You might expect this post to be about the efficacy of employee engagement driving business outcomes. Much has been written on that topic and it serves anyone selling a product in the industry to continue to perpetuate the message that engagement drives critical results.
At Emplify, we believe this. We believe that employee engagement is real and that it influences mission critical outcomes. The most commonly promoted benefits are higher productivity, lower turnover, and organizational citizenship behavior. We agree with those three and realize there are likely others. Engagement is really influential. We wouldn’t be focusing on it if it wasn’t.
However, this post is not about those outcomes. It is instead about a very critical element of what it actually looks like for humans to be engaged at work. It won’t be hard for you to trace the path from this aspect of engagement to business benefits.
Engagement is about work. It is about working hard, fast, and with joy. An engaged employee can become fully immersed in their work. It can become consuming and almost surreal. Time can seem to pass at unnatural speed. Sometimes a moment of intensity can linger, or the day can pass very quickly without it seeming like any energy was expended. This immersion in work is at the foundation of employee engagement. Any concept of engagement that isn’t related to the predominant action of the employee doesn’t capture what it means to be engaged. By definition, employees are coming to “work.” They are not coming to a party celebrating the success of the brand or to have a social gathering with friends. Having friends at work and celebrating businesses successes are good things, but those individual moments don’t form the majority of the employee experience.
This, in turn, is why engagement works. It is why when you have a workforce that is engrossed in what they do and are all pushing in the same direction, you see results. And this isn’t some sort of organizational hack to extract more from employees by tricking them with psychological sleight of hand. It’s immensely beneficial for humans to have purpose, direction, and productivity. We thrive when we are able to contribute and excel at what we’re good at.
The biggest and most beneficial behavior of employee engagement for the organization is also the same for the individual. The alignment between employee and employer is strong here. Employees experience joy and fulfillment when their work is accomplished quickly and with efficacy; when they have opportunities to challenge themselves and improve their ability and position; when there are clear paths to better rewards and a feeling of control in their own lives and influence in the organization. The organization experiences this as massive output that, throughout history, has changed the world. From cars to computers to massive infrastructure projects, employees have banded together with each other and organizations to move humanity forward. Visionary leaders get nowhere on their own. And those who don’t experience engagement in their work aren’t happy.
This experience of intense work as a good thing is illuminated at the extreme in the concept of “flow.” Flow was described by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in his 1990 book by the same title as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost—for the sheer sake of doing it.” (Cskikszentmihalyi, 1990, p.4)
Imagine work like that. The first part of the definition seems pretty innocuous. But that second piece is extreme. “Continue to do it even at great cost—for the sheer sake of doing it.” That sounds like what we hear in athletic or entrepreneurial mythology. The Michael Jordan Game 5 performance when he had the flu. The entrepreneur who works themselves to the bone to see their business blossom. But what about the employee who works dutifully for 40 years from nine to five? Can they experience this? Can they be fulfilled and happy in their work? Can they be an engaged employee?
I think so. We at Emplify think so. It’s possible that flow is an elusive state for some people. But if we think of engagement as a continuous scale with degrees all leading to the euphoria of flow, then we can all experience more and better engagement along that scale. We can experience times that feel more like Csikszentmihalyi describes:
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 3)
That is not just about the business. It isn’t just about profits. It is about purpose and meaning and fulfillment. I think we all stand to benefit from considering what it would look like if we were more engaged. We’re just on the cusp of figuring this out as humans. We’re getting better at understanding how organizations of people work. As we do, I think we’ll increasingly learn that the organization and the individual are aligned and share in the benefits of employee engagement.