Why Are We Still Investing In Engagement & Self-Actualization At Work?

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For over two decades, since the concept came into awareness, many managers have been working to improve employee engagement. Historically, though, you can trace the roots engagement back to the work of Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. When Maslow’s general theory of motivation was translated into the world of management, self-actualization became the goal for all employees — an idea that many authors (e.g. here) have since related to employee engagement.

Since Maslow entered management, managers have pushed for engagement, finding fulfillment, or simply “doing what you love” on the job. But, this is a narrow interpretation of an already pretty narrow view of human motivation.

A quick look at global employee engagement suggests that the way we’ve been pursuing self-actualizing work is likely misguided. Despite massive investments over the past two decades, we’ve seen little change in global employee engagement. In fact, a recent report from Gallup celebrates a 1% increase actively engaged members of the workforce with no change in the percent who are actively disengaged — and says nothing about the consistent majority of workers who are neither actively engaged or disengaged.

All of the effort and investment in driving engagement and self-actualization typically ignores what we really know about motivation. Motivation at work, and beyond, is deeply individual. We know that work motivation isn’t simply a linear progression toward self-actualization, engagement, or happiness. What then should a well-intentioned manager who’s been overdosed with Maslow do to help improve employee experience and performance?

I think there are really just two simple truths that leaders must embrace to build the employee-centered workplaces their employees are looking for — the type of workplace where employees are able to maximize the value they create for the organization and achieve their individual goals.

Here’s my short list of what managers must do to build a more human workplace:

  1. Truly get to know your people. There is no substitute for an authentic relationship if you want to understand why your employees work and what motivates them to perform. It is only by understanding the deeply personal values of those we work with, through a lens of diversity and appreciation of the individual, that managers can tap into the contributions each individual wants to make to the success of the organization. I recognize that this can be tough for those who, like me, are introverts (sometimes tending toward misanthropic, if I’m 100% honest). But, it’s necessary. While generalizable guidance from studies can provide insight for managing “people”, managing “your people” requires you to understand their individual values and desires. So, make time to engage with them, ask questions, and listen to identify what really motivates them. Understand where work fits with their passions and values and how to best align with those to incentivize performance that benefits all stakeholders.
  2. Embrace the fact that not everyone will find ultimate purpose in their job. One of the reasons that Gallups data on engagement persistently shows a majority of folks who are neither actively engaged nor actively disengaged with their work, I believe, is that many employees work jobs that enable them to do the other things in their life that give them meaning and purpose. Leaders in organizations should acknowledge that many, perhaps most, of their employees come to work to do a good job and have a meaningful impact on the mission of the organization, but the job itself is not what will lead them to self-actualization. The idea of working “just for the paycheck” seems to have gotten a bad rap in the world of work these days. But, it is the reality for many people – and we shouldn’t assume that just because they don’t seek ultimate purpose in their work that they are underachieving. Leaders need to learn to embrace the idea that their employees come to work for a variety of different reasons. And as long as they are creating value for the organization in alignment with what they are being paid, then that should be okay. Workplaces will be much healthier and honest when we stop expecting everyone to find passion in their daily vocation and instead are open to individual variations in “why” people come to work.

As a manager, focus on creating an environment where values-aligned performance is the priority, and where engagement, self-actualization, and fulfillment are ideals everyone is free to pursue at work or beyond.

For more tips on creating employee-centered workplaces, check out, The Importance of Feeling Valued at Work. And for more on building your leadership muscle, take a look at 3 Tips for Becoming a Leadership Superhero.

This article originally appeared on GovLoop.com

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Tim Bowden
Tim Bowden, Partner at gothamCulture, is passionate about providing data-driven, individual and organizational performance improvement solutions that put people first.
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