The Four Roots of Engagement

Thinking

Haven’t we talked about employee engagement enough? Nope! Because despite the amount of time, energy and effort that organizations around the globe are investing in helping engage people in work, things aren’t improving much. Weekly pizza socials, guest speakers and telecommuting options are certainly appealing. I like pizza as much as the next guy. And, sure, a monetary bonus and summer hours will certainly put a smile on someone’s face. But here’s the issue – none of these things will motivate your people day in and day out.

These tactics don’t drive people’s discretionary efforts, passion or dedication. It takes a completely different approach to drive a culture of engagement in your organization. You just need to follow four steps that I call the Four Roots of Engagement.

#1: People Want to Be a Part of Something Bigger Than Themselves
People want to be a part of something big. Who isn’t interested in being a part of something that’s bigger than themselves? Think how concert-goers act as one, connecting with hundreds of people they’ve never met … creating a force far bigger than they could achieve by themselves.  By association, they feel they’re a piece of something more significant than they could ever be alone. When this happens, people get a feeling that they are as big as the effort is. This feeling affords a sense of substance, importance, pride and direction.

The something big that you can offer is your business. Your brand.

Your organization’s culture is key here – helping your people feel a part of the big picture – helping them understand what that big picture is for them and the business. Remember your culture isn’t defined by your pet-friendly, casual attire office rules, it represents the commonly held set of beliefs or values that people use to govern their interactions with each other. These values – that are talked about, embraced and demonstrated daily combined with a sense of purpose around the strategy – create the “something big.” Set the tone with your culture and it can help you help connect and engage with your people’s minds and hearts for the long term.

#2: People Want to Feel a Sense of Belonging
People want to feel a sense of belonging. When people are truly engaged, they believe they really belong. They have a sense of meaning or validation when they feel they “fit,” they’re accepted, they’re one of the group. With this sense of association and connection, they can go forward together because they have something in common.

On the other hand, a feeling of being on the outside, or not belonging, can disintegrate into disillusionment, then disengagement, and ultimately, destructiveness. In worst-case scenarios, people who feel like they’re not important members on the team will actually begin to silently hope for the team and business to fail – as if their sense of not belonging is made better by the team’s failure. Surprised that your own people might actually be happy when no one succeeds? Yes, people will actually root for their own team to fail. Whether you’re in the auto industry, hospitality or even on an elementary school soccer team, it’s happening everyday.


So, leaders, it’s your responsibility to build “belonging connective tissue” between the future state vision for the business and each individual’s importance in bringing it to life. Connect your people with your mission and they’ll be active participants on your path to success.

#3: People Want to Go on a Meaningful Journey

Helen Keller said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.”

Some of the most widespread and repeated stories are stories of adventure – like the classic adventures in books like Huckleberry Finn, Treasure Island and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea and movies like Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Lord of the Rings. Whether in print or on the big screen, the common elements are a call to adventure, a hazardous journey and eventual triumph. A meaningful journey has elements of extraordinary challenge, risks, excitement, suspense, unexpected events, unknown outcomes, a dare to go and a purpose that makes it all worthwhile.

In the same way, a strategy can and should be an adventure – a meaningful journey that captures a sense of purpose, of doing something together that gets us through the hazardous journey, that builds energy from formidable challenge and unites people in the pursuit of outstanding achievement.

The call to action is unmistakable. There is more drama and adventure in most companies than on the highest rated reality shows, but it’s paved over by sterilized Power Points of outcome metrics that are yawners for most people, and are silent to the formidable challenge of achieving something that matters. So while you’re not going to eliminate weekly meetings, presentations or strategy decks from your business, think about the big picture, the adventure that your business is on – and tell that story to your people too.

#4: People want to Know Their Contributions Make an Impact
All of us are faced with fears. American psychologist Harold Maslow talks about the fears that drive us to attain our basic human needs – the need for food, water and shelter for starters. Of course, the fears about financial security and employment are often at the top of the “keep-you-up-at-night list.” But all of these fears, as prominent and powerful as they are, pale in comparison to the big one. The biggest fear is we live a life of insignificance … that what we do doesn’t really matter.

Unfortunately, the complexity, fragmentation and specialization of work have separated and siloed us to the point that we can’t see how our work is impacting others. But leaders, you can change this! Simply make the time and make it part of your culture to connect your people to the impact of their work. Show them that they are a critical part of the process.

The bottom line is this: engaged people, whether they’re in a conference room, on the frontline or on the soccer field, feel that whatever they’re doing is unquestionably connected to making a difference in the lives of other people.

Leaders at all levels need to remember that people crave these four necessities:

  1. Being part of something big;
  2. Belonging;
  3. Going on a meaningful journey; and,
  4. Knowing they make a difference.

When these “roots” are present, when company culture incorporates these roots as a living, breathing part of the workplace, engagement occurs naturally – even in business.

So, leaders, what are you doing to help get your people engaged in our mission? If you were to convert your strategy into a story of adventure, how would you best share it with your people? Let me know your tactics for creating your engagement!

See Jim Haudan’s full TED talk on the Roots of Engagement.

Editor’s note: this is the first post from Jim Haudan.  We value his contribution to the history of the organizational culture field and the sharing of his insights to help others.

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For more than 20 years, Jim Haudan has been helping organizations unleash hidden potential by fully engaging their people to deliver on the strategies of the business. With his background as a coach, it’s not a stretch that the company Jim co-founded, Root Inc., focuses on tapping employees’ discretionary efforts – the kind that produces winning results. Jim believes that business results don’t come from creating a great strategy, but by meaningfully connecting it to all of the people in the company to bring it to life. The impact of Root's approach is captured in Jim’s national best-selling book, The Art of Engagement: Bridging the Gap Between People and Possibilities and in its bi-monthly newsletter The Watercooler.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • CyndyTrivella

    Fantastic post Jim. You nailed it. Culture is vital and more so, how leadership projects their “impact” on culture can make or break a successful, thriving work environment. People do want to feel productive and that their individual contributions are meaningful. It goes beyond salary. People want to know they are giving and getting the most they can in their job, with employer and the through the professional relationships they build.

  • Tim Kuppler

    Here’s a comment Edgar Schein sent me after reviewing the post:

    “The four roots of engagement are absolutely right on and they are all some degree of gravy on top of the meat. What I have observed in many situations is that most of all what people want, the meat
    of engagement, is to be acknowledged as a total person, not just a role or just an employee. The four roots do that, and even if the gravy isn’t there, the most important thing that a boss should do is to acknowledge that he or she sees the subordinate, and acknowledges his or her existence and importance.

    Some kinds of work really aren’t that exciting or meaningful or important and still need to be done. It
    is in those instances that acknowledgement becomes crucial. So lets add that as a fifth or underlying root and get to it through what I have been pushing–‘Humble Inquiry’ (2013)” Ed Schein

  • Anil Saxena

    Awesome post. People want to be part of something bigger then they are!

  • Brian Mohr

    Great post, Jim! If you look at Gallup’s definition of ‘Engaged’, the key phrase that jumps out at me is “profound connection”. People want to be profoundly connected to the work they do, the company they represent, the people they work with, and the purpose they are pursuing. I, and all of us at Y Scouts, believe the critical ingredients to profound connection are love and care. It’s time to allow these qualities in the workplace – after all, we spend more time at work than any other part of our lives.

  • Larissa Lara reis

    Great points, Jim! I believe HR has an important role in influencing itself and leaders to experience and practice these four steps you mention above and should also include them in the performance appraisal methods we keep creating and reviewing.

  • Tim Kuppler

    Edgar Schein provided this post comment:

    “The four roots of engagement are absolutely right on and they are all some degree of gravy on top of the meat. What I have observed in many situations is that most of all what people want, the meat of engagement, is to be acknowledged as a total person, not just a role or just an employee. The four roots do that, but even if the gravy isn’t there, the most important thing that a boss should do is to acknowledge that he or she sees the subordinate, and acknowledges his or her existence and importance.

    Some kinds of work really aren’t that exciting or meaningful or important and still need to be done. It is in those instances that acknowledgement becomes crucial. So let’s add that as a fifth or underlying root and get to it through what I have been pushing–‘Humble Inquiry’ (2013)” Ed Schein

  • Norman Jentner

    Your practical focus, Jim, on how to create workplace conditions to best drive employees’ discretionary efforts is a very high bar, indeed.

    Is this even possible?

    According to our emerging Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematical (STEM) understandings of human performance, this high bar is one important key to further enhancing people’s passion and dedication.

    Per Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, conditions supportive of peak performance, or “flow,” include:
    • Rules, requiring the learning of skills.
    • Goals are pursued, requiring effort, for which performance feedback is available.
    • Personal control is possible, facilitating concentration.
    • Engagement is high, with an “ordered state of mind” that is highly enjoyable.
    • Flow goes beyond the boundaries of normal experience, to stretch one’s skills, reach awareness, etc.
    • Includes a sense of discovery into a new reality of increased complexity of self.

    Flow is highly satisfying; people will seek to repeat the experience if they can only learn how.

    Full engagement can be in some ways fragile, as you state in your video.

    Best.

    ~Norman