In my last blog entry (A Crisis of Meaning), I laid out the stunning statistics about just how disengaged today’s workforce really is. To get them engaged once again is elusive, but the pursuit is worth it because engagement leads to meaning – and meaning leads to sustained elevated performance and fulfillment over time.
In fact, William Kahn, Professor of Organizational Behavior at Boston University, has drawn a direct link between engagement and meaningfulness.
Kahn conducted a study among counselors/instructors at an adolescent summer camp in the West Indies, seeking to understand the conditions in which people psychologically engage or disengage in work. 1 Kahn’s theory was that people make choices to input or withdraw degrees of themselves in their work roles. In general, people like to bring their preferred selves into their roles, but conditions can affect whether or not this actually occurs. He described a scuba instructor camp counselor that was putting great energy and care into a dive with kids, experiencing a deep and pure sense of personal engagement. The scuba instructor had chosen to invest physically (“darting about checking gear and leading the dive”), cognitively (“with vigilant awareness of his divers, weather, and marine life”), and emotionally (“in empathizing with the fear and excitement of the young divers”). He also expressed himself and his love of the ocean (and desire for others to love it as well) by talking about the wonders of the ocean, steering boat drivers towards minimally invasive routes around vulnerable coral reefs, and showing his playfulness and joy underwater. The instructor was psychologically connecting with others and with a task that deeply tapped what was important to him, and in so doing he was expressing a preferred self.
This scuba instructor contrasted with a highly disengaged windsurfing instructor who had withdrawn physically (“sending them out and just laying around”), cognitively (“not telling them much or helping them out much”), and emotionally (“being bland, superficial, and talking in unemotional tones”). 2 The windsurfing instructors withdrawal and disengagement kept her from connecting with others and the task at hand in a manner that was congruent with the expression of her preferred self.
Why such a stark difference between the level of engagement of the two instructors?
It came down to the absence or presence of meaning in the work.
Kahn discovered three psychological conditions that drove people to engage, expressed as three questions the participants seemed to subconsciously ask themselves before choosing whether or not to fully engage. Two of these questions spoke to very base human needs. The first: How safe is it for me to personally engage; are there negative consequences on self-image, status, or career for personally engaging? The second question: Am I available to engage; do I have the physical and emotional energy, with no distractions blocking my ability to personally engage? The third question was by far the most important and powerful: How meaningful is it for me to bring myself into this task; will I receive a personal Return on Investment? 3
So draw from the lessons of a truly effective camp counselor and get your employees engaged by making their work and workplace meaningful. In so doing, everyone profits.
1 Kahn, William A., Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work (1990), Academy of Management Journal, Vol 33, No. 4, pp. 692-724.
2Kahn, William A., Ibid.
3 Kahn, William A., Ibid.