It seems wherever we look these days there are articles prescribing what to do, to create employee engagement. It is an important topic, and the much cited Gallup data, showing disturbingly low engagement in the USA, certainly grabs our attention.
My curiosity for all things ‘people’ related in business spans decades and it has driven me to research a few topics during my career. Engagement has been one of those.
Having read numerous research papers, journals and books; and comparing that to my own observations, a few things stand out to me:
Firstly, there is no silver bullet; neither within nor across organisations. Your local and broader organisation cultures influence the answers … greatly. In fact, it is widely believed that it is primarily culture which will enable engagement.
Secondly, whilst the field has exploded with many researchers publishing prolifically (see below for references), William Kahn’s engagement research published in 1990 remains extremely relevant and is a simple guide for businesses to sense-check their activities. He found that your staff have three primary psychological needs:
Whilst each of these three needs can be addressed in numerous ways, limited only by your time, money and creativity, businesses need to do their own research to understand where the real opportunities lie – for their people, in that business, at that time. These contextual aspects will typically determine ‘how’ you apply the basic theories (the ‘what’). Making the effort to understand the opportunities that lie at the intersection of this ‘how’ and ‘what’ will create a far more effective engagement strategy than any “10 tips …” article is ever likely to.
Finally, I want to share a great example of a leadership mindset that will fuel engagement. It was mentioned in a Simon Sinek talk I watched recently. Try changing the term ‘Head-count’ to ‘Heart-count’ and see what happens.
For those wanting some great references for their own research I can thoroughly recommend this book and this one, too.
Why: A concept appearing in seminal works such as Viktor Frankl’s powerful, autobiographic book, Man’s Search for Meaning and the somewhat esoteric philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.
In more recent times Simon Sinek returned this simple word to center stage with his book, Start with Why and his TED talks on leadership.
The power of ‘why’ in business is far from a new concept. ‘Ask why 5 times’ became a fashionable form of root cause analysis, emerging from the famously successful Toyota Production System and attributed to Sakichi Toyoda, the company's founder.
But, it’s not just useful in understanding how something failed … So many key aspects of behaviour depend upon this simple word – ‘Why’.
David Rock, in his book Quiet Leadership, describes the brain is a “connection machine”. It continually works to make sense of what we experience; relentlessly asking itself why, but far too often relying upon assumptions to complete the puzzle. Rumors are a great example of this.
Whilst I am a big fan of asking why, I am equally a fan of telling why.
People are often far more interested in why a decision was made, than the actual decision. Providing this information allows them to make value judgements which help them align with the leaders or the organisation, crucial for their support and engagement.
Authority is not a sustainable explanation for curious decisions
Then, there is what I call “assumed intent”. This often occurs when the evidence is scant but the impact seems significant. It is the tendency to try to explain observations by connecting them to some intellectual, moral or ethical judgement of the person(s) responsible. Unchecked, this can lead to a range of flawed thinking habits, such as confirmation bias – where information is subconsciously accepted or rejected on the basis of whether it fits current beliefs.
Finally, there are volumes of published research showing the increasingly clear links between meaning, motivation, performance and well-being. If you want to find out what your people are truly capable of, focus on creating intrinsic motivation by helping them find meaning in their work and life.
Help people ‘find their why’ … or at least, make sure they understand yours!
It is a win-win-win strategy.
In Part 1 I spoke about the various costs of being busy; but also faced the reality that there will be times when it is difficult to avoid.
Here are 5 tips and tactics that may help you in these times.
1. The Eisenhower matrix
A very simple tool used to divide tasks into 4 categories based upon the combinations of high or low Importance and Urgency. This tool has appeared countless times, including Steven Coveys best seller, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People under Habit 3; ‘Put first things first’. It sounds simple, and it often is, but if you are frenetically busy it is a discipline that can easily slip. There are various labels used for the 4 categories but I find Dr. John Demartini's version easy to remember: Do it, Delegate it, Diarise it or Ditch it. Search for it online and see if it helps.
2. Manage your willpower
Every decision you make requires willpower. Unfortunately, in the short term, willpower is a finite resource – hence the success of impulse sales items at supermarkets and coffee shops. They get you when your defenses are down. Knowing this allows you to arrange tasks such that you attack the harder ones early in the day, instead of being drawn into more tedious tasks. Revisit the ‘Do it’ list above – which one is the most ambiguous or complex? That's where you start. A suggestion here is to use the Eisenhower matrix at the end of each day to identify the first item for the next day … its one less decision you need to make before you start.
3. Focused attention
I mentioned in Part 1 some of the costs of trying to multi-task. Have you ever noticed the volume and quality of work you achieve when there are no distractions? When you are allowed to truly immerse yourself in one task. Cal Newport’s book Deep Work looks at a number of examples of how you can apply this, citing extreme examples such as an author who recognised that he worked best on planes. Pushed for a deadline he flew return to Tokyo and completed the book during the flights. When, where and how do you do your best deep thinking? Have you even thought about it before? How can you best take advantage of it?
4. Floss your brain
The same brain region you activate when you intentionally draw your focus to your senses is involved in a long list of very beneficial skills and attributes. They include: fear modulation, attuned communication, empathy, emotional regulation and morality. For a deeper dive into this take a look at Dr. Dan Siegel's book The Mindful Brain. Increasing evidence shows that this capacity of your brain can be enhanced through regular routines of intentionally bringing your attention to sensing the present moment. The great news is … it only takes seconds. You can pay attention to anything – it’s just about noticing, not judging. Isn’t it worth 'flossing' your brain? You brush your teeth ...
5. Capitalise on stress
Studies have shown that people who believe they perform better under stress are generally less physiologically impacted by it. It’s just one of the mindset tools you can use. Another is to use stressful situations to build your capacities, much like weight lifting. Gains require stress and recovery. Following stressful tasks you should create a practice of looking back to acknowledge the resources you drew upon and work out how to gain even more from these capacities in the future. Reviewing ways you succeeded builds self-efficacy (a major component of self-esteem) which is key to performance and resilience.
I really, seriously hope there was something of value in that for you!
Please feel free to add your tips in the comments below.
In Part 3 I will look at the more organisational and managerial aspects of ‘Taking Care of Busy-ness’ …
So many people I have spoken to recently tell me they are always ‘just so busy’. Yet, outwardly, many of their behaviours continue to contribute to the busy-ness. My concern is that busy has become the ‘cloak of credibility’, fuelling a dangerous mindset:
I hate working like this – but I have to … that’s how things are
The Yerkes-Dodson ‘inverted-U’ model was originally published over 100 years ago, proposing that optimal performance does require some level of arousal. Think about it for a moment; your best achievements have commonly occurred when you were under some degree of pressure. Later, research by Hebb added that the more complex the task, the easier it is for the output to suffer when there is too much arousal: an increasingly relevant point. Who do you know that has a job that is getting simpler???
The explanation lies in the difference between arousal and stress
While the level of arousal matches the desired level, you have 'eustress' – healthy and motivating, signified by feelings of optimism, control and competence. The peak experience of this is better known as FLOW, as presented in the book by the same name (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). Once the level of arousal exceeds the desired level though, you create distress. This is more typically associated with feelings of anxiousness, pessimism and lack of control; which have real implications for performance and well-being.
More bad news about busy:
It is an unfortunate reality that you just can’t multi-task – not on complex tasks, anyway. At best, you are good at attention switching but that has high costs. Every time you switch, your brain spends time and resources to ‘ramp up’ its attention on the new item. Some studies estimate that it takes over 15 seconds to fully return to your prior level of thinking following a distraction.
How many times do you switch attention? Do the math's …
The energy expended in ramping up is largely wasted effort, in output terms. The second cost results from the actual quality of thinking you are able to perform. If you believe that there are numerous, competing priorities or are expecting random distractions (like email, tweets or phone calls) you will be more likely to feel under pressure and default to reflex or habit for faster solutions. Check out Daniel Kahneman’s book: Thinking Fast and Slow, to better understand this.
In a previous article I discussed how these strengths are fine for simple or routine tasks but that they do not support the more valuable creative or innovative thinking often required. In fact, there are now studies emerging that show reliance upon your known strengths can drive you into what Stanford Professor Carol Dweck calls a 'fixed mindset'. Her 2006 book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success relies upon decades of research to demonstrate the stark differences between fixed and growth mindsets.
Of course, various circumstances will create situations where you will have to be busy. These occasions need to be recognised, managed, executed, celebrated and followed by appropriate recovery. In an ideal world, there would also be some review to understand how to avoid getting into the same position again. It can’t be ignored and it can’t become the norm. I will expand upon these in subsequent posts, as they are all important contributors to workplace culture, engagement and well-being.
I help businesses to see that ‘busy’ is not a ‘badge of honour’ … it is a ball and chain.
In Part 2, I will present the most useful tips I have seen to help busy people.
In his popular and impactful TEDx talk “Leading with Lollipops”, Drew Dudley proposes that people have made the concept of Leadership about something “beyond us” and that to be comfortable with the title almost implies arrogance.
The continued showcasing of one-in-a-million leadership examples only fuels this situation, ensuring that the mystery of “leadership” lures theorists to try to explain one-off situations that seemed to demonstrate great leadership - in many cases, relying on a scant understanding of the true context.
Another unfortunate result is the tendency for people to believe that leadership is associated with seniority. We have lost sight of the fact that ANYONE can have leadership impact. Whether it is by demonstrating a great work ethic, their morals, supporting those around them, striving for continuous improvement, or countless other ways, individuals can positively influence others around them toward a better outcome … and isn’t that leadership?
All that changes with seniority is the EXPECTATION that you will ‘lead’ … not the exclusive right to.
In all of this, ‘managing’ seems to be far easier to define, less mysterious and therefore less attractive. This is a great loss, in my opinion.
Around 25 years ago Peter Farey, then working on management improvement at British Airways, proposed an interesting model. His research included reviewing the classic leadership texts of the previous five decades and resulted in “Mapping the Leader/Manager”, which was published in 1993. It presents a 20 ‘cluster’ model arranged around two axes (Manager/Leader vs. Task/People).
There are several aspects of his model that stand out to me: Firstly, it acknowledges a very key point – that there are situations were transaction may the priority – just deliver the plan; stabilize and execute; and conversely, situations requiring transformation – change.
The driver of the need for transformation or transaction is context.
Secondly, he proposes that the clusters are additive, not mutually exclusive. You need your people to be able to recognise and respond to the current circumstances, effectively.
Finally, he describes the overall impact represented by each quadrant when that behaviour is effective, underdone and overdone. This aspect alone adds much to its clarity.
If you read the 20 clusters you find that they ‘fit’ the proposed structure but also, that they are all valuable behaviours. They all support organisation effectiveness.
I think his model is a far healthier approach than the ‘Holy Grail’ status that "leadership" has attained. In my eyes, perspective and behavioural flexibility should be the focus.