The term “employee engagement” is more than 30 years old. Employers are still trying to figure out how to improve engagement. Perhaps we missed the target because we didn’t pay attention to its definition. William A. Kahn who coined the term defined it as “simultaneous employment and expression of a person’s ‘preferred self’ (displaying real identity, thoughts and feelings) in task behaviors.” The more one can be oneself at work, the more likely the person will stay and be personally engaged in performing their job.
Business being business is entrenched in rules, efficiency, and management by objectives to control and reward. Rather than seeing engagement as bringing who you are to work, we view it as a means to achieve greater performance through discretionary effort. Some companies have moved from an authoritative to a situational leadership approach, empowering teams for direction. Few have yet to focus on a servant leadership style driven by an authentic purpose. The engagement Kahn speaks of is tied to a company driven by purpose then connecting those who are aligned with that purpose.
Some positions may always require rules and objectives to control outcome and reward. A few companies have shifted their thinking to put employee growth as their first priority. Lisa Laskow Lahey and Robert Kegan wrote An Everyone Culture based on their study of Next Jump, Decurian and Bridgewater. Lahey and Kegan along with others at Harvard studied these companies that focus first on every employee’s ability to be their best self. They call them deliberately developmental organizations (DDOs).
Encouraging personal employee growth is intentionally incorporated by specific routines in every workday in these organizations. Five qualities that make a DDO include helping employees overcome personal struggles; feedback and coaching as an essential part of every meeting; shifting focus from outcome to process; having a common language and making personal development a goal for everyone at every level.
By helping employees overcome personal struggles, the organization helped individuals tackle limitations in how they approached their work. There is ongoing feedback about the work you are doing and how you are doing it; identifying and supporting performance gaps and other challenges. Each of the DDOs studied were concerned about the mindset that created unwanted behaviors more than correcting the behavior. This type of personal development is less judgmental and far- sighted. Their common languages described their norms, and built a sense of community that cemented the developmental practices.
Imagine the personal benefit of working for a company where learning and personal growth are paramount. Today’s workforce expects its employer to know who they are, as people. Focusing learning on personal development deepens this acknowledgement. These organizations gained improved employee retention, improved communication, faster solutions to tough problems, less interdepartmental strife, and increased profitability. That sounds like an engaged workforce. A workforce aligned with the company’s purpose, one who is accepted for who they are, who can bring the whole self, warts and all.