As it is fairly well-established in the private sector, “engagement” is a central concept to leverage in any social improvement initiative. Young people, adults and community members all benefit from the same engaging attributes. Developing a cohesive community strategy to leverage the known enablers of engagement will build a more highly engaged population overall.
There is no trademark on engagement theory, just marketing-driven differences in specific models, approaches and terminologies. While the ideal is to gain the support of engagement industry experts, the industry is highly competitive = herding cats.
Purpose and values-driven people are highly effective in every aspect of their lives. They are less stressed, live longer, are more productive in school and at work, are high contributors in their community, are better family members….more successful all the way around.
We know why engagement works; we know what motivates people to be more engaged and we know what is disengaging. We’ve repeatedly measured the results and impact. We know how engagement directly affects performance and even by how much.
We know there’s potential in engagement. Still, with only a few scattered exceptions it’s untapped potential. We just don’t get it. Or if we do get it we don’t do it, especially when it comes to the greater potential beyond engagement in the workplace.
More than ‘Employee Engagement’
Engagement studies and related literature are almost exclusively focused on engagement of employees in the workplace. We’ve sub-optimized the greater potential of engagement.
Consider the impact of a conscious, coordinated effort to also grow engagement in education, families, the community. There’s a larger perspective beyond the workplace, and engagement needs a larger definition:
People are engaged when they are fully connected and committed to a course of action, whatever the endeavor. They are willing and able to put extra effort into getting the job done and doing it well, whatever the task. Outcomes: higher performance, goal attainment, greater individual satisfaction and well-being. All get a boost from high engagement whether school, workplace, family, community.
Engagement isn’t just organizations keeping people happy to boost productivity. Sure, it will deliver those goods. But the potential in broader applications is huge: employee engagement directly impacts the emotional and economic well-being of the community. Championing community engagement is corporate social responsibility on steroids. It’s sound business too: an engagement-conscious company boosts the well-being of its employees, and the entire community…which is also the company’s talent pool, present and long-term.
Employee disengagement is easy to measure, as the impact on lost productivity and employee attrition have a clear dollar impact. But there’s also economic impact in education / student or community / citizen disengagement. We just haven’t devoted as much energy to studying it.
- Disengaged students don’t care about their education. They see little promise for the future, have very little hope of becoming anything but a bad statistic. They tune out and under-perform. Worse, they drop out. Worst: suicide. The social and economic cost of student disengagement would be huge and the tragedy of wasted human potential would be sobering and compelling if we thoroughly assessed it.
- Disengaged citizens don’t get informed or involved. What’s the point? Many who do vote don’t have the information they need to make good decisions. People don’t care about the community and it goes to hell physically. Civil and legal problems spin out-of-control, along with increasingly significant social issues. People can’t get the heck out of Dodge fast enough if they can escape at all. A tightening downward spiral.
Engagement-enabling attributes affect students, family members, employees and citizens equally. And when you impact the level of engagement in one demographic, impact the others.
Further, major engagement models share several attributes needed to support high engagement. As you review these, consider the implications for students, families, workers, citizens, communities.
- Relationships Built on Caring and Trust. We all need nurturing no matter our age. We’re human—we thrive when someone truly cares about us. Not about what we do or how much we do or how well we do it…but when someone actually cares about US.
- Clear Expectations and Feedback. People are driven to make a meaningful contribution. We’re more willing and able to perform if there’s a roadmap that shows how to get from here to there. We need to know we’re doing the right things and how we’re doing along the way. It’s even better if the destination is compelling, if the route and the tasks are connected to a vision (4); and are purposeful (5);
- Sense of Community. Humans have been social creatures throughout history, since first banding together in tribes for safety and companionship. But it’s more than strength in numbers. We have a basic human need to be part of a group;
- Connected to Vision. Moses didn’t say “let’s go wander aimlessly in the desert for a few decades”. They set out for the Promised Land to escape the cruelty of Pharaoh’s rule. Connecting to vision is as simple as providing the “why” behind the “what”, providing a line of sight from everyday tasks to the (hopefully) compelling goals of the group.
- Sense of Purpose: what makes me want to get up in the morning; what I am involved in that matters long-term; how can I personally make a difference in the grand scheme of things? We all want and need to make our mark, to leave a legacy;
- Values-centered: My values determine my Purpose. Without values, Purpose is directionless and meaningless. We’re drawn to environments where we feel most comfortable. We’re more at ease when our values are aligned with the environment and we’re uncomfortable when our values are stifled or contradicted. Even if we’re not aware of our values, we still know something’s not right and we don’t like it. We just don’t know what’s wrong or why we feel bad.
- Opportunity to Shine: when people do what they do best and truly enjoy doing, they produce exceptional results. Well-being skyrockets from accomplishment, leading to even more impressive performance. It’s a reinforcing loop and common sense too…. contented cows give more milk.
- Opportunity to Grow: the Army has it right. Deep down, we all want to be all that we can be. We have strengths (#7) but that’s not enough for most of us. We want to be more, we want to do more. It’s not just doing more stuff, level of purpose must also elevate for us to grow. Think Maslow and the “actualization” pinnacle of the pyramid.
Purists may disagree, but by my book Maslow’s hierarchy is not a progression of needs that must be met in order. If I have a firm grip on what I need for Actualization, it would certainly change the parameters of my survival-level needs. Therefore, exploring Vision and Purpose should be the highest priority.
Vision and Purpose—Subtle Difference
Vision drives community. In the grand scheme of things, what is the reason for the group’s existence? Why are we here? Where do we go from here? Why should we care about being part of this group? Why should others care that we even exist?
Purpose is personal values-driven: where do I go from here? What do I see for my future, what are my goals, why are they important to me, why should I care? “Whys” are rooted in my personal values and “whats” are impacted by my strengths, the things I enjoy.
Community vision and individuals’ values-driven purpose must be somewhat in alignment. They definitely cannot be in conflict. Alignment begets synergy: one strengthens the other.
“Engage” Is a Specific Execution Tactic, Not a Strategy. “Increasing Engagement” is an outcome, not a directly actionable goal. And you cannot boost engagement via edict or policy; you can only plan and engineer an environment that encourages and enables people to fully engage. Increased engagement is the result of doing the right things, and attributes 1-8 are a great start.
The Universal Engagers are easily translated into specific to-do’s. Expectations and action items tend to be readily embraced, as the engagers appeal to core human needs and values.
Google McKinsey’s 7-S. Sustainability skyrockets when a strategy is comprehensive (covers all bases), systemic (connected to and supporting other actions) and shared. Expectations must be attainable (realistic) and supported by leadership, structure, work systems, and appropriate knowledge and skills provided to do-ers. Relevant goals and action plans are ideally followed up on with regular status reports.
There’s no need to even use the “e” word or try to explain the theories and concepts. You’ll lose people. Just focus on the attributes that support engagement, then standardize doing the right things.
Closing Thoughts on Engagement
I’m a private sector/education hybrid. I’ve been involved in social-emotional learning in education and leader development and engagement in the workplace. Couldn’t dodge the lightning bolt forever-it finally hit. It’s all the same thing!
Emotional intelligence, leadership, character development, social-emotional learning, employee engagement and all the consultant-concocted “differences”… take away the labels, distill them down to the basics. They’re the same. And they’re all enablers of engagement.
These enablers share deep roots: basic human nature, universal human values. We all learn the same things the same way through childhood socialization that is reinforced throughout our lives. But we’re being drawn toward recklessly pursuing more and more “things” and juggling the demands of an endless list of urgent to-do’s. We easily forget what it means to be human. When social norms break down problems crop up—unethical and / or illegal behavior, rudeness other variations of treating each other like crap, and a myriad list of significant social issues.
What if stewardship of values, goals and action plans was shared among education, private sector, community, individuals? Synergy, reciprocation, constant reinforcement that’s what. The broader the sharing, the greater the impact. We’re all in this together!
Abundant research supports these points:
- Young people have the same basic human needs as adults. Kids respond the same way to the same stimuli because it’s fundamental human nature;
- The state of mind called “engaged” is the same in education, the workplace, society;
- Engagement has a high probability of carry-over. A highly engaged student is likely to look for and thrive in an engaging work environment. A highly engaged employee is likely to have a healthier family and more meaningful social relationships, likely to be a valued community member;
- Highly engaged parents are likely to raise highly engaged kids, and highly engaged kids can help pull their parents toward the mountain top too;
- Engagement is contagious. So we can supercharge our efforts and have even greater impact by focusing on all sectors, all stakeholders, in a systemic initiative.
It’s more than “employee” engagement. We’re all in this together.
For supporting data, see The Business Case for Engagement and Social-Emotional Learning