By Joel H. Head, ACC & Joshua Freedman
Each year, the United States experiences $450 billion to $550 billion† in lost productivity due to low employee engagement. Companies have poured millions into programs designed to make people happier and more satisfied at work, but in ten years, employee engagement levels across the U.S. have remained tenaciously static.
What is wrong with this picture?
The approaches to creating engagement have varied from attempting to make the workplace more fun (free food, bring your dog, making work like a game), to being family friendly (on-site day care, flex time), to inclusion strategies (clarify expectations, involve people in decisions), to rewarding performance (time off, more money), to just being nicer at work.
While these sound great (who wouldn’t want free food?), there’s a simple reason these approaches are failing: The majority of current engagement strategies focus on external mechanisms. True engagement comes from the employee’s relationship with the employer and with the work itself. By definition, engagement is an inside job.
Classical vs. Behavioral Economics
We operate in a world governed largely by classical economics: people are presumed to behave rationally. Classical economic theory says that if we pay people for how much they produce, they will produce more. The idea works up to a point; it stumbles due to a basic fact: people do not always behave in a rational way.
Rationally, free food and the other perks might sound great. But research has also shown that these benefits can also be viewed as a means to control behavior (makes sense, since that’s the company’s real goal).
The Four Keys to Engagement
What drives deeper motivation? Research by Richard Deci, author of Why We Do What We Do, highlights a few factors for deep motivation:
1) sense of autonomy,
2) feeling of competence,
3) relatedness to the broader work of the organization, and
4) connection to the community of fellow employees.
If material perks are interfering with these factors, then those “motivation schemes” will actually adversely impact desired behavior. The behaviorist approach backfires because it’s actually a way to reduce autonomy (manipulating people), it undermines competence (you don’t earn those benefits through your strengths), there’s no larger meaning, and many corporate benefit programs subtly (or overtly) pit employees against one another.
So if we want to recapture the $350b in lost engagement, how do we support autonomy, competence and relatedness by building stronger relationships?
One answer can be found in emotional intelligence — which, simply stated, is being smarter with feelings. Leaders can become aware of how emotions influence themselves and others. Leaders can learn how their words and actions support each employee’s autonomy, competence and relatedness and either build or tear down relationships.
Emotional intelligence is the primary driver in leader effectiveness because leadership is about using influence and building effective relationships, which are largely emotional tasks. In fact, EI has been measured as contributing 75-80% of the elements for success compared to 20-25% for IQ.
Leaders who practice emotional intelligence are less reactive and more responsive. They know themselves, so they don’t need to prove their own power. Instead, they work WITH others, giving an appropriate level of autonomy.
Emotionally intelligent leaders are attuned to their people. They see their people’s strengths (and weaknesses) clearly, so they can foster that essential sense of competence.
In the Six Seconds Model of Emotional Intelligence, part of EI is being connected with a sense of purpose. This allows the “High EI Leaders” to do a better job helping employees see the link between their daily work and the larger picture.
Finally, leaders who put EI into action are better at relationships. They “get” people and are able to foster genuine collaboration. This fuels stronger interpersonal connection, motivating people through relatedness. The problem is, this trait seems to be waning.
Where Has All the Empathy Gone?
It has been said that people join organizations but leave their supervisors. It’s a problem of relationships — one of those core motivators.
To be effective, today’s leaders have to connect with people on a personal level – understand what drives their people. This “connecting” requires a high level of emotional intelligence, specifically empathy: the ability to sense how others feel and connect at an emotional level.
Bad news: a recent Harvard Business review article notes that the quality senior leaders lack most is empathy.
Leaders can use emotional intelligence to develop empathy. First, by examining how they feel inside. Second by becoming aware of the impact of their words and actions on others.
Like the other components of emotional intelligence, empathy is learnable. Actively, consistently developing the skills of EI is a “must do” for today’s and tomorrow’s leaders — and it works.
Success Stories: Emotional Intelligence Drives Engagement
In a six-month leadership development process at Komatsu, a Japanese maker of construction and mining equipment, engagement increased from 33 to 70%. At the same time, plant performance increased by 9.4%. The pilot project, conducted by a team from the Six Seconds Network, took place at the company’s Este plant and focused on educating line managers in the use of emotional intelligence skills.
In another study by Six Seconds, Amadori, an Italian agro-food sector company and European supplier to McDonalds, emotional intelligence was found to predict 47% of the variation in manager’s performance management scores. Emotional intelligence was also correlated with increased organizational engagement with 76% of the variation in engagement predicted by manager EQ. Finally, plants with higher organizational engagement achieved higher bottom-line results. During this period, employee turnover also dropped by 63%.
“The workplace climate is a driving force in how employees engage in their daily activities,” Massimiliano Ghini, a management professor at Italy’s Alma Graduate School, said. “So the conclusion is simple: If we want business success, we need to equip leaders with the skills to make an environment where employees can work effectively.”
The Bottom Line:
Motivation is an inside job. It means employees must motivate themselves and become engaged, but it is up to leadership to create the conditions where self-motivation is possible.
Joel H. Head, ACC, is the Managing Partner of Headwinds Ltd. which he founded in 2002. An entrepreneur, leadership coach and organization performance consultant, Joel works with senior leaders who are passionate about building more engaged and accountable teams, enhancing their own leadership capability, and improving firm performance. He is a Preferred Partner with the Six Seconds Network and has counseled senior executives in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Asia. Learn more at http://www.headwindsltd.com
Joshua Freedman is the CEO of Six Seconds, learn more at www.jmfreedman.com
† lost productivity figures from the 2013 Gallup “State of the American Workplace” report.