To boost engagement, focus on causes rather than symptoms

Workplace social events and new office décor are not enough. You must meet four basic psychological needs to motivate your employees to excel.

4 employee needs

Needing an engagement survey to determine whether you have low engagement is like needing a scale to determine whether you would benefit from fat reduction.

Staff surveys set an expectation with employees that you will make meaningful changes in response. Not following through can create cynicism that harms future engagement efforts.

Engagement is about basic human psychology, such as these fundamentals:

  • As social creatures, we are wired with the need to feel we’re valued and accepted within our social groups, in this case our workplace.
  • We naturally desire to employ our gifts and talents, and we dislike doing things that don’t match them.
  • We have an innate drive for meaning/purpose in what we do. We want the results of our efforts to matter to others.
  • We have an internal drive for progress or development. We want to be more, do more and have more through our efforts.

Managers often approach engagement issues with programs that don’t address their root causes. Those causes are few, but the symptoms can show up in many ways, and managers often address only the symptoms of the unmet psychological needs

The resulting negative attitudes are contagious and can quickly infect an entire group. Thus, disengagement becomes both a cause and effect. It’s a vicious cycle that can be difficult to break. No wonder most companies make minimal progress on improving engagement.

Company leaders must take an honest, objective view at how the culture affects the staff.

Below are relevant psychological needs, mindsets or philosophies; understanding them can help you improve engagement.

  • Feeling valued and understood. Managers earnestly listen to employees’ concerns, opinions and ideas, considering their merits before responding—rather than defending the company position or punishing employees for dissenting. Managers need not agree with employees; what’s important is a sincere effort to listen to, understand and consider their input.
  • Expression of gifts and talents. Managers align roles and responsibilities with people’s specific gifts and talents. We deliver higher energy, engagement and productivity when we do work that we like and excel at. As management consultant Peter Drucker said, “A manager’s task is to make the strengths of people effective and their weaknesses irrelevant.”
  • Meaning/purpose in what we do. Here, employees have a clear understanding of how their work bolsters the mission and vision of the organization. People are much more motivated when they realize that their efforts matter significantly.
  • Internal drive for progress or development. Employees do their best under “healthy tension” (not too low, not too high) to meet clear and reasonable standards. This means fair and consistent accountability based on performance relative to agreed-upon standards. People are motivated when they focus on these questions: “What did I achieve today?” “What did I learn today?” and “How did I grow?”

Most efforts to fix disengagement fail because they are superficial and don’t treat the underlying causes. They are “symptom treaters.”

Examples include most team-building events, social mixers, employee recognition efforts, company newsletters and upgraded office environments. Even pay and benefit increases have an initial rush, swiftly followed by the “right back where we were” syndrome.

That’s not to say companies should not do those things. They are nice add-ons—once the day-to-day essentials of human psychology have been meaningfully addressed.

Superficial efforts deliver an initial boost that can seduce us into thinking we did something with a long-term benefit. However, there is no substitute for working at the cause level and creating new habits of thinking and behavior. That approach requires a greater investment of time and effort, but that’s what it will take to solve your engagement problems.

Brad Wolff is managing partner of People Max. A version of this post first appeared on TLNT.


One Response to “To boost engagement, focus on causes rather than symptoms”

    Stephen Davison says:

    Surveying is necessary in order to understand whether the particular content get some engagement or not. However, during this process there many factors to be considered. Certain factors like internal progress of development, what kind of information users are looking for, understanding the work and realizing the mission will give a clear idea on the causes behind the failures. This in turn helps you come up with new plans to boost engagement. Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive the latest articles from directly in your inbox.