Rethinking Engagement: Why Our Current Approach is Back To Front

Human beings seek to “know” how a particular thing works in one of two ways:

  • By looking at the thing “in and of itself”; or
  • With reference to the things’ particular context, and how changing context causes the thing to react.

Why is this important? Well, today’s approaches to employee engagement focus on the impact of the environment on the employee to determine what is or what is not engaging, rather than focusing on what we know about how humans are wired to be in the world and designing for that. That is, we are going ‘outside in’ to develop an approach to engagement, rather than ‘inside out’; we’re coming up with frameworks to control context based on our engagement experiments, rather than frameworks that reflect a deep comprehension of humanity “in and of itself”.  

Engagement is, first and foremost, a psychological issue: it is literally the degree of connectedness that a ‘self’ feels to something outside of its self. A deep understanding of the human psyche is necessary to reliably design organisations, systems and processes that will engage people.

This article focuses on an "inside out" approach, by looking at what we do know about the human psyche, and how that should inform our approaches to creating environments where employees experience real engagement. 

We can understand many things about the wiring of human beings by looking at their behaviour, which, of course, is driven by their biology: 

1. Human beings are biologically wired to make social connections: we literally develop (physically and psychologically) through connection with others. This wiring also makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: we’re more likely to survive if we’re in packs. Organisations are simply groups of people working together in a configuration that is designed to produce a particular outcome. The most significant part of that sentence is “people” and “working together”. That is, relationships- what humans psychologically need to connect, how they relate, how they experience safety in relationships etc - have an enormous impact on organisational outcomes.

2. Human beings are biologically wired to make sense of their environment, so that they can reliably meet their needs, so that they can stay alive. There have been multiple models proposed for characterising human needs, which I don’t propose to go into. At their simplest, however, we note that humans have: 

  • needs which contribute directly to their survival (physical connection with other humans, food, water, shelter, air etc);
  • needs that contribute indirectly to their survival (intimacy, love, play etc); and 
  • needs that contribute to psychological thriving (self-actualisation, creativity etc). 

3. Once our direct and indirect survival needs are reliably meet for a period of time, human beings are wired to start thinking more broadly about their ‘self’ and their existence - that is, human beings move from sense-making to meaning-making. Sense-making is how we make sense of our environment; meaning-making is what we make everything that happens to us mean. This is when start thinking about “Why am I here?” and “What’s my purpose?” It’s when we start longing to express our authentic selves even though it might mean rejection from others; it's when we feel the urge to create. Whether or not you believe that life has any innate meaning, the reality is that the odds of your existence are so small as to be miraculous, and the odds of the variables that have gone in to shaping you and making up your life are similarly incredible. The outcome is that you are a completely unique being, with a completely unique contribution to make, and there is a part of you that absolutely wants to make your unique contribution. 

So, engaging environments are those that meet our needs for: 

  1. Connection with others;
  2. Certainty about how the environment works; and 
  3. Making our individual Contribution.

Knowing this, we might start to ask ourselves of each design decision that we make:

  • Do we think it’s likely that doing this thing will positively contribute to people’s sense of connection with others? Will it cause collaboration or competition? Does it encourage cross-functional approaches, or reward silo's? Does it create opportunities for people to form new relationships?
  • Do we think it’s likely that doing this thing will positively contribute to people’s sense of certainty? Have we been clear as we can about how this is meant to work, or will we leave people frustrated and confused? Have we explained where people can find the information they might need? Have we clearly explained the rules of the game for people? Are we creating an environment that our employee population feels safe in? Do we walk our talk? 
  • Do we think it’s likely that doing this thing will positively contribute to people’s sense of contribution? Are we honouring the individual, here, or are we treating our employees like untrustworthy children or unimportant robots? Are we giving people the opportunity to grow? The opportunity to create? Are people empowered to be authentically themselves in this workplace?