Modern work environments suffer from a number of issues: First, employees feel unfulfilled, and they have trouble relating their personal goals and values with organizational goals. Second, they’re not highly motivated, and they tend to think management is most interested in profit. Third, management has trouble sustaining, much less optimizing, employee motivation, especially in this economic downturn. Fourth, sometimes management is concerned with profit at the expense of ethical decision making. This lack of a ‘moral compass’ has been in the spotlight for years now in both the corporate and governmental environments.
How can all these problems be adequately dealt with?
Improving Engagement Simultaneously Drives Results and Well-being
Recognition of the importance of employee engagement has grown as more and more recent research shows that driving progress by improving engagement–as contrasted with being preoccupied with the bottom line–drives not just productivity, but employee well-being and quality of products and services as well.¹ Engagement is a leading indicator of all sorts of progress, while the bottom line is a lagging indicator of productivity.
To better engage is to more fully participate, to get more involved and absorbed in whatever’s at hand,
Allowing the dissolution of obstacles and limitations,
Adding to the valued features of experience,
Appreciating more coherent and expansive scenarios,
And causing the invisible seeding and generation of all sorts of eventual progress, both inner and outer.
The recent growing emphasis on optimizing engagement marks a turn toward the increasing recognition of the importance of the quality of employees’ experience. Focusing on quality of the field of experience affords employees and management alike unlimited additional leverage to drive progress.² In his book Peak, hotelier Chip Conley wrote, “I came to realize that creating peak experiences for employees, customers, and investors fostered peak performance for my company.”³
Until very recently, by ignoring the potential of full engagement, the business world has paid the price of keeping a ceiling on its effectiveness and productivity. A character named Jack Cunningham in Kenneth Blanchard’s book Managing by Values points out the problem: Jack “asked us what kind of performance we thought tennis players would have if instead of keeping both eyes on the ball, they always had an eye on the scoreboard. . . . Lots of companies seem to watch only their scoreboard—the bottom line. In doing so, they take their eyes off the ball.”⁴
The Goal of Engagement is Complete Absorption
Aside from the recent engagement research, it is simply common sense that the most effective way to do anything is to get ‘into it’, get completely engaged.⁵ However, people often used the word without fully understanding its meaning. There are many different definitions of engagement in use.⁶ One of the most encompassing and useful is probably this one: one’s degree of absorption in the current scenario. Note that this definition is not task specific, so it can be used in any situation, for any mission.
Then complete engagement is complete absorption in whatever’s at hand, which is also a good general description of peak experience and the ‘zone’ of peak performance.⁷ Could the zone then provide a natural, inherent, and secular (rather than sectarian) ‘moral compass’ that seems so lacking in today’s business environments? I believe so. Maslow wrote, “The empirical fact is that self-actualizing people, our best experiencers, are also our most compassionate, our great improvers and reformers of society, our most effective fighters against injustice, inequality, slavery, cruelty, exploitation (and also our best fighters for excellence, effectiveness, competence). “⁸
Besides helping to empower every individual worker, centering our approach to improving performance on increasing engagement relieves management of the effort involved in carrot and stick methods of motivation. These methods depend on repeatedly filling individuals’ lower-level needs (such as approval and security), which can only be temporarily satisfied. In contrast, the motivation toward the complete absorption of self-actualization does not seem to die out. As Andrew Grove pointed out, “Unlike other sources of motivation . . . self-actualization continues to motivate people to ever higher levels of performance.”⁹ Thus he suggests that “Our role as managers is . . . to . . . bring them to the point where self-actualization motivates them.”¹⁰ “When there is a genuine vision . . . people excel and learn, not because they are told to, but because they want to.”¹¹ The need for management support and motivation is gradually obviated.
Two Approaches to Improving Engagement
Once we know that the ‘goal’ of increasing engagement–no matter what the specific task–is complete participation and absorption in whatever’s at hand, we can take two approaches: (1) dissolve obstacles and limitations, and/or (2) add to the valued features of experience.
(1) We can use what may be the most direct approach, to dissolve obstacles and limitations. We try to become aware of, and somehow deal with, any and all limitations–anything that keeps us from a totally engrossed state. To recognize the obstacles it is obviously very helpful to have clear descriptions of them. However, adequately describing all the obstacles to complete engagement–in simple, clear, and shared phenomenological language –is quite a challenge. And even more of a challenge is learning to recognize and dissolve these obstacles moment by moment within one’s own experiential field. Tremendous awareness and perseverance are required.
A very broad range of these obstacles in different fields, disciplines, and arenas of activity keeps us from being optimally productive and fulfilled at work. Here is a link to a brief outline of communication obstacles that keep us from complete engagement: http://wp.me/ps9h2-2l And here is a link to a spectrum of remedies for procrastination, one obstacle dealt with by the discipline of time management: http://wp.me/ps9h2-2q And a link to a paper on the issue of the habitual and limiting Western perspective of linear time, and what can be done about it: http://wp.me/ps9h2-2t Besides communication and time management, other fields, disciplines, and topic areas–for example, creativity, stress management, psychology, identity, openness or space, information and knowledge–can provide questions for further in-the-moment inquiry and discrimination during any activity.
(2) We can add to the valued features of experience. Engagement can be defined, as stated earlier, as the degree to which one is fully preoccupied or absorbed in whatever is at hand. It can also more generally be defined as a measurement of one or more dimensions (for example, (a) awareness, concentration, and energy; or (b) openness, integrity, and drive/motivation), with each dimension being assigned a set of work-process or performance values that are experientially possible during a period of time.¹² To implement this, each individual should specify his/her personal set of performance values to be used to measure progress at work, and if desirable, during other times as well. There are many ways to do this—your choices will probably depend in part on your own personality, goals, and religious or spiritual disciplines. Consider the core values that, for you or your organization, will guide and shape the way you fulfill your purpose. Whatever your selection, be aware that your definition of engagement or involvement will determine what your suggestions are for improving them.¹³
Build an Engagement-Inquiry-based Playing Field for Peak Performance
With either (1) a set of limitations and obstacles, and/or (2) a set of experiential performance values, you can drive balanced, overall personal and organizational progress–including improving quality, and employee well-being–if everyone involved focuses on increasing their own engagement rather than focusing on the scoreboard, productivity, or the bottom line, all of which are partial, superficial, and lagging indicators.
To try it out, view your experience as a kind of playing field where you are the only player. The object of the game is to approach peak performance by driving engagement–in whatever way you have defined it–as high as you can. To do this, as you work, use any questions you wrote for approach (1) to determine whether your level of engagement is limited or obstructed somehow. Or perhaps equivalently, occasionally notice where you are in the range of performance values you defined for (2). If it seems like the situation is optimal, that you’re in the ‘zone’ of peak performance, you can simply enjoy things and go on. However, it’s often easy to identify a limitation on complete involvement in the situation. There are usually many opportunities for most of us to improve our level of engagement.
If you become aware of a limitation defined in (1), or perhaps equivalently, if you are aware of a performance value (defined in (2)) that is low, do whatever you can to either dissolve the limitation or raise the performance value to a higher level. You may know various methods for making appropriate changes either during a break or while you continue to work.
With this approach we can define a playing field in which people can strive for self-actualization, and endlessly challenge themselves to both improve and progress no matter what is at hand, no matter whether the circumstances are personal or organizational. In general, whatever we can do to dissolve limitations–and in particular to decrease the holding strength of our complexes, negative habits, and other experiential structures–will help deepen engagement, contribute to our improving performance and fulfillment, and approach the ‘zone’ of peak performance.¹⁴ We thus have an approach to optimal work and peak performance which fosters a natural, unimposed meeting ground for both personal fulfillment and organizational results, and which inspires people toward peak performance, self-actualization, and optimal well-being–all at the same time.
1. a. “Studies have statistically demonstrated that engaged employees are more productive, more profitable, more customer-focused, safer, and less likely to leave their employer.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Employee_engagement
b. The Canadian “Workplace Fairness Institute . . . research shows that successful employee engagement results in more job satisfaction, higher productivity. . . .” www.workplacefairness.ca/
c. A study conducted by the University of Rochester’s Human Motivation Research Group found, for example, that people whose motivation was authentic—defined as “self-authored”—exhibited more interest, excitement and confidence, as well as greater persistence, creativity and performance than a control group of subjects who were motivated largely by external demands and rewards.
d. Adam Zuckerman, Senior Consultant with Towers Watson: “Research has consistently found that more engaged employees produce better financial returns for their businesses”.
2. Why has employee engagement become more important in recent years? “Engaged employees working in a high-performance culture give companies a real competitive edge — one that’s difficult for competitors to replicate. It’s one of the few things that can provide a sustained advantage, and business leaders recognize that.” Adam Zuckerman, Senior Consultant with Towers Watson. “HR leaders now realize the concept of engagement allows them to measure an important people-related component of business success. Those metrics are no longer just nice to have; they’re necessary if a company expects to maximize employee and company performance.” Patrick Kulesa, Research Leader, Towers Watson. See www.towerswatson.com/viewpoints/4077
3. P. 13, Conley, Peak, 2007.
4. P. 49, Blanchard, Managing by Values, 1997.
5. See my articles “Boosting Productivity, Quality, and Well-Being.” An article on pp. 7-8 of The Systems Thinker (13, No. 10). Also see chapter three of my book Flow, Glow, and Zero: Introducing a Vision of Peak Performance for the New Millennium. For a copy of the first edition, download from: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/19843470/FlowGlow%26Zero.V1.pdf
7. See chapter one of my book Flow, Glow, and Zero: Introducing a Vision of Peak Performance for the New Millennium.
8. P. xii, Maslow, Religion, Values and Peak-Experiences, 2007. Maslow also wrote, “Spiritual, ethical, and moral values need have nothing to do with any church. Or perhaps, better said, they are the common core of all churches, all religions, including the non-theistic ones. As a matter of fact, it is possible that precisely these ultimate values are and should be the far goals of all education, as they are and should be also the far goals of psychotherapy, of child care, of marriage, the family, of work, and perhaps all other social institutions.” p. 57, Religion, Values and Peak-Experiences.
9. Pp. 163-4, Grove, High Output Management, 1983.
10. Op. cit. p. 168.
11. P. 9, Senge, The Fifth Discipline, 1990.
12. See step 2 of chapter four of my book Flow, Glow, and Zero: Introducing a Vision of Peak Performance for the New Millennium.
13. If, because of your growing insight and realization, you periodically make appropriate revisions of your personal definitions of engagement, these performance values could gradually approach the irreducible, core values of the ‘zone’ of self-actualization. By thus improving the precision with which you observe the workflow, you will eventually have the granularity of feedback necessary to directly approach peak performance.
14. “Seeing through the ‘realness’, the substantiality of these structures may be sufficient to remove all the obstructions to realizing the depth of magic and mystery available: ‘Once we let go of the substantial, we are left with the magic of manifestation. . . . We can invite a knowledge that condenses and enriches the mystery that is living reality. . . . only the structures of consciousness insist on covering over the mystery with the familiarity of the previously recorded.’” (italics mine, pp. 158-9, Tarthang Tulku, 1994) p. 23, Flow, Glow, and Zero: Introducing a Vision of Peak Performance for the New Millennium.