A few years ago, the Conference Board offered a definition of employee engagement that has become widely used and highly popular: “A heightened emotional connection that employees feel for their organization … that influences them to exert greater discretionary effort to their work.”
The key point in that description is the link between “emotional connection” and “discretionary effort.” Without an emotional connection, it’s very difficult to get people tuned in, turned on and eager to go the extra mile.
Making an emotional connection
In my new book – Getting to the Heart of Employee Engagement – I offer a somewhat provocative idea on how to make that kind of emotional connection. It starts with the premise about the main qualities that differentiate human beings from all other living creatures – namely imagination and free will. Not our intelligence – lots of animals are highly intelligent. Not our souls – Disney has made it clear that “all dogs go to heaven.” Not our compassion – many animals demonstrate strong emotional feelings about their fellow creatures.
At one point in writing the book, I was overcome by an out-of-body force that seemed to take over the keyboard and channel through me what may be the only significant original thought I’ve ever had. Imagination and free will go hand-in-hand, and they are useless without one another. Imagination without free will has no power. Free will without imagination has no purpose.
Here’s why that idea is so important. When people are not given the opportunity to exercise their innate, uniquely human gifts of imagination and free will, you diminish their potential and undermine their trust in the organization’s commitment to their success and well being. Putting it more simply – you take the human out of human being.
Going beyond imagination and free will
But imagination and free will by themselves are not enough. Lots horrible things have come from people using their imagination and free will. If you want employees to trust the organization and give the very best they are capable of contributing to its success, you must design systems, processes, policies and practices that foster the development of “human rockets” in three ways – just like a real rocket:
- Optimize the potential of each person’s capacity for imagination and free will (thrusters and boosters to make them soar)
- Provide for the security and self-esteem that people need in order to feel safe in exercising their imagination and free will (stabilizers to keep them from wobbling)
- Specify the responsibility and provide the constructive accountabilitythat people need in order to guide their decisions and actions in the use of their imagination and free will (a guidance system to keep them on course)
If you grasp the essential nature of the “human rocket,” it’s easy to understand why employees need to have some sense of control over the things that affect their lives and their ability to perform at their best. No one does their best when their only motivation comes from an external force.
Looking at the bright side of control
It’s also important to understand that “control” is not a four-letter word. In the end, it’s just another word for predictability. We mistakenly think that people don’t like “command and control,” but that’s only half right. They hate the command part, for sure, but the control part is important. No one likes it when things are out of control. People just want to have some say in what those controls are and how they are applied – especially when it comes to things that affect their own lives and their ability to do their best. When organizations learn how to apply that vital lesson, there will no shortage of the connection that employees feel for their enterprise – and they will demonstrate a level of extra effort beyond what most managers can imagine.