Stop Slinging Spaghetti at Employee Engagement

August 30, 2018 | Paul Adachi, Ph.D., Director of Business Development, motivationWorks | HCI
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The last thing you need to read right now is a typical blog post about employee engagement — because nothing “typical” will have a real impact. It never has, which explains why engagement continues to hover stubbornly around 30 percent. You’d think that with all the time, energy, and hundreds of millions of dollars that companies throw at moving the needle, we’d see better outcomes.

And yet …

The needle continues to scratch at the same spot, turning employee engagement efforts into a broken record, repeating the same approaches and achieving the same lackluster results.

The reality is that while 90 percent of organizations measure engagement, 70 percent don’t know how to take action on that score. What’s more, only about half of employee engagement professionals believe the actions they do take are actually working. And here’s one more stat: Only 25 to 30 percent of leaders are confident that their businesses can properly execute effective employee engagement strategies.

That was the bad news. The good news is that most leaders agree that engaging employees is a critical priority.

So why can’t companies achieve the engagement they’re after? Is it a lack of resources? Insufficient technology?

No! Sure, it helps to have tools to facilitate engagement, but resources and technology are just that — tools. Regardless of how you define engagement, be it passion, purpose, or commitment, we can all agree that engagement is a deep emotional experience that we know when we see it. At its very core, engagement is a psychological experience, so we need more than technology or math to solve it. We need to give engagement the respect it deserves, and address it with a psychological model.

Meanwhile, we often think: If only we could find the right knobs to turn to raise engagement. Bring on the team-building! Extra communication! Refreshed training! More 1:1s with managers! A new policy! Meetings about new policies! Meetings about those meetings!

So many of our efforts are akin to throwing spaghetti against the wall, because we lack a clear understanding of the key psychological experiences that our efforts need to facilitate for employees in order to drive deeper engagement. This is the fundamental problem with current employee engagement efforts: The key psychological experiences that our efforts need to target are currently a black box. Consequently, we’re left with a mess that still leaves us hungry for something that will truly improve the workplace.

Here’s the hard truth: Until we can identify, measure, and take action on improving the fundamental experiences that truly drive engagement, we’ll merely be throwing spaghetti at the wall. Only a psychological framework based on empirical evidence can genuinely create impact and solve this black box.

That means it’s time to stop looking to data that suggests mere correlations and start applying a more scientific, peer-reviewed, valid, and reliable model that demonstrates causation.

This is where Self-Determination Theory (SDT) comes in. SDT is a theory of motivation concerned with supporting our natural or intrinsic tendencies to behave in effective and healthy ways. It’s a well-validated, easy-to-understand psychological framework that reorients employee engagement to focus on two key notions:

  1. It is not a company’s or a manager’s duty to motivate individuals. Only one person has that power and role — the individual. The most effective actions companies and managers can take is to create conditions and environments that facilitate employees in motivating themselves.
  2. Motivation is also not a binary state in which you’re either motivated or you’re not. Nor does more equal better. Rather, there’s a continuum of Motivational Quality that serves as a highly predictive and empirically validated measure for engagement.

At the same time, three basic psychological needs act as essential drivers of high motivational quality:

  1. Autonomy the need to have volition and be the authors of our lives
  2. Relatedness  the need to connect and interact with others
  3. Mastery  the need to feel competent and feel room for growth

Real employee engagement only happens when all three needs are fulfilled. But you don’t have to take my word for it. In fact, you shouldn’t take my word for it. As I mentioned earlier, it’s important to use a framework validated by extensive peer review.

Indeed, a meta-analysis of 72 workplace studies across seven countries clearly shows that when leaders support their employees’ experiences of the three core needs, positive outcomes emerge — including engagement and satisfaction, high motivational quality, well-being and health, retention, and performance.

Basing your employee engagement strategy on a well-validated, holistic, psychological framework will address the needs of employees and your organizations — and is the most surefire way to employee engagement that will really stick.

We love helping organizations apply proven methods to build stronger cultures. If you’re interested in empowering your employees to thrive, let’s talk!