Engagement and Mojo—Peas and Carrots

(originally Supercharging Engagement, 2018 update)


Human needs, values and motivators are common for all ages. The principles that make learning and education effective are mirrors of the principles of workplace engagement, and effective workplace leadership mirrors effective teaching methods. It’s a small stretch from there: those same factors can determine whether communities are sustainably healthy. We can leverage the similarities of these principles.

Engagement theory has been studied for decades, and the workplace impacts are well-known. Education has also dabbled in engagement. The new kid on the block is “social engagement”. As young people in school and adults at work and in the community all benefit from the same engaging attributes, it stands to reason that those attributes can be leveraged in a broad social initiative, focused single-community efforts with a shared vision of understanding and actually utilizing the known enablers of engagement. In doing so, we would enable a more highly engaged population, and build a better world.  

We know what motivates people to be more engaged. We know why engagement works and we know what is disengaging. We’ve repeatedly measured actions and correlated highly desirable outcomes to those actions. We know how and how much engagement levels affect performance. We know the top influencer: values-driven, purposeful people are highly effective in every aspect of their lives. They are less stressed and live longer, are more productive in school and at work, are highly involved contributors in their community, are better family members….more successful all around.

With such a huge upside it should be easy to gain broad understanding and buy-in. But the engagement industry is over-saturated and highly competitive, with countless vendors hawking their wares. The whole subject is artificially confusing and suffers from low credibility as a result.

Various models may be patent or trademark-protected, but engagement theory itself is not. Unique market-driven differences in content, approaches and terminologies may have some kind of protection. But strip off the fancy marketing-concocted window-dressings and they’re all pretty much the same (see “Universal Engagers” later). It should be a whole lot easier than the experts like to let on. Give ‘em a break, it’s how they make their living.

Those who have bought in are rewarded with impressive results. The “secrets” are right in front of us and they’re mostly free. Still, even though we know engagement’s potential we’ve only been dabbling. Either not enough of the right people get it, or if they do get it they choose not to do the right thing by people, especially when it comes to chasing the greater value beyond workplace engagement. With scattered exceptions, it’s just untapped potential–social vitality, personal satisfaction, and broad economic results must be too big for normal people to grasp.

“Home is home, work is work, life is life.” Wrong. Society, work, home–each impacts the others.

More than ‘Employee Engagement’

Engagement research and volumes of literature focus on employee engagement in the workplace. It’s all business, after all: driven by the promise of greater productivity and profit, we’ve ignored the greater good, the huge potential beyond the workplace. What would be the impact of a coordinated effort to grow engagement in education, community, families? Maybe we first need a more inclusive definition of engagement to help expand our focus:

People are “engaged” when they are fully connected and committed to a course of action, whatever the endeavor and they are willing and able to put extra effort into a task or activity and doing it well, whatever the task. Outcomes: higher performance and goal attainment, greater individual satisfaction and well-being. These outcomes all get a boost from higher levels of engagement whether school, workplace, family, or community.

Engagement is more than keeping employees happy to boost productivity and make money. While it delivers those goods the broader potential is that employee engagement directly impacts the emotional and economic well-being of the entire community. Championing community engagement is corporate social responsibility on steroids and it’s smart business too: an engagement-aware company boosts the well-being of employees, and the surrounding community…the company’s talent pool, present and long-term.

Employee disengagement is easy to measure. Lost productivity, attrition and health issues have a clear dollar impact. But there are also economic factors in education/student and community/ citizen disengagement. We just haven’t devoted a lot of energy to measuring them, to better understand the hard dollar cost of these symptoms:

  • 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 could accurately measure then understand it.
  • Disengaged citizens don’t bother getting informed or being involved. What’s the point? Many who do vote don’t have sufficient information to make good decisions. Terminal community decay is a frightening, tightening downward spiral: 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.

Universal Engagers

Engagement-enabling attributes affect students, family members, employees, citizens. Impact the level of engagement in one group, the others are also impacted.

It’s time to really annoy those who make their living from the engagement industry…

Engagement models share several attributes that support high engagement. I’ve identified a pretty good handful for starters. As you review these, consider the impact on students, families, workers, citizens and communities. What would happen if all community stakeholders adopted these as shared principles that guide relationships, everyday actions and long-term goals and decisions? Feel free to add to the list, but non value-adding window dressings don’t count!

  1. Values. My values help focus my Purpose. Without values, Purpose exists in a vacuum, it is directionless, meaningless. We’re drawn to environments where we feel comfortable, and we’re more at ease when our values are aligned with the surrounding environment and others around us. We’re uncomfortable when our values are stifled or they conflict with reality—we need a good fit. Values may be subconscious: even if we’re not aware of them, in a mismatch we still know something’s not right, and we know we don’t like it. We just don’t know what’s wrong or why we feel bad.
  2. Vision. Moses didn’t say “let’s go wander in the desert for a few decades and see where we end up”. They set out for the Promised Land (vision) to escape Pharaoh’s cruel rule (purpose). Connecting to vision can be as simple as providing meaningful “why” behind the “what”, which establishes line of sight from everyday tasks to compelling group goals. Eye on the Prize!
  3. Purpose. We all want and need to make our mark. We need something that makes us want to get up in the morning, something to look forward to besides going to a good movie. What am I involved in that matters long-term? How can I make a difference in the grand scheme of things? My personal purpose: make an impact, leave a legacy.
  4. Community, Belonging.  Humans have been social creatures 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—at school, work, socially, in the community. (side note: our isolated modern lifestyle can be incredibly emotionally destructive);
  5. Caring and Trust.  No matter how old the kid we all need nurturing. We’re human—we need someone to truly care about us. Not about what we do or how much we do or how well we do it…but someone who actually cares about US and isn’t afraid to show it.
  6. Opportunity to Shine: when people do what they do best and truly enjoy doing, they produce exceptional results. Positive psychology, Mihaly’s flow, Iowa common sense too …contented cows do give more milk. Emotional and physical well-being skyrocket with achievement, leading to even more impressive performance—a reinforcing loop.
  7. Opportunity to Grow: the Army has it right. Deep down, we all want to be all that we can be. We have core strengths (#6) 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, meaning and purpose also help us grow. Think Maslow and “actualization”…the pinnacle of the pyramid.
  8. Expectations and Feedback. We are driven to make a meaningful contribution, and we’re more willing and able to deliver if we have a roadmap from today to tomorrow. Along the way we need to know we’re doing the right things and how we’re doing. The ideal is a destination (goal) that is compelling, where the route and the tasks (strategy, action plans) are driven by a vision (2); and are purposeful (3).

These eight attributes may build on each other, so this is a logical order. But order isn’t carved in stone—all eight are interconnected. It just makes sense and it may be most effective when Values drive Vision and Purpose. Being true to your values also ensures a greater level of personal alignment and satisfaction, less stress and better health…all of which enables better performance and results (think “loop”). So, values identification should be the first priority.

Community vision and individuals’ values-driven purpose must be aligned. They cannot safely stay in conflict long. Alignment begets synergy: one strengthens the other, a reinforcing loop.

Rubber Hits the Road (first working draft)

  • One community, one shared vision. Private sector is critical, identify one champion organization. First step: connect with the right private sector leader(s). Ideal: a collaborative effort by a coalition;
  • Cross section of community leaders from all sectors meets to review purpose, general premise, potential. Outcome, if a “go” decision is a statement of support to announce the initiative;
  • Press / media campaign to generate advance awareness and interest. Community group meeting blitz, article series, direct distribution of support information;
  • Large session (open?) for sector leaders and members:
    • Initiative overview: what and why, main steps;
    • Learn about the Universal Engagers and their potential for the community’s well-being: current social state / desired future. Overview of the reinforcing loop model;
    • Sector-specific breakouts: “how can we leverage each of the Universal Engagers in our sector?”
    • Report highlights to the large group, identify similarities / synergies;
    • Adopt all-community Purpose and Goals, and specific sector Action Plans;
    • Identify champions and agree on next steps.


NOTE: this initiative is ideal for foundation or other grant support, and for socially conscious individual philanthropists. It is completely reproducible and marketable, especially after just one far-seeing community knocks it out of the park. We’re all in this together.

Closing Thoughts (followed by specific findings on engagement, workplace and education)

I’m a private sector/education hybrid. I’ve been involved in (a) social-emotional learning in education and (b) leader development and engagement in the workplace. The lightning bolt finally hit. They’re the same thing!

Emotional intelligence, leadership, character development, social-emotional learning, employee engagement… take away the vendor-concocted “differences”. Distill them down and they’re the same basic human needs. And they’re all represented by the universal engagers.

The engagers share deep roots. We learn the same things the same way through childhood socialization 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’ve forgotten what it means to be human. When norms and values get lost in the shuffle, problems crop up—unethical/illegal behavior, rudeness and other variations of treating each other like crap, and myriad significant social issues. We’re trying to survive those problems now.

I haven’t seen it put in these specific terms yet but with the huge body of research out there, you can logically connect the dots to support these statements:

  • Young people have the same basic needs adults do. Kids respond the same way to the same stimuli, because it’s 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 pursue an engaging work environment. A highly engaged employee is likely to have a healthier family and social relationships, likely to be a valued community member;
  • Highly engaged parents are likely to raise highly engaged kids;
  • Because engagement is contagious we can supercharge our efforts and realize even greater results by focusing on all sectors, all stakeholders in a systemic initiative.

What if ownership of values, goals and action plans was shared among educators, private sector, community, and individuals of all ages? Synergy, reciprocating efforts and effects, that’s what. The broader the focus, the greater the impact. 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



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