” his position occupied in the interim by a veteran consultant from the office.  The team members are told to go about their work—and told little else.  The members feel upset and confused.  Some are angry at various senior executives; others feel betrayed by their leader.  Most are uncertain, not sure what to think or do.

Such situations are relatively commonplace in organizational life.  Things happen, decisions are made, and leaders and employees do what they need to do the best ways that they can.  Managers do what they are supposed to do: manage through events.  They set direction, provide vision, and get employees moving.  Their jobs are to get employees engaged in their work, such that situations are made right and work gets done. 

It is this last part that is most complex and poses the real challenge to managers—and is the most important part to get right.  Unfortunately, it is also the part that managers often get wrong.  Why?  With the best of intentions, they go back to pulling the levers that they believe will help get their employees engaged.  They focus on telling employees what needs to get done.  They do their best to get them the right resources.  They praise and recognize.  They offer incentives.  The managers do these things because they want employees to get past and get over difficult moments, and get going on their work. 

What this means, in practice, is that managers often avoid what is most prominent about employees’ actual experiences in such situations:  the emotions that get triggered.  When managers move away from addressing their employees’ emotions, they actually make matters worse, in terms of engagement, not better.  It is when managers move directly toward those emotions—the anger, sadness, betrayal, cynicism, and frustration noted in the very real examples above—that they help employees get fully engaged. 

The Centrality of Emotions

Why are emotions so important to employee engagement?  Think about what happens when an individual feels really angry, or upset, or sad.  The feeling tends to sweep aside thoughtful, rational planning and action.  The emotions take precedence.  This is not a matter of conscious choice.  It is hardwired into the nervous system.  The emotional brain preceded higher-order cognitive functioning in early humans.  Emotions were instrumental for survival: fear triggered flight or freezing, desire triggered fighting and mating.  The development of the nervous system led to more nuanced emotions—sadness and grief, gladness and joy, astonishment and empathy—that were able to be processed and understood by parallel developments in brain capacity.  Yet the emotional brain remains prominent: emotions continue to act as a first line of defense, triggered by situations that have the potential to threaten us in some fashion. 

People’s emotional reactions are thus signals to pay close attention to their surroundings, pointing to areas of threat and desire that will help ensure their survival.  The primacy of emotions is such that, once released, they have the potential to flood people, taking them over and dictating how they think about and act within disturbing situations and events.  It is not so much, at those moments, that people have emotions; it is the emotions that have people.

This goes to the heart of engagement.  When powerful feelings are triggered at work, employees are simply less available to be fully engaged in their work.  The feelings themselves offer certain dictates.  When people are frustrated, upset and angry, they are moved to attack and defend.  When they are sad, grieving, and hopeless, they tend to withdraw their energies inwards, turning away from others.  When they are fearful, they move toward self-protection.  When they feel shame and guilt, they tend to seek the periphery.  Of course, employees vary in terms of how much they follow such dictates.  But the internal struggle is there, beneath the surface, pre-occupying employees just when their managers want them to throw themselves fully into their work.  Until that struggle gets resolved, employees cannot fully engage.

About the Author

Bill Kahn, Ph.D.

Bill Kahn, Ph.D., is an organizational psychologist at Boston University's School of Management who researches the sources of stubborn problems in work relationships, groups and organizations.

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