A Peak Performance weblog

There are many definitions of employee engagement, and none of them is universally accepted

A few years ago, the Engage for Success Task Force in Great Britain asked, “What’s holding back engagement in 2015?”

One thing I’ve noticed for sure over the past couple of years.   Promotion and application of engagement principles has been hindered by the lack of a clear definition of engagement.   In 2015, in response to my query about her understanding of engagement, Liz Kelly, the CEO of Brilliant Ink in San Francisco, which consults with organizations,  wrote, “there are many definitions of employee engagement, and none of them is universally accepted. In addition, most of the client organizations we work with have some kind of employee engagement survey, which measures engagement from a variety of perspectives, and not all of these are consistent either.”

Partly because of this lack of agreement in defining engagement, clarity is unusual in discussions and writing on the practice of engagement.  People usually presume they know what others are talking about–very seldom do people explain what definition they are using, or ask what definition others are using.

The relationship  of typical definitions of employee engagement to the range of human potential

Let’s take a typical current definition /description of engagement and see what we find.  The Engage for Success website asks, “What’s employee engagement for you and me as employees?”  I attempted to summarize their answer:  Employee engagement is about:

  • Being optimistic, having great ideas about what to do.
  • Understanding my role and where it fits in with the organization’s purpose and objectives.
  • Being focused on clear goals, trusted and empowered.
  • Receiving regular and constructive feedback.
  • Being supported in developing new skills, and being thanked and recognized.

Boiling their description down even further, one could say that engagement is about . . . our attitude, mood, and ideas, understanding our role in the organization, particularly how we are expected to relate to management; and being clear and focused on our goals.

Although I find this description typical of those for organizations, I also find it ‘lean’, with little guidance about what is possible or expected of employees, nothing even suggestive of a vision of peak performance.  Typical descriptions of employee engagement seem unaware or vague about human potential and peak performance.  Seldom is there any attempt to indicate the precise characteristics of peak performance, much less how to embody them.

A goal of engagement programs should be self-actualization, where we’re ‘at the top of our game’, most absorbed, problem-centered, and self-forgetful

Now let’s turn to the related work that Abraham Maslow did on self-actualization, integration, and engagement.   His research showed that when our inner resources are integrated in the state he called self-actualization, we’re completely, unselfishly, and efficiently absorbed in whatever’s at hand.

For our inner resources we can list:  Awareness, concentration, energy, openness, work capacity (the individual’s capacity to get things done), balance / equanimity, emotional intelligence, intellect / thinking capacity, discrimination / clarity, and appreciation / caring / compassion (and possibly others).

Maslow’s research showed that self-actualizing people are living and working ‘at the top of their game’, both as reported by themselves and as observed by others.   It is the growth-oriented, self-actualized person “who most easily forgets or transcends the ego, who can be most problem-centered, most self-forgetful, most spontaneous in his activities . . . . In such people, absorption in perceiving, in doing, in enjoying, in creating can be very complete, very integrated and very pure. . . . The more growth-motivated the person is the more problem-centered can he be, and the more he can leave self-consciousness behind him as he deals with the objective world.”  (p. 37, Toward a Psychology of Being)

Self-actualizing people are living and working ‘at the top of their game’, the most problem-centered, most self-forgetful, most spontaneous . . . . In such people, absorption in perceiving, in doing, in enjoying, can be very complete, very integrated and very pure. . . .

Thus one might say that the business case for defining self-actualization as a long-term goal of engagement was actually clearly and implicitly made by Maslow’s research decades ago.  This holds no matter what the organization’s mission–who would not want their employees ‘doing their best’, being ‘all they can be’?  Obviously, though it may be difficult to achieve, one end-goal of organizational and personal engagement programs should be self-actualization or integration of all ones’ inner resources.

One ultimate goal of engagement programs should be self-actualization or integration of all employees’ inner resources. This will raise (or even remove) the ceiling on ‘human resource’ potential, demonstrate the organization’s clear support for employee health, well-being, and realization,  relieve wasteful employee infighting, and provide unbounded opportunities for employee cooperation.

After clarifying that  self-actualization is a long-term goal of engagement,  individuals can be supported, encouraged, or even taught how to self-actualize and operate ‘at the top of their game’. Though self-actualization may be a long-term project, it does provides necessary long-range vision of our capabilities as human beings, and would clearly state the organization’s concern for employee health, well-being, and realization as well as ordinary productivity. 

Self-actualization continues to motivate to ever-higher levels

What else might happen if we adopted the long-range goal of self-actualization of all employees?  Andrew Grove, former CEO of Intel, wrote:

“The title of a movie about athletes, Personal Best, captures what self-actualization means:  the need to achieve one’s utter personal best in a chosen field of endeavor.  Once someone’s source of motivation is self-actualization, his drive to perform has no limit.  Thus, its most important characteristic is that unlike other sources of motivation, which extinguish themselves after the needs are fulfilled, self-actualization continues to motivate people to ever higher levels of performance. . . .

“A virtuoso violinist who continues to practice day after day is obviously moved by something other than a need for esteem and recognition.  He works to sharpen his own skill, trying to do a little bit better this time than the time before, just as a teenager on a skateboard practices the same trick over and over again.  The same teenager may not sit still for ten minutes to do homework, but on a skateboard he is relentless, driven by the self-actualization need, a need to get better that has no limit.” (pp. 163-4, High Output Management)

Besides a person’s inherent and unending self-actualization motivation, Grove clarifies the role of management regarding performance management:  “Once in the self-actualization mode, a person needs measures to gauge his progress and achievement.  The most important type of measure is feedback on his performance.  For the self-actualized person driven to improve his competence, the feedback mechanism lies within that individual himself.  Our virtuoso violinist knows how the music should sound, knows when it is not right, and will strive tirelessly to get it right.”  He can rely on his immediate experience, and will definitely no longer be dependent upon carrot and stick motivation from a manager.

So “Our role as managers is . . . to . . . bring them to the point where self-actualization motivates them.” (p. 168)  However, once an employee is using self-actualization as his/her motivating drive, emphasizing traditional performance appraisals will no longer be relevant for him/her:  one’s primary source of feedback will be inner, internal, immediately experiential.

To self-actualize, inquire:  How absorbed am I in whatever I’m doing?

If we now focus on Maslow’s description of the self-actualizing person, we see:   “absorption in perceiving, in doing, in enjoying, in creating can be very complete, very integrated and very pure.”   Given this characteristic absorption of our best performers, could the following inquiry provide an ongoing awareness and measurement of how close we are to being self-actualized?

How absorbed are we in whatever we’re doing?

What if we continually inquire:  “How close am I to (the state of) being completely engrossed in what’s at hand?  To the extent that I am engrossed,  I should be able to ‘leave self-consciousness behind’, be less self-centered and more problem-centered.

Thus the proposed main inquiry for inner engagement is:  How close am I to being completely engrossed?  What’s holding me back, interfering with complete engagement, being totally absorbed?

The query itself will bring immediate awareness of whatever factors are interfering with complete engagement. 

Following Timothy Gallwey, inner engagement can be defined as   I.E. = 100% – I (interference)

In an extensive survey, Engage for Success in England found that some managers in their programs did not believe that engagement was worth considering, or did not fully understand the concept and the benefits it could have for their organization. Among those leaders who were concerned with employee engagement, there was great variability in their views and commitment to it.

Isn’t the ‘more radical’, continuous improvement kind of engagement program proposed here so far the crux of what management dreams of?  A way for employees to gradually take responsibility and learn to motivate themselves, to leave self-consciousness behind and be more problem-centered and creative?  But compared to this approach emphasizing self-actualization, the potential of a typical employee engagement program is quite low.

We might call this ongoing measurement of our current degree of participation, our level of involvement, or our degree of inner engagement . . . whatever is useful.  In my present writing I most often use the term inner engagement, or simply engagement.  Whatever it’s called, the point is to monitor our real-time, ongoing, dynamic level of absorption in the scenario ‘before us’, to estimate how engrossed we are in whatever is immediately present.  Then we can see how closely we match what happens in the experience of the self-actualizers.

Tracking inner engagement simultaneously drives continuous improvement of productivity, quality of services and products, and the well-being, work capacity, emotional intelligence, and self-actualization of the worker

My research–presented in following blogs (send email requests to be on my engagement mailing list to Steve Randall, PhD at stevrandal@gmail.com)–shows this way of tracking inner engagement turns out to be a way to simultaneously drive continuous improvement of all the following:  productivity, the quality of services and products produced, and the well-being, work capacity, EI (emotional intelligence) , and self-actualization of the worker.

I.E. = k x P x Q x WB x WC x EI x SA.

Tracking inner engagement turns out to be a way to simultaneously drive continuous improvement of productivity, the quality of services and products produced, and the well-being, work capacity, EI (emotional intelligence) , and self-actualization of the worker. (See my article “Boosting Productivity, Quality, and Well-Being” in The Systems Thinker.)

Actually, most of us seem to know this already, if only implicitly:  Almost everyone talks about “getting into” something,  about being “into it,” or involved or engrossed  in something.   So to describe the process of gradually getting more involved in things, we can assemble this series of commonly used words:   denial, resignation, holding back, initiating, getting into it, involvement, absorption, being engrossed, and peak experience.

The following sequence of words roughly describes a process of getting more and more involved or engaged in what’s happening:   denial, resignation, holding back, initiating, getting into it, involvement, absorption, being engrossed, and peak experience.

Even these imprecise commonsense words and phrases give us a very useful description of our real-time state of increasing inner engagement:  the degree to which we are absorbed in whatever’s at hand.  Without feedback from some such real-time measure–whether we use these performance values already in common use, or others that suit us better–without this feedback, truly continuous improvement that moves us toward self-actualization and peak performance is probably impossible.   We seem to need such a way of bringing awareness or attention to the ongoing changes.   Chapters 6, 7, and 11 in my book All In show how to devise performance values for measuring inner engagement according to our individual preferences and maturity.

For upcoming blogs send email requests to be on my engagement mailing list to Steve Randall, PhD at stevrandal@gmail.com

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