Employee engagement, the ego and the flourishing of life

Every few months I tend to come across an article, that reflects some fairly alarming statistics about the engagement of employee’s in modern workplaces. Typically, the same story appears, where around 20% of employees are engaged with their work while the remainder are either not engaged or completely dis-engaged. In Australia & the US alone, this equates to millions of people actively unsatisfied with where they spend a high proportion of their time, energy and life.

Studies have shown direct correlation between engagement levels of employees and the effectiveness of a workforce. A Gallup study from the US estimated the costs of poor engagement to be in the vicinity of $450 billion to $550 billion annually. A similar study in Germany focussed on workplace stress and burnout equated the problem to 59 million lost days of work costing the country’s economy an estimated 6 billion euros. For some context — The UN estimates the cost to end world hunger, to be $30 billion per year.

Not only do we have a significant human cost but there is a direct link to financial costs as well.

On the flip side, studies have also shown that the most engaged employees are typically responsible for coming up with the most innovative ideas, attract most of a company’s new customers and have the most entrepreneurial energy.

To respond to this problem in modern workplaces, companies come up with fairly consistent strategies to re-engage their workforce and typically this falls under the realm of birthday celebrations & work drinks, recognition & reward schemes, day in lieu policies, training programs and on and on it goes. You would be hard pressed to find a medium to large size organisation that doesn’t have at least some of these policies in place. Yet, the problem persists globally.

I wanted to take this opportunity to share some of my observations of what I believe seems to be going on. In the teams that I have “managed” (and I use that term loosely) over the years, there is an un-written rule that presents as true on a consistent basis. That is, human beings have an innate subconscious need to grow. Not just in the physical sense but in the emotional, intellectual and spiritual sense as well. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs states that humans have an ultimate need for self-actualisation, in other words, growth towards the fulfilment of their highest need — a meaning in life. Companies have tried to incorporate this in their engagement strategies, for example, implementing initiatives to ensure all employee’s understand the company mission/vision and feel some connection to it. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t authentically connect to an employee’s highest need/values, even though on an intellectual level there may be some connection. For example, in education, staff members may actively express that they like the idea of working in an industry that has an inherently good intention to educate other human beings. Working in education, I hear this stated all the time. Yet, education companies do no better than companies selling machine parts, insurance or banking products on the score of engagement. An individual’s core needs are a much more complex area to ‘figure out’ and in fact, can never be figured out by anything external of the individual themselves. Which is why asking employee’s these questions directly, is usually met with confusion, surface level answers or conditioned responses out of what they are expected to say.

Something amazing happens when you start to allow employee’s the space to make their own decisions and remove the controlling mechanisms (job descriptions, KPIs, targets, annual budgeting, forecasting etc.) that many companies have put in place to ensure “alignment to vision”. When humans are empowered and trusted to make key decisions and take action with the resources available to them, a number of wonderful things start to happen.

1. Creativity in coming up with solutions and decisions increases significantly

2. Tasks are completed faster and more effectively than in previous top-down decision making methodologies

3. Engagement levels increase significantly (with a correlated downturn in sick leave & resignation rates)

4. Individuals start to act out of their higher values and managers start to more easily identify the unique gifts that each individual has to share in the world.

The next layer down of this observation is where things get really interesting. Ask any senior executive (with some exceptions) of a company based on a hierarchical structure of power division and decision making about this and the most common response is that it is too risky and simply can’t work in a company of their size. This is a rational response — for years business leaders have relied on processes, policies, human resource departments, management levels and all other manners of controls to minimise risk in achieving their objectives.

Unfortunately, the shadow effect of implementing these systems of control over human beings is that we start to classify humans as JOB TITLE X or JOB TITLE Y. We box in what are inherently creative and extremely powerful living, and natural beings. When allowed to flourish, humans can go to the moon, create amazing art and music, engineer structures that perform amazing tasks.Aristotle once said that everyone seeks Eudaimonia (Flourishing). A simple example — A human being can’t truly flourish if they are physically so unhealthy it prevents them from having direct experiences in life. Similarly, An idea can’t truly flourish if the foundation of the environment that it is raised in, is so limiting. Where the human beings behind the idea, are so drained from the approval processes and up the chain communication, that new ideas becomes less about what is innovative but more about what can ‘make it through’.

When we value control and risk-aversion as a primary principle of running our organisations, then real human engagement becomes a secondary principle, whether we consciously agree with this or not. Thankfully there is light at the end of the tunnel — a way for organisations to achieve their objectives and also empower their employee’s to flourish as human beings. The primary principle of this strategy lies in trust that man/womankind is inherently good. This strategy encourages us all to step out of fear based mindsets and into one of love. I use love in this context as a term to describe surrender — the giving up of control of things external to ourselves and a move into innate trust of the unfolding of life. This is a big leap and I believe one that is inevitable.

“Problems cannot be solved by the same level of consciousness that created them.” — Albert Einstein

Esoteric wisdoms and determinant psychology more recently have pointed to this leap in mindset. This is the step that humans take when they start to dis-identify with their egoic needs. This is not the stereotypical macho ego presented in pop culture but the meaning making system in our minds that help us make sense of the world around us. Just like one of the 5 senses, the ego has been said to be our 6th (survival) sense, hidden in our minds. Equal in value to our other senses, yet for large proportions of society, it completely dominates their lives. Imagine one of our other senses determining all our behaviours exclusively! If smell was the dominant sense we would be constantly seeking out pleasant smells and perhaps not get much done in the process! During childhood, the ego develops according to the conditions of its environment and the society it has been raised in. Babies when they are first born, have no real sense of their own unique identity and see themselves as completely connected with all those around them. Over time, as toddlers mature, they start to form their own identity from the environment around them. Through seeking survival and attention in those formative years, toddlers learn what they should and shouldn’t do, and as they grow older, what to believe, wear, eat, etc. This starts to form our personalities, that we present to the world as a way to fit into the expectations of our environment. For our ancestors, this was life or death and the ego played an important role in keeping us alive.

Luckily, these days, for those of us born into stable families and stable countries, surviving each day is not our primary concern. At some point in human beings’ lives after looking out to the world for guidance on how they should be and act, they start to look inside more deeply. This phase of self-awareness is what many leadership courses talk about — “Great leaders are self-aware.” What a lot of these corporate courses don’t go into, is the deep psychological changes that this can bring about in a person. Once we start to turn our attention inside ourselves, we start to see a clearer picture of the externally driven personality masks that have formed over our lives. Removing of these masks can be a truly confronting experience and a most rewarding one as well. This is where we can find deep trust in ourselves, that everything will still be ok, as we start to live more authentically. A number of things can manifest through this psychological process:

1. Individuals move into work more aligned to their true highest value

2. Comfort is found in the here and now and not so much in the future goals we set for ourselves (new houses, cars, job titles etc.)

3. Our ancestral ego no longer dominates our lives and therefore trust becomes more accessible and control of externalities becomes less of a primary need.

4. Our ability to connect and relate to others increases dramatically as we no longer speak out of conditioned responses but from our authentic self.

So, when I talk about organisations and senior business leaders needing to take a leap in mindset — what is being called for now is a leap in themselves. To move beyond the needs of the ego and a move into authenticity. By going through this direct experience, leaders will learn that there is in fact a magic to life. A natural law that rewards trust and surrender with abundance. By removing controls on human beings and allowing space for them to live their highest self; creativity, innovation, employee engagement and business success is guaranteed to follow.

For those who want to read more about this organisational concept and the details of its practicalities — I highly recommend a book by Frederick Laloux called Reinventing Organisations. It presents a number of real-world examples in action today, which you may find inspiring.