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Mastering Employee Engagement: 5 Strategies For Revitalizing Your Organization

Viktor Frankl

“Even more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.”

– Victor Frankl

Psychiatrist, Neurologist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl wrote Man’s Search For Meaning – one of the 10 most influential books in the United States history (according to the Library of Congress). With gripping experiences and insights on how few Holocaust victims survived, his experience taught him that our main drive in life is neither pleasure (as Freud thought), nor power (as Adle thought), but instead meaning. After his release, Frankl founded the school of logotherapy (“Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy” – after Freud and Adler). The goal of a logotherapist is to carry out an existential analysis of the person, and help him discover meaning for his life.

Frankl also coined the term “Sunday Neurosis,” which he believed arose at the end of the work week, when a person feels the emptiness in his work life. He tries to fill the existential vacuum with compensatory pleasures such as binging on food and drink, over-spending, avoidance and other behaviors – but all these prevent action from being taken to find meaning and can result in progressive levels of mental suffering.

When contemplating the notion of employee engagement, it occurred to me that the systemic cause of low engagement is a crisis of meaning. And the highest calling of a leader is to be an organizational logotherapist. To carry out an analysis of himself, and his organization – discover the meaning – the core purpose – bring that purpose alive, live that purpose, model that purpose, and watch that purpose become a magnet for creating a winning, fulfilling culture.

Business Leader as Logotherapist

The way industry has been dealing with this “crisis of meaning” is to define a new buzzword – “employee engagement,” give it lip service, and make half-baked attempts to measure and manage it. It seems that little real progress is being made (despite over 2 million results in Google, over 4,000 news articles and the ubiquitous employee satisfaction survey).

The New York Conference Board, a century-old research firm that began studying employee satisfaction and engagement 25 years ago, reports that worker happiness has fallen every year since – during both good economic times and bad. Today, according to their research, over half of American workers effectively hate their jobs. 

A lack of engagement results in dysfunctional relationships, lower productivity and an unwillingness to go beyond the job description. Some studies have found that the majority of disengaged employees don’t even quit, they stay, collect their paycheck, and damage productivity and relationships.

Unfortunately, many leaders and their constituencies continue to suffer from the post-industrial revolution, draconian corporate belief that employees are to be used as tools to optimize profit. Yet with increasing attention on corporate social responsibility and employee engagement, we’re beginning to understand that there is a direct correlation between the positive emotions an employee feels – and their performance, productivity, creativity, innovation, loyalty, commitment, which are all factors leading to profit.

5 Strategies for Creating Meaning and Connection at Work

1. Take on The Function of the Chief Purposologist

Core Purpose is the meaning your organization yearns for. If an individual can find meaning in work, through the broader context of organizational purpose, his or her level of inspiration will rise. The extent to which that purpose is embedded in the DNA of their culture, is the extent to which the people in the organization will feel connected to themselves, and a higher cause. This factor has proven itself in Jim Collins’s seminal research at Stanford University, where he found that connection to a core purpose was a key factor in “building a company to last“. For CEO’s who believe employee engagement matters, internalizing core purpose as the organizational reason for being should transcend all else. It should not be done just because it creates more financial value – which it does – but because helping people find meaning in their work is a key component to helping people find happiness in their lives. And the ripple effect of living happier more inspired lives translates to happier spouses, kids, friends, relatives, and community. We live in a state of interconnection, and Delivering Happiness to workers enables leaders to improve the prosperity of society and inspire a better world.

2. Model Appreciation and Weave it Into Your Culture

According to a worldwide Towers Watson study, the single highest driver of employee engagement is whether or not workers feel their managers are genuinely interested in their wellbeing. Today, only 40% of workers believe that. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, “Why Appreciation Matters So Much”, Tony Schwartz reminds us that all employees need to be praised, honored, and routinely acknowledged for their efforts and achievements. When this acknowledgment comes from a heart-centered place, a deeper connection is made and engagement arises naturally. Furthermore, while for many of us, our default is brain-oriented strategy, tactics, and execution, it’s actually the heart that connects us as human beings, and consequently the source of our real power. Being human, and treating each other with respect and dignity is our natural state, which often gets pushed aside by business and external notions of what we need to do to be successful. 

3. Build Employee Engagement Into Strategic Planning

The legacy of strategic planning has been disproportionately focused on how to achieve competitive advantage. It takes into consideration market segmentation, political, economic, social and technological trends, competition, internal capability, product line viability and plots a course to a desired future state mapping out key initiatives and resources required. Developing human beings (or “human capital” to be buzz-word compliant) is a separate function, supported by a separate industry, rarely aligned with strategy. According to Walter Kiechel III, in his book The Lords of Strategy, what got repressed in the intellectual history of strategy was a “consciousness of people and their importance in the creation and execution of any strategy.” Strategy and leadership must come together to create real balanced prosperity. One important way you as a leader can improve prosperity is to align your culture (leadership development, values, purpose, connection) with strategy. Jon R. Katzenbach, SVP and Leader at Booze & Company’s Katzenbach Center wrote a terrific article explaining the power in his recent HBR article Culture Change That Sticks

4. Practice Servant Leadership

If the single highest driver of employee engagement is you being genuinely interested and serving the well-being of your employees (according to the Towers Perrin study), how do you do that when the tyranny of the urgent is attacking you with a cacophony of competing agendas? And when we all operate within a cultural paradigm of completive-adversarial behavior growing from erroneous beliefs of scarcity?

Certainly following the Four Inner Habits of A Successful Leader is a start – to maintain the presence of mind and grounding. Then, we must enable ourselves to undergo a counter-cultural paradigm shift from the guiding question of “how do I get what I need from them” to “how do I really hear what they need from me, and orient myself to support them – from a place of caring”. People feel understood with when you connect to their pain, and inspired when you show them a solution.

When people feel understood and cared for, they’ll be “engaged”. How could they not be…more loyal, creative, devoted, productive and committed? In universal law, we can’t give without receiving, and when we serve as leaders from a connected place, we receive loyalty, commitment, and the inspiration to go the extra mile from a heightened place of connection and empowerment. This is the catalyst for true prosperity.

5. Serve People’s Authentic Motivation

Drawing on four decades of scientific research on human motivation, Author, Daniel Pink, in his latest book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”, discovered that 30% of job growth in will be “algorithmic” – tasks that follow process and instructions – perfect for people who are extrinsically motivated – by money. The other 70% of job growth will be heuristic – tasks that require the evaluation of possibilities while defining creative solutions. For the heuristic work life of the future, the intrinsically motivated seek inherent satisfaction in the activity itself, valuing freedom, purpose, challenge and well-being over money. According to Pink, you can motivate your people by extending 1) autonomy in their jobs, 2) learning opportunities for mastery and 3) a sense of meaning through purpose. These will be the “A” players of the future and always outperform in the long term.

In order to maximize value creation and fulfillment, employee engagement must be baked into the strategic focus of your firm. It must be a key strategic initiative you commit to transforming – since happy employees leads to better customer service, leads to higher sales, leads to higher profit and equity value. For many of us, it’s easier to focus disproportionately on the hard stuff – strategy, tactics and execution, but when we do that, we leave most of our power on the table. Facilitating interconnection through meaning, empathy, listening and serving are the leader’s hallmarks for empowerment, engagement, and optimal value creation.

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