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How Do You Engage?

By Nilesh Bhagat, CHRP

In a recent article, Ian Cook, BC HRMA’s director of research and learning, cautioned against the popularized concept of engagement, as it relates to organizational performance (PeopleTalk, Spring 2011, p. 44). Engagement is difficult to define, measure, and understand. Does engagement create performance, or does performance create engagement? All too often it’s thought to cause success and it’s becoming clearer that this is a mistaken understanding.

What if we didn’t measure engagement as an outcome of success, but instead built it into the very core of the way we do work? Is it possible to create engagement, from an organizational core? I think so.

Engagement comes from connectedness, which is best met through our fundamental need to belong socially. That is, being accepted by others and working collectively towards a common purpose has a magnetic effect on all at stake. Once people feel like they belong to something bigger than themselves and share this sense of commonality, there is a drive to sustain this type of momentum (for an example, look no further than Vancouver’s favorite hockey team this year). This need is an integral part of Maslow’s hierarchy, which says we strive toward the utopian state of self-actualization. Connectedness and social belonging fulfill our desires to maintain our sense of self; this selfish need paradoxically achieved through social connection. Howard Bloom, in Global Brain, says we are fundamentally wired to connect and belong. So does, David Brooks, who goes onto describe three key properties that give evidence to our social nature. Koch and Lockwood, of Superconnect fame, write that our every opportunity is found through the (weak) social connections we develop, leading to our states of self definition.

It’s feasible to argue that true engagement comes from our fundamental need to belong to groups – to something larger than ourselves – in order to fulfill our never-ending thirst for self-definition. 

In the case of HR practice, this means that engagement is cultivated through understanding how an organization helps its inhabitants to define themselves. At its core, this is done by considering the fundamental driver of belonging: the company culture. This means creating a culture of connectivity. For example, creating work groups where people have like interests (perhaps using age as the common factor); or implementing systems of communication, with incentives for use (like internal wikis, blogs and IM features).

This is how I’d go about creating engagement. How would you do it?

Nilesh Bhagat, CHRP, is the membership and CHRP administrator at BC HRMA. After several grueling years in school, Nilesh graduated in October 2010 from Simon Fraser University with a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration, First Class Honors. He majored in Human Resources Management and tacked on an extended minor in Psychology. He’s a self-confessed nerd (the first step is admitting), likes to read, loves hockey and is struggling with the complexities of learning the game of golf.

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Comments (5)

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  1. Mike says:

    Very interesting, Nilesh. This “chicken and egg” challenge shows up in my college classroom, too. Students that are engaged in the discussion generally do better on the graded work. At fist blush, it appears that engagement leads to (creates) performance. But after speaking with other professors where the same student is much more reserved in their class, but still high performing, it seems that the high performance tends to lead to (create) engagement. The student came into my class as a high performer and found the topic or the environment more suitable for them to engage.

  2. Nilesh says:

    Thanks, Mike!

    I can say from my experience in school that I was driven by the same dynamic (though the result wasn’t so much ‘high’ performance, as it was just ‘performance’…). I’d be engaged with a topic or course through personal interest; which would lead to positive performance in that course; which would reinforce my engagement in other courses because I’d use the momentum from outside success to drive my performance in these other classes.

    Further anectodal evidence that it’s not necessarily performance which drives engagement, or vice versa. In my case, it was perhaps a third variable altogether (a previous interest which ignited a sense of engagement).

    • Mike says:

      Exactly. When I was taking my stats class, I had some problems with a few things (don’t many of us?). The teacher took the problem and asked me to consider it in the context of baseball (which I love). Suddenly it seemed interesting to figure out a player’s probablity of hitting a homerun given the constraints of the exercise. He moved the abstract problem that I had to solve…to a practical problem that I wanted to solve. I became engaged in the process.

  3. mel says:

    Interesting topic. Perhaps Nilesh’s example of personal interest outside the class and Mike’s baseball context are rooted in a passion for that specific area.

    A couple of years ago, a speaker at a marketing seminar talked to me about some research finding that some people have gone on to success despite not having a formal educational background in the area they are successful in.

    You know, every once in a while you hear stories of self-taught professionals who have risen to greatness because of a strong passion (engagement) for their craft.

    • Nilesh says:

      Agreed. I’m a firm beleiver – like many – that intrinsic rewards (things that make you feel good that are non-tangible; i.e., passion, personal interest) are much better at motivating and creating engagement than extrinsic rewards (money, physical rewards).

      We’ve studied in school the three types of commitment that are experienced in an organization: affective, normative and continuance. The first two are created through instrinsic rewards systems and I beleive lead to this thing we call ‘engagement’; the last one is the worst kind of commitment and creates engagement based on tangible rewards (for example, leading to the justification, “I’m here because of the money”).

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