Some thoughts on employee engagement

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Later today I'll be speaking at the IABC World Conference in New Orleans, about how we can harness people's minds better in business.

The talk builds on my work in the UK and US with businesses like JP Morgan and News International, and the content of A Mind for Business, but I'm going to focus particularly on employee engagement and mental wellbeing.

The world of employee engagement is fairly established these days, and the topic certainly seems to be more prominent in most CEOs' minds than wellbeing or (scary) mental health. After all, if your biggest expense is your wage bill, you want to know the money you're spending is delivering value to your business.

The trouble is, if you're serious about staff engagement, I simply don't believe it's possible to treat it in isolation from wellbeing and other areas of business psychology. Put simply, if you only focus on engagement, you miss half the picture, and that makes it impossible to manage your business properly.

Engagement, as it's typically used, encompasses two aspects of psychology: motivation and concentration. Put simply, an engaged employee is usually seen as one who cares about their work and is able to focus on it effectively. 

The motivation element has been the subject of much debate and research in recent decades. Motivation means being eager to act, and it's very much about doing, not thinking. It's not the same as willpower, which is forcing yourself to do something that doesn't motivate you. Genuine motivation is where action feels easy, where doing a task feels effortless and enjoyable. Because of this, it's a very emotional process, and not one that can be engineered simply by financial incentives or threats of punishment. It's about having a personal connection to the task, some reason why it feels like the right thing for you.

Motivation, then, is personal, and emotional. But it isn't a luxury, it's an essential ingredient of modern working. Without the genuine commitment to your work, it will be harder to think creatively about it, put in extra effort to get the job done well, or inspire others to do the same. No wonder writers like the wonderful Dan Pink have proved so popular: motivation is good for business.

So far so good. Now let's look at concentration. Concentration is a complex thing in psychology, because it is closely related to attention and consciousness. What we usually mean in day-to-day language is, can you focus on what you're trying to do, and apply your mind to it, or do you keep getting distracted and find it hard to think about it? Or to put it another way, how effective are you at applying your mind to the task at hand?

This isn't just about how motivated you are: concentration comes from a number of factors. You need to be free from distractions, able to concentrate properly. You need to have enough mental energy to put your mind to work effectively on the task at hand. And you need to be free from stress and worry, those negative loops that preoccupy our minds and distract from what we're doing.

Concentration, then, is similarly emotional, and personal, and like motivation, it really matters. Tired, stressed, distracted people do worse work, miss possibilities and make bad decisions. To be effective at work, you need to maintain your physical and emotional wellbeing, otherwise all the motivation in the world won't help you apply your mind effectively to the task at hand.

What's more, people who care deeply about their work, their colleagues or their customers, are more likely to become stressed. Stress is a response to a threat, a sign that we feel endangered, and it is a sign that something important to you is at risk. The easiest way to cut out stress at work is to stop caring - the archetypal "more than my job's worth" response. But it's good to care. And if we want people to be engaged at work, we have to find other ways to beat stress.

Companies that work solely on employee engagement, then, often end up with a stress problem. To really build an effective workplace, you also need to manage the stress levels of employees, and help them feel calm as well as engaged. In fact, managing these two factors together can help make sense of a lot of familiar patterns at work. Here's how the two elements combine to create various positive and negative effects on performance.

  • Low motivation, low wellbeing: employees in this state languish, unhappy where they are but unable to get another job. They can be bad for the morale of other people around them, they don't do good work, and they aren't enjoying themselves either.
  • Low motivation, high wellbeing: employees in this state coast, doing minimal effort and enjoying themselves. They might be fun to be around, but they can often frustrate people around them who are more engaged and working harder.
  • High motivation, low wellbeing: employees in this state work hard and get things done, but they burn out. There's only so long you can go in a state of emergency before your body and mind start to suffer ill effects, so these people are most at risk of stress-related illnesses and breakdowns, and need to be supported.
  • High motivation, high wellbeing: this is the sweet spot, a state of flow where action feels easy and we do our best work. This is what we are really aiming for with employee engagement: a state of concentration and application that is as enjoyable as it is productive.

How much time do you spend in a state of flow? Do you find you're often able to concentrate and enjoy your work, or is it a daily struggle to stay focussed? And what can you do to help your colleagues reach this state more often.

This is why wellbeing at work is so important: because it is the key to sustainable engagement, where we are most productive and enjoy our work too. Managing stress, educating employees about looking after their minds, and helping managers support their people better, are all essential to running a modern business.

This isn't a luxury to be done once the work is complete: it's the basic building block to high performance, and we neglect it at our peril.

Read more about reducing stress and boosting motivation in A Mind for Business (Pearson/FT Press, 2015), out now in the US, UK and worldwide in paperback and Kindle.

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Andy Gibson

Restless improviser, author and entrepreneur. Mainly runs Mindapples and currently writing about the human mind and new ways of working. Also tinkering with a few side projects. Latest book, A Mind for Business, available now published by Pearson.