Maslow's hierarchy of needs offers a world of profound insights into the realms of social needs, esteem needs, and ultimately, self-actualisation which holds the key to unlocking the enigmatic world of 'employee engagement'.
The social needs in majorly include acceptance and belonging. Interestingly, at this level, the need for human connections and relationships becomes the key driver in human behaviour…and this is also true when our context is individual in an organisation. This is the starting point of ‘Employee engagement’.
The esteem needs revolve around self-belief, empowerment, confidence, and earning respect from others. It encompasses an environment that fosters positive communication and encompasses the notion of 'psychological safety'. In broader terms, these elements of self-belief, empowerment, confidence, respect, positive communication, and psychological safety converge when we discuss the essence of 'employee engagement'.
And finally, the stage of ‘Self-actualization’…it refers to self-fulfillment, compassion, seeking personal growth, and achieving peak experiences. When we examine these closely, we find that these extraordinary human experiences are certainly part of ‘Employee engagement’.
In a nutshell, social needs, esteem needs and self-actualisation needs wonderfully create the objective and agenda of ‘Employee engagement’ in an organisation – what employees would expect and what employers need to strive for to make something happen in the organisation to retain, and create an environment where employees feel engaged and find a space to thrive.
Further, the ‘Core values’ of the organisation signify how engaged and empowered employees are. For example, Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors also looks at employee engagement from the lenses of ‘empowerment’. She changed a highly prescriptive dress code to ‘dress appropriately’ – simply encouraging employees to re-appropriate their appearance’. Her idea is that if the managers are not able to dress appropriately at the workplace, what other decisions can they handle well…undoubtedly, she created the road of least resistance to empower employees in her journey to enhance employee engagement index in General Motors.
From the above descriptions, we can attempt to visualise the world of ‘Employee engagement’…
Acceptance, Belonging, Human connections, Positive communication, Self-belief, Confidence, Self-respect, Psychological safety, Empowerment, Self-fulfilment, Compassion, Personal growth, Peak experiences…
For the purpose of this article, I have picked up – Human connections, Positive communication and Compassion – to examine the power of ‘Employee engagement’ and its impact on business so that organisations continue to invest in improving upon the engagement index and make it a way of life.
The research work of two distinguished Professors of Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan - Dr Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks and Dr Maxim Syth - are worth mentioning. In their article ‘Reimagining the Office for Immensely Human Interactions (IHI)’ they have highlighted the fact that companies must avail opportunities…and should not let it go… to re-build meaningful human connections when their employees are called / invited to operate from ‘in-person work place’.
The authors further mentioned that though many people have successfully adapted to remote working and yet many employees are feeling alienated and wants to connect with co-workers in a physical work environment…and according to them “this comes at a time when personal social networks have shrunk: Survey respondents reported in June 2020 that they had fewer close friends (by 20%) and fewer close colleagues (by 25%) compared with a year earlier.”
The above data reveal that deep down, employees have great desire to belong and create meaningful human connections at the workplace and as described by Dr Sanchez-Burks and Dr Syth, this is a “demonstrated driver of employee engagement and performance”.
Now let us look at what we experience in an environment of ‘Positive communication’ – first of all positive communication is supportive, enabler, effective, constructive and contains positive emotions. It is also important to understand the components of positive communication. It broadly includes empathic listening (presence, compassion, non-judgemental, trustworthiness, responsiveness etc), social support and positive intentionality (a term coined in the early 1970s about choosing to be positive and intentional with one’s choices and actions), initiative, adaptation to (ref: internet).
Positive communication is critical in building ‘Employee engagement’ in organisations and in this context, it would be important to refer to the book entitled “The Art of Positive Communication: Six Practices to Create Connection and Lead Effectively” by Julien C. Mirivel.
In his book, Dr Mirivel has brought the attention of the readers that the way we communicate matters because it has consequences. And he added that when it is done well, communication creates human contact, enables a person to discover solutions, builds people up, deepens their relationships, and serves as a source of inspiration…and help fostering high-quality relationships, and lead others positively.
Further, as explained by Dr Mirivel, positive communication is based on the premise that the “spoken word, spoken honourably and well, can make a difference that no other form of communication can equal”. Our words build our ‘hopes’.
In the above context, if we read the transcript or listen to Barack Obama's victory speech of 2008, we find that it is all about positive communication…it is said that he was successful in engaging his audience through his speech based on positive communication…an extract of his speech is as follows -
“This is our moment. This is our time — to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream…that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of people: Yes, we can.”
Compassion is the third element of ‘Employee engagement. As we know, compassion improves morale and help employees perform and feel valued. In this context, I recall what Dr Jane Dutton and Dr Monica Worline, the authors of ‘Awakening compassion at work: The quite power that elevates people and organizations’ said - “Compassion is an irreplaceable dimension of excellence for any organization that wants to make the most of its human capabilities.” They further added that “Suffering in the workplace can rob us of humanity, dignity, and motivation. Often silent and left unaddressed, suffering is a costly drain on organization productivity and potential”. It is quite evident that we cannot imagine effective ‘Employee engagement’ in a toxic work environment.
How does a CEO’s level of compassion (quality of having positive intentions and real concern for others) affect his or her management of organizational crises? In October 1982, Johnson & Johnson was confronted with a major crisis when seven deaths were attributed to poisoned Tylenol (painkiller). “All of us can demonstrate a united determination not to allow our lives to be ruled by acts of terrorism, not to allow America to be poisoned the way these seven people were poisoned,” James Burke, CEO told the reporters.
It is important to mention here that James Burke received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000. He was also named as one of history’s ten greatest CEOs by Fortune magazine in the year 2003 for his handling of the Tylenol tragedy of 1982.
Finally, let us look at briefly the business side of ‘Employee engagement’ – in this context, it is important to refer to Gallup’s take on employee engagement - it is about “involvement and enthusiasm of employees in both their work and workplace.”
There is decent chance that the discussion on ‘Employee engagement’ will remain incomplete if we overlook 1984 story of the man who convinced Nike to bet on Michael Jordan…the story goes like this…some 40 years ago, it was Sonny Vaccaro, a Nike employee, who convinced the sporting apparel behemoth to devote all the money it had earmarked on recruiting future NBA players on just one man - Michael Jordan, a 21-year-old rising star. That decision paid off in spades. Nike’s partnership with Jordan has grown into an empire, with $5.1 billion in sales last year from the company’s Jordan brand alone (ref: The Economic Times, April 2023).
As an engaged employee, Sonny Vaccaro put all his stakes on Michael Jordan to take his company to the next orbit in the sporting industry…his involvement, enthusiasm and meticulous homework on Jordan signifies his level of engagement with the company…Nike. It echoes well with what Heather Whiteman, People Analytics Professor, HAAS School of Business, University of California, Berkeley said “Engagement equals to discretionary effort, which equals higher business outcomes for the same amount of dollars, It is ROI at its finest – the best possible return on investment for your human capital.”
To conclude, the subject of ‘Employee engagement’ will continue to evolve as its principles are deeply embedded in theory of motivation, human behaviour in the work place…and with time, the nature of work place is also changing…it is becoming more dynamic…being redefined…being repurposed…like what Dr Tsedal Neelay, Professor at Harvard Business School once said…people now see office as a tool rather than a destination.