Category Archives: Engagement et al

We’re All On (or off!) the Same Bus (updated 8-11)

Experience and environment shapes our attitudes, beliefs and knowledge base. So I need to share a wee bit about my background as it has everything to do with the following.

     I’m a private sector / education hybrid, and I’ve been in diverse roles in both worlds. “People and process improvement practitioner” is a fitting byline. While I love playing around with cool theories, I’m proud that I’ve earned that last “p” in the eyes of my peers. And I’ve had a blast on this journey of many winding paths that have somehow merged into one big superhighway.

    I died and went to heaven when Senge came out with the Fifth Discipline, especially Vol. II, the Fieldbook for practitioners. It expanded my world view as well as my personal purpose and goals. It’s been one gigantic “AHA” moment that I’ve tried to break down into digestible chunks here.      

     The AHA’s that follow are universally relevant Indisputable Truths. At least I think so.

     After I finished writing this, another “AHA” came along…I make a big deal out of personal values—each of our non-negotiable beliefs. These AHA’s should be an important part of my personal beliefs system. Going back through them, that’s a correct assessment.

    Learning new stuff is one of my long-time core values. I hope it’s not a personality disorder, but I am into a whole lot of different things. Thankfully, by finally understanding the systems view they are all part of one big story.  I’ve been writing lately about education and social improvement, but the essays still have manufacturing roots. Sometimes I’ll call out those connections, but other times they must be discovered by you. But they’re there. Best practices come from unlikely sources. Benchmark everything and shamelessly steal what you can put to good use (another Universal Truth?)

Are You On the Bus, or Off the Bus?

On the Bus2

This “on the bus” thing is not in the same context as Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and their infamous adventures on Further the Magic Bus. Our bus has left the bus stop and those who are on board are having a ball. Others were just a little late, they’re running behind the bus trying desperately to catch the driver’s attention but to no avail. Still others are sitting patiently on the bus stop bench, waiting for another bus that may or may not come. A few folks are clueless there’s even a bus, they’re nose-down searching for Pokemon. Right off the cliff….

A Few of My Indisputable Truths—What Are Yours?

What’s the priority order? Not sure, because they’re part of one big system. Each impacts the others and point of entry is beside the point. Dig into the relationships and feel free to make up your own connections and add your own Indisputable Truths—that’s half the fun.

Profound Knowledge and Systems Thinking.  From the Deming Institute: Dr. Deming ….defined a system as a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system. The aim for any system should be that everybody gains, not one part of the system at the expense of any other. In a business context this includes shareholders, customers, suppliers, employees, the community and the environment. (Google “Deming Institute profound knowledge” for the Tolstoy version)

I was already a long-time Deming fan, but his System of Profound Knowledge struck a nerve with me.  Then Peter Senge really got me going with his popularization of systems thinking in the Fifth Discipline. What really hooked me was that all that was so contrary to operations managers’ obsession over production-first starting with Taylor’s scientific management, which broke down a process into the most basic repetitive, mind-numbing tasks possible, all in the interest of high volume mass production.

The reinforcing loop diagram below is one example of a system where everything is connected, and all the seemingly isolated components impact one another. We must better understand the interrelationships and the nature of often-hidden impacts if we are to truly resolve our issues.

Process is Process– they all run (or don’t run) by the same basic rules and constraints. My output is someone’s input–my customer. Customer expectations rule. Customers reward suppliers that meet their needs and expectations, and punish those that do not. Basic market-driven economics.

Continuous Improvement is not an option. If you don’t continuously get better customers…and life…pass you by and doesn’t look back. No growth leads to stagnation > atrophy > death. This applies to work processes, meeting expectations, personal growth and lifelong learning.

To Understand It Break It Down, Put It Back Together. Soldiers’ lives depend on knowing their weapon. They learn very early to break it down and put it back together to understand each little component in the context of the entire weapon, and understand the larger, interrelated system. But that’s too much work, right? You have more important stuff to do, right?

If you don’t reach that deep level of understanding, you’ll be continuously putting out the same fires. You may think they’re out, but the embers will smolder and eventually burst back into flames.

Address Root Cause. My favorite “duh” expression: “I know how to fix this. I’ve dealt with it bunches of times before.” Really? You evidently haven’t really accomplished much, have you?

People are People. Young and old, we’re driven by the same basic needs and hold the same human values…at least we all start out at the same place until our unique environments start messing with our humanity. It stands to reason that since we’re all driven by the same things….

“People are People” Applies Globally. No religion, race, ethnicity or nationality is different enough that it’s worth shunning, hurting or killing each other. One race: Humanity. One citizenship: Planet Earth.

Engagement is Engagement. Engagement addresses human needs and appeals to basic human values, with a tweak: what engages me is driven by those values that are most important to me and by my purpose in life, whether I’m aware of them or they’re lurking in the shadows. So engagement works for those who have not been totally led astray from the basic needs and values package. Here’s the payback:  emotional well-being -> reduced stress levels -> physical well-being -> a healthier, longer, more satisfying life. Solid enough WIIFM for you?

Have you taken the time and effort to identify and really understand your personal values? Do you have a clear purpose in life? What you don’t know can kill you before your time is up.

Engagement Theory is Universally Relevant. Why do we suboptimize its potential by limiting engagement to the workplace? Except for a few minor cultural differences, Rules of Engagement cross all geographic and demographic boundaries. See Time to Re-think Engagement especially the Universal Attributes section.

People Before Process. Well-adjusted, satisfied people perform better–young learners, adults, citizens. Ignore personal needs and you’ll never realize the highest possible achievement levels or resolve process issues and achieve those precious desired results. Not long-term. Well-adjusted young people and parents have stronger family relationships.

Well-adjusted students achieve higher academic goals. Well-adjusted workers give their employers maximum effort and deliver maximum results. Well-adjusted citizens freely give their all to community betterment.

Still, we’re obsessed with demanding that people do their stuff as efficiently as possible with little concern for the human issues. We’re really missing the boat on this one….

I Determine Social Norms, Shape Culture. Our individual values and beliefs systems are shaped by our environment and experiences. And social norms emerge from the collective of individual beliefs systems and individual values when they are shared by enough people. Notice the loop?

This means norms can be intentionally shaped, if a large enough group of individuals has common values and beliefs taught to them and continuously reinforced. Manipulative? Yes, if the wrong norms are promoted for the wrong reasons. Safeguard: people will resist a mismatch!

Current State: politely, our social norms, collective values and beliefs are anemic. We’ve had a systemic diluting of the influence held by the institutions that once drove norms: education, religion, family. Without some kind of central direction there is moral chaos and anarchy, with the strongest-willed person or power cartel taking control. We’re there right now.

Bullying is Bullying whether kids or adults, power corporations and governments. Grabbing all the power they can, picking on other allegedly weaker or inferior players…bullying is a finely honed weapon, a slimy art form, a highly destructive force. We will never effectively address bullying at any level until we attack the anemic norms and non-values that make it “OK” to bully.

Stewardship is Serious Business. “As a human being I acknowledge that my well-being depends on others, and caring for others’ well-being is a moral responsibility I take seriously.” If the Dalai Llama buys it, stewardship is good enough for me….

Stewardship used to be all that, the hippest of the hip leadership trends. But it’s faded from view. Stewardship must become a shared human value, and not just a trait owned by leaders. We must all be stewards first and foremost, taking guardianship of our future seriously.

I pledge allegiance to the earth and all the life which it supports. One planet, in our care, irreplaceable With sustenance and respect for all.

Stewardship of others and stewardship of this planet that is (so far) allowing us to exist is a survival issue of the highest order. Humanity is unsustainable without stewardship NOW. If we don’t kill each other off first, Mother Earth will eventually get tired of our crap and evict us. And it won’t be homelessness but extinction. Argue the point, please. It may help me feel better about our chances if we don’t take a radical course of action. But I doubt it.

A Few To-Do’s

Based on my values, beliefs system and these indisputable truths, here are a few things I am focused on. It’s tempting to stretch for that one silver bullet that encompasses all. My one all-consuming project right now is promising in that respect. But the hugeness is daunting, so I need to break it down and put it back together again, to understand all the moving parts. Then, find the engagement levers that will recruit champions to the cause. Working on it!

  1. Educators: understand and meet the needs of customers in the marketplace. Employers, communities, students, parents: what are their expectations? Don’t treat them like they are captive consumers of your product—graduates—just because they are.
  2. Flip priority from process / doing stuff to people. Proven over and over, if you don’t tend to people issues first, you’ll never achieve maximum performance and results. It starts with kids in school, continues to the workplace and community—all ages, all stakeholders.
  3. Leverage the power of engagement systemically. Engagement boosts performance. Piecemeal efforts suboptimize engagement’s potential. Applications: young students and adult employees—and not just in school and the workplace, but social and community engagement as well. And don’t forget seniors. This is a universal, global opportunity!
  4. We need systems thinkers. Understand process–what’s upstream and downstream, not just what you do. Understand how your process interacts with others (the diagram is an example). Systems thinking makes sense even for young learners.
  5. Rediscover Our Humanity. Stewardship, acceptance and inclusion, purpose and values must be ingrained across the board. It’s not so difficult because it’s human nature, the way it’s supposed to be. We must reconnect with our selves, others, our planet.

If you’re not familiar with NCIS Agent Gibbs’ Rules, here’s Rule #1: “there’s always more rules”. And Rule #2: “every rule has exceptions.” Enough for now, except for those you add.

Here’s an example of a reinforcing loop, one of the building blocks of systems thinking.

5-5 Coalition Loop

Remove “Young” from the top box to supercharge the loop




I wish I didn’t even think about these things. It gets me nothing but a splitting headache short-term, and long-term it frustrates and terrifies me. But I’m a fairly well-informed, caring human being, not an ostrich. Really, really need some help figuring this out.

The message here is grass roots…plant seeds! Start small, network and grow. Tiny pebbles that will create ripples in the pond. All that is fine and good, but my greatest fear is that the progress that has been made will be slowly strangled by the powers that be. WE need to keep it alive. How? A little help, please?

It’s been a natural evolution: information flow via the internet; transportation; global trade and economic interdependencies; mobile populations. The world has shrunk. We cannot avoid or stop globalization. Sure, there are issues-big ones. But we can’t retreat, can’t hide from them. Yet, there’s a huge groundswell of nationalist reaction, notably Trump and Brexit. Supporters of neither appear to really understand what and who they are supporting.

Two opposing world-wide camps—for lack of better terms, global thinkers vs. nationalists. “Nationalist” doesn’t reference a country allegiance in this respect, nationalist allegiance is to power, control, $$$. “Vs” because it truly is a monumental battle. Now in power: the nationalist establishment elites. Big business and unfettered capitalism, politicians, the filthy rich. Splinter religious groups, including radical Islamist terrorists are “our way or off with their heads”. Me-first, short-term view, instant gratification, work the system for political / personal / corporate gain. No concern for people or planet, only profit and more power.

Then there are global thinkers…We the People of the Planet. Grass roots, a growing consciousness of no-borders connectedness among the masses. Sustainability of humanity, and the environment. Social AND economic well-being and prosperity for all. Long-term view.

It would be interesting-no, scary-to compare the occurrence of mental health / emotional problems, maybe even the suicide rate between….

  1. Global thinkers who can’t save the world or even impact positive change; and
  2. Nationalists who don’t have the money, bombs or other clout to get their way.

Just my opinion, the nationalist perspective will force us into a non-traditional world war three. What am I saying?! We’re already fighting WWIII….

Just one tiny piece of the puzzle was noted in a recent Forbes article Unless It Changes, Capitalism Will Starve Humanity By 2050

“Fund managers at global financial institutions own the majority (70%) of the public stock exchange. These absent owners have no stake in the communities in which the companies operate. Furthermore, management-controlled equity is concentrated in the hands of a select few: the CEO and other senior executives.”

The problem: the only focus is a relentless drive toward profit, short-term at that. If a company doesn’t “perform”…aka make insane quarterly profits…fund managers move investors’ money to another entity that doesn’t mind selling humanity down the river for Big Bucks NOW. And the CEO doesn’t get a fat bonus. No thought of sustaining the company much less humanity or the planet.

Democracies around the world are failing and the masses are beginning to notice. From an insane level of corporate media influence over current affairs to science denial and rigged political elections both driven by deep-pocket special interests….control lies with the nationalist elite power brokers. People are more aware and are flat-out fed up. Is all-out class warfare next? If so, we’re David with a slingshot going up against a regiment of Goliaths.

Yes, it’s a battle. Bitter, winner-take-all, the future of the world and humanity are on the table.

A global thinker feels a deep sense of moral responsibility. If there is a crisis in one corner of the world it must be addressed with a concerted effort from the rest of the world. We have an abundance of resources and ingenuity yet the refugee crisis, genocide, epidemics, widespread famine, climate change are allowed to go unchecked.


On a localized scale the US is (allegedly) the most prosperous, powerful, affluent country in the world. Yet poverty, hunger, medical and mental health care, homelessness are major domestic issues. Why can’t just some of our abundance of resources and ingenuity be dedicated to at least partially alleviating those problems?

Because we’re in the grips of a nationalist / me-first mindset. And that nationalist perspective is a global force. And the nationalist keeps the suffering many conveniently out of sight.

We’re not talking Robin Hood or embracing socialism or some weird spirituality. We need a shift in perspective. But unfortunately that requires a shift in power from the nationalist establishment elite to a broad base of global collaboration, cooperation and above all….consciousness. HOW can we tip the scales?

Two major areas we must exert influence over–the education and communication systems: what we learn and what is constantly reinforced. Big problem. “They” control both. “We” need to start impacting even little slivers of what we can in these two systems for starters.

  • Education reform: push for curriculum enhancements, adding coursework that builds environmental and civic savvy and global citizenship; human values-based attributes like acceptance and inclusion and other social-emotional competencies. DANGER: the establishment powers are dead-set against it, obsessing over STEM which only prepares cannon fodder for the establishment machine;
  • Challenge mainstream media disinformation with social media. Don’t discount the power of starting local, growing scope and a network of support. Awareness fed by real, credible information is an incredibly empowering thing. But again, establishment media rules supreme. So we need to dredge out alternative channels. Less reach means more “little” effort needed.

Just my thoughts on the fly. Need yours—how can WE change the world?

Plant Seeds! Grass Roots, Critical Mass

Bernie’s social revolution mobilized and somewhat organized millions of people around the world. Imagine if only some of those people were to continue following…better yet, leading… the call?

If the movement continues, what will it look like? Bigger is not necessarily better. My most active, passionate FB friend complained that it’s impossible for contributions to be recognized on Bernie’s official FB page. You need connections, need to “be somebody”. “Big” cannot survive in anarchy. Big requires some sort of structure, a hierarchy of organizers and decision-makers. Structure calls for defined roles and rules. Individuals easily get lost in the bigness,  and there is a danger of a grass roots organization becoming what it despises….the establishment.

It’s probably a bad correlation, but look at how terrorist networks are organized. Or if you prefer, consider the CIA or your favorite clandestine operation that engages in black ops stuff. Typically small cells of operatives connected by a common vision and shared values that carry out their mission independently, often even without awareness of other cells’ specifics.

The only chance we have of taking our world back is to become the irresistible force that may stand a chance going up against the immovable object. It’s a Herculean task, the Nationalist elite establishment has a tight grip and is scary bad powerful. We don’t even know the extent.

The older you get the less time you have to piss away. I’m impatient as hell, I want change yesterday. But just one perspective at a time can do wonders. I love Humans of New York. This came from one of HONY’s global excursions, to Hunza Valley, Pakistan.

Before education, we knew only how to work. It was always very quiet in our home. My grandfather was a laborer, but he paid to send my father to a tutor so that he could learn to read. He told my father that, if nothing else, he should begin by learning how to read and write his name.

When I was born, my father taught me how to read. I started with local newspapers. I learned that our village was part of a country. Then I moved on to books. And I learned that there was an entire world around this mountain. I learned about human rights. Now I’m studying political science at the local university. I want to be a teacher.

The first of many great reader comments: “Imagine what he will pass on to his own children.” Imagine, indeed.


The Business Case for Engagement and Social-Emotional Learning

(LONG! Lots of ground to cover!)

It’s usually not easy to irrefutably link soft stuff like leadership, values and engagement to the bottom line. But a significant body of research from the past 20 years establishes a clear connection between level of engagement and performance improvement, in a broad range of businesses.  And there are more and more actionable tactics validated as effective in enabling people to fully engage.

In Time to Supercharge Our Engagement Thinking  the case was made that character development and social-emotional learning can logically be considered in the same big bucket as engagement. The attributes are the same. Social-emotional factors and high-engagement enablers are equally relevant in the private sector, community, and classroom. The findings and impact data that follow are mostly from the private sector. It stands to reason that impacts should be equally impressive regardless of demographic.

The Standard

Research conducted in 1998 by the Gallup organization set out to quantify the relationship between responses to twelve statements (Q12), and productivity, profitability, and retention specifically. The sample was large: 2,500 business units, 105,000 employees. The findings: business units scoring higher on five Power Statements realized 50% higher productivity; 44% more profit; 13% higher retention

 The Power Statements:

  • I know what is expected of me at work.
  • The mission / purpose of my company make me feel my job is important.
  • I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
  • Someone at work cares about me as a person.
  • There is someone at work who encourages my development.

While Gallup’s Q12 is the recognized engagement benchmark, later studies validate those early findings:

  • The Global Workforce Study by Towers-Perrin (2007) showed that companies with high engagement levels had an Earnings Per Share growth rate of 28% opposed to low engagement companies which showed an 11.2% decline in EPS in the same period.
  • Further Gallup research found that companies with engagement scores in the top 25% had an EPS growth rate of 2.6 times greater than those companies that scored below average.
  • The Gallup Management Journal’s 2005 Q3 survey found that 23.3 million of US workers 18 and older (roughly 17%) are actively disengaged. Gallup estimated that lower productivity of these workers costs the US economy about $370bil a year.
  • BlessingWhite’s The State of Employee Engagement 2008 found that 29% of the North American workforce is fully engaged, while 19% are actively disengaged. The study also shows a strong correlation between engagement levels and retention: 85% of engaged employees indicated they planned to stick with their employer, compared to only 27% of disengaged employees.  The report for 2010 showed little change, same for 2013. Why have we hit a plateau?


How important is retention? The study by BlessingWhite noted above and others all propose that employees are more and more peeking their heads out of the foxhole they’ve been hunkered down in due to tough economic conditions over the past several years. Even high performing, highly engaged people that a company can least afford to lose are getting braver about looking around.

Will they stay or will they go? And in both cases, why? The message is clear: If you manage to land good talent, you’d better do whatever it takes to hold on to it.

Replacing an employee can cost as much as 50-60% of his annual salary, but total costs of turnover can range from 90-200%, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. This is a 2008 report; it’s safe to say the cost has gone up, along with the complexity of replacing personnel. (


Right Management, the talent and career consulting branch of employment services giant Manpower, conducted a survey the winter of 2009 to identify top actions companies were taking to help manage their workforce through the economic crisis. The top two most important leadership practices for tough times identified by senior leader respondents:

  • Engaging employees to ensure organizational alignment and commitment (51%); and
  • Clearly defining roles and expectations (21%). (one of the top levers of engagement)

Numerous later studies also validate the importance of engagement. The Right study is significant because of its origin-a top employment service. They know the business of recruiting and retention.

In 2006, 23.7% of American workers voluntarily quit their jobs. (US Bureau of Labor Statistics). Keep in mind the job market has shifted, from a decidedly employer-driven market to talent-driven.  Employers are begging for talent and there’s just not enough to go around. Retention is critical, as is recruiting. An employer with a highly engaging work environment is way ahead of their competition.

There are irrefutable numbers everywhere you look. Here’s a little more number crunching….

Revenue:  A typical company with $5 billion in revenues in an industry with average revenue growth of eight percent would see revenues increase by $400 million. A company with top quartile levels of employee engagement could expect an increase of $1 billion. And a company in the top quartile on both engagement and enablement could anticipate an increase of a full $1.8 billion.

Turnover: For an organization with 20,000 employees and an annual voluntary turnover rate of eight percent, the cost of turnover is approximately $56 million (assuming an average salary of $35,000). Reducing the voluntary turnover rate by 40 percent would yield annual savings of $22.4 million. But reductions in turnover through high levels of engagement and enablement would yield savings of over $30 million annually, a difference of more than $7.5 million.

Employee performance: For an organization producing $10 billion of product with 20 percent of employees exceeding performance expectations, increasing the percentage of high performers by 1.5 times (by transforming average performers into superior performers) would increase output by $350 million (ie, if 10 percent of population improves performance by 35 percent, overall performance improvement across entire population is 3.5 percent. (The Hay Group: Employee engagement and enablement critical.)

Engagement is good business. Since it is such a good thing, how do you “do” engagement? What things promote an environment of high engagement? What gets in the way?

It’s not possible to provide a Cliff Notes version of an answer to those questions.  But here’s couple of teasers: (1) as it is values-based engagement is highly personal. And, (2) engagement drivers are split between process / things and people / relationships. You must address the people issues before you can expect people to fully engage in fixing process issues.

 WIIFM Intangibles in the Private Sector

Forward-thinking employers who are deeply involved with and committed to their workforce’s and the community’s success will earn significant payback in return:

  • A more highly engaged workforce=bottom-line payback in every area that matters;
  • High regard among community members, impacting image and branding;
  • Employer-of-choice status: recruiting and retention are both greatly enhanced. Current employees stay, new applicants stand in line to get in;
  • Sense of community and a company culture that lasts anchored by social consciousness and a feeling of being a part of something that is truly worthwhile;
  • A well-stocked, continuously replenished talent pool—highly skilled and eager job candidates.

Barring economic meltdown or gross mismanagement, investing in people and the community is more than “corporate social responsibility” (CSR). It’s a high-powered strategy that ensures the company’s sustainability.


 Kids are People Too: Student Engagement

Gallup and America’s Promise

In 2009 Gallup and America’s Promise defined, measured and implemented a model of student engagement. “The primary application of the Gallup Student Poll is as a measure of non-cognitive metrics that predicts student success in academic and other youth development settings. Gallup’s research (identified three) key factors that drive students’ grades, achievement scores, retention, and future employment.” Follow-up studies and reports noted high-impact, specific improvement opportunities.

CASEL: Benefits of Character Development

CASEL’s meta-analysis (“study of studies”) used statistical techniques to summarize the findings of over 700 studies and found a broad range of benefits for students:

  • 9% decrease in conduct problems, such as classroom misbehavior and aggression
  • 10% decrease in emotional distress, such as anxiety and depression
  • 9% improvement in attitudes about self, others, and school
  • 23% improvement in social and emotional skills
  • 9% improvement in school and classroom behavior
  • 11 % improvement in achievement test scores

…while these SEL programs took time out of the school day, they did not detract from student academic performance. In fact, as noted above, on average, students receiving school-based SEL scored 11 percentile points higher on academic achievement tests than their peers who did not receive SEL, and they also attained higher grades. And even as grades and achievement test scores were improving, classroom behavior, feelings about self, and emotional problems were improving as well.

AJPH Report: Benefits of SE Development

The level of pro-social behaviors in kindergarten, such as cooperating with peers, being helpful to others, understanding others’ feelings, and resolving problems on their own predicted their education and job prospects, criminal activity, likelihood of substance abuse, and mental health in adulthood. Students with higher levels of P-S behaviors did better in all of those areas….they were more likely to have graduated from high school on time, to have finished college, and to have stable employment; less likely to have been in special education or repeated a grade; less likely to need public housing or receive public assistance; less likely to have been arrested or in jail; less likely to abuse alcohol or drugs; and less likely to have been on medication for mental health problems.

  • There is a strong relationship between pro-social skills and positive outcomes later in life, regardless of the student’s gender, race, or socioeconomic status, the quality of their neighborhood, their early academic skills, or several other factors.
  • The level of aggression that a student showed in kindergarten couldn’t predict whether the student would have a run-in with the law later in life—but his level of pro-social behavior could.
  • Feeling socially connected as a kid is more strongly associated with happiness in adulthood than academic achievement is;
  • Children who participate in programs designed to strengthen their social and emotional skills simply do undeniably better academically, and in life.

Reference Links


Supercharging Engagement

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.

Universal Engagers

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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);
  3. 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;
  4. 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.
  5. 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;
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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


It’s Much More Than ‘Employee’ Engagement

Engagement efforts are mostly focused on employees and the workplace. That’s where the money is. Companies get impressive bottom line improvements if they understand and use the right engagement levers to turn the key that unlocks employees’ overdrive. Consultants get rich selling their unique engagement potions to companies that get richer and want more.

Not many consultants are making their mark helping boost student engagement in schools, or helping local governments increase citizen engagement and community involvement, or helping civic groups boost their membership’s engagement. What is the dollar impact of disengagement in those areas anyway? And what’s the payback for me as a consultant? Why bother?

None of those will pay the bills, Junior. Stick with “employee engagement”.

It’s rare you see something on “engagement” without the other “e” word-“employee”. But we’ve suboptimized the benefits and potential impact of engagement by focusing so much on how only workers are engaged. People are engaged when they are fully connected and committed to an endeavor or course of action, whatever the endeavor may be. They are willing and able to put extra effort into getting the job done and doing it well, whatever the job may be. Performance, goal attainment, individual satisfaction and well-being all get a boost from higher engagement in whatever the area may be.

Engagement is a game-changer for more than just the workplace. It applies to students, citizens, family members, and social / civic groups too.

Disengaged employees piddle around, complain too much about nothing and do just what they need to, to get by….almost. They’ll leave soon as they can find a more promising place to piddle around, a workplace where they can more freely whine.

That’s a little sarcasm, of course. Some companies and their leaders go out of the way to come up with stupid ways to disengage their employees, or they just don’t care. Those companies and leaders usually get what they deserve, or don’t get all that they could from their people.

Lost productivity and attrition are the heavy hitters, easy to put a value on. So the impact of employee disengagement is easy to measure. But how do you assign dollar impact to disengagement in those other areas? Consider the following symptoms:

  • Disengaged students don’t care about their education. They tune out and under-perform. Worst case, they drop out of school. They see little promise for the future, little hope they have a chance of becoming anything but a bad statistic. The social and economic cost of student disengagement is huge, as is the tragedy and dollar amount of wasted potential.
  • When a social or civic group’s membership is disengaged, the organization may simply cease to exist or become irrelevant. Nothing of any importance happens. Membership becomes little more than a token, obligatory gesture, an excuse to get out of the house.
  • Disengaged citizens don’t bother to be informed or involved. What’s the point? Many of those 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. There is a steady rise in civil and legal problems, and an abundance of increasingly significant social issues. People can’t get the hell out of Dodge fast enough…if they can escape at all.

I’ve studied the more prevalent engagement models and identified the following attributes of an environment that supports high engagement. They are pretty much the same whether work, school, community or civic / social group. If you want more than my selection, study any engagement model. Better, look at several and find the common elements that support high engagement. These are mine.

Universal Attributes

  1. Relationships built on caring and trust: no matter our age we all need to be nurtured. Humans thrive when someone truly cares about them. Not about what they do or how much they do or how well they do it…but they actually care about US.
  2. Sense of Purpose: what makes you get up in the morning; being involved in something that matters long-term; making a difference in the grand scheme of things;
  3. Community: humans are social creatures and have been throughout history, banding together in tribes for safety and companionship. But it’s more than strength in numbers, more than birds-of-a-feather. We have a basic human need to be part of a group;
  4. Values-centered: we’re drawn to situations where our values are at least somewhat in alignment. We can experience considerable discomfort when our values are stifled or contradicted, even when we’re not aware of what our values are. We know something’s not right, we just don’t know what or why
  5. Clear Expectations and Feedback: we’re more willing to take a trip if there’s a roadmap for how to get from here to there. People are driven to make a meaningful contribution. They need to know they’re doing the right things and how they are doing real-time. Even better is if the destination is compelling, and if the route and the tasks to accomplish are…
  6. Connected to Vision: Moses didn’t just say “let’s go wander aimlessly in the desert for a few decades” even though that’s the way it turned out due to a major error in judgment. They set out for the Promised Land. Connecting to vision can be as simple as providing the “why” behind the “what” and having a line of sight from everyday tasks to the top goals of the organization.
  7. Opportunity to Shine: when people do what they do best and truly enjoy doing, they are likely to produce more exceptional results. Satisfaction and well-being skyrockets, leading to even more impressive performance. It’s a reinforcing loop and common sense too.

Most of the mainstream models concur: these are the heavy hitter levers of engagement. What do you think? Any to add?

The Acid Test: you may not have given much thought to them before but whether or not you know it those attributes affect you. As they are heavily influenced by values, relative importance varies person-to person. How important are each of the attributes to you? I put the attributes in priority order when I do my gut-check, highly recommended….

Personal Application: do a well-being check-up using the attributes when something changes in your environment or you’re bothered by something but not sure what’s wrong…or even if you are feeling especially energized. We’re prolific firefighters, we thrive on trouble-shooting problems. It can also be extremely valuable to assess the situation when things are going exceptionally well, so we know what to emulate to make more good stuff happen later.

Your Assignment: build a spreadsheet with the attributes as row titles and these four areas as column headers: Work; School; Community; Family. Describe how each of the attributes is relevant to each area, and how important each of the attributes are to each area. Last: how great is the impact of each attribute on each of the four areas?

Engagement Cross-Attributes

Closing Thoughts

There is a physical and emotional buzz that comes with being highly engaged. It is both addicting and contagious. If you’re engaged at work, it’s more likely you’ll also be a highly engaged citizen and family member. Highly engaged students not only do better in school, they are also more likely to be highly engaged employees, have a happy and successful family life and will become involved, contributing, productive community members. Highly engaged family members and model citizens are typically model employees, successful in the private sector.

If you’re surrounded by highly engaged people you’re going to catch the bug from them, and others can catch it from you. But the reverse holds true too: disengagement is highly contagious, and crossover disengagement is an extremely destructive force. Again, it’s a reinforcing loop and common sense.

You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make. (Jane Goodall)

Good for What Ails Us

Engagement theory is well-known and has been heavily researched for years. The things that enable a high-engagement environment are also well-known, and their impacts well-validated.

Focusing only on employee engagement undermines impact potential. Engagement is contagious with a probability of crossover. Engagement-minded leaders have broader influence and impact than in just their primary sphere of influence. True for private sector, education or community.

Business leaders, government officials, education professionals, community and civic leaders—all would do well to understand the power of engagement, leverage the appropriate engagement attributes within their sphere of influence, and then reach further out.

It’s much more than employee engagement. It’s for the greater good.

The “X” and I

(If engagement and values are interesting to you, the entire manifesto-length piece is available in the pdf file, The X and I which has functional links)

I’m a huge fan and avid student of engagement theory and values-based leadership. In particular I’ve leaned especially on engagement as presented by the BlessingWhite and Gallup Q-12 models, and David Zinger’s approach. There are a few recurring themes these approaches share, in particular these five attributes:

ONE: satisfaction and engagement are driven by personal core values and how fully an individual is living those values. So it is highly personal. My values did not fully come to light until the middle 1990’s. But it’s clear now these have impacted me since early grade school: creativity, growth / learning new and different things; freedom from unnecessary constraints.

TWO: engagement is more than feel-good. For engagement to be considered to be worthy by decision-makers, it has to add value to the bottom line, it can’t just be “I love my job.” BlessingWhite’s model of engagement (The State of Employee Engagement 2008 — North American Overview. See pp 3-4) defines high engagement as that rare state where maximum satisfaction and maximum contribution peacefully coexist. And there are buckets of hard data that show a clear and direct correlation between higher engagement and better results for every bottom line item that matters.

THREE: I need to fully utilize my strengths to be fully engaged. Strength is more than just “talent” or being good at something. A strength is a skill that I get satisfaction from utilizing because that talent means a good deal to me—it fits my satisfiers / core values.

FOUR: level of engagement is not a carousel it is a roller coaster. Environments, assignments, relationships all change even within the same position. Many of you have surely been to the same amusement park and on the same ride, some of you several times as I have. Are you terrified by the ride? Does it make you sick? Or do you have a ball? My roller coaster has been great fun.

FIVE: satisfaction and contribution impact each other. System thinkers call it a reinforcing loop, and it is a powerful force. A BlessingWhite article on Virtuous Circles details this relationship.

In closing: while I feel really silly quoting myself, in my last post The Natural Order of Things I proposed this:
“…organizational sustainability begins with me…Without people who are well-connected and personally aligned to their personal purpose and values, excellence and sustainability and all that other bottom line stuff is simply out of reach.

I’d appreciate your insights, please come back to share them.

The Natural Order of Things

I’ve been on a mission to develop a working understanding of the interrelationships among and the dynamics of impact and influence; values and values-based leadership; engagement, well-being and the Greater Good. In doing so, I’ve tried to stay objective, formulating a hypothesis then setting out to refute it—trying to prove my hunch wrong.

But every path I followed ended up at the same destination, the hypothesis refused to go down in flames: organizational sustainability begins with me. For a company to achieve performance excellence and sustainable maximum results, it must invest in helping people connect with what is truly important to them personally. What drives them—not at work, but what is their life’s mission? What values influence their daily actions and help them set personal priorities?
Without people who are well-connected and personally aligned to their personal purpose and values, excellence and sustainability and all that other bottom line stuff is simply out of reach.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. But I’d love to see alternative views, so what do you think? The whole thing is a bit long, here’s a link to The Natural Order–the whole enchilada.