Driving Employee Engagement in an Exponential World

Driving Employee Engagement in an Exponential World

Driving Employee Engagement in an Exponential World

By Clare Sarah


The current pace of change in the world is rapid and increasing. According to futurist Ray Kurzweil the 21st century will see humanity go through more change than has been experienced over the past 20,000 year. To put this in perspective, in contrast, the 20th century saw only about 25 years of progress. This means this century we will see almost a thousand times greater technological change than its predecessor. 


Although the 20th century was no ‘slouch’ to change, existence felt broadly stable, and change was largely integrated within stable markers of meaning such as the church, the family unit, community and cultural norms. This kind of stability was conducive to centralized models of management, with control and command tactics leading the way in most government, education and organizational institutions. 

These models of management, born from the Industrial Revolution, worked well in a time of stability and predictability. However, today, where VUCA conditions reign, and change is the only constant, the control and command that once motivated on mass, is now suppressing our ability to flourish and thrive. And whether examined through the mental health epidemic, extraordinary rates of burnout, or alarmingly low engagement levels, it’s evident that employees across the globe are checking out.

The research of Professor Dan Cable shows that a workforce motivated to learn and innovate, is an engaged workforce. An alive workforce. As Einstein famously said, ‘once you stop learning, you start dying’. Organization’s who stop learning are dying organizations. For organizations to stay alive and relevant in times of rapid change, the desire to engage; to seek, learn and grow must be reawakened.

What is employee engagement?

Employee engagement is a workplace approach resulting in the ‘right conditions’ for all members of an organization to give of their best each day, committed to their organization's goals and values, motivated to contribute to organizational success, with an enhanced sense of their own well-being.  


These ‘right conditions’ are fundamentally brought about by the internal culture of an organization, which is driven by a multitude of factors such as purpose and mission, levels of hierarchy, reward systems and growth trajectories. 


Ultimately, however, the internal culture is shaped by leadership. And while many leaders intuitively know that these ‘right conditions’ are no longer aligned with standardized performance metrics, promotions and punishment, the reality is, most organizations are still held back by systems and processes that are suppressing the very thing they need to stay alive and relevant.


The result is an employee engagement crisis intrinsically linked to internal cultures brought about by old world organizational design and antiquated leadership practices. If organizations want to stay alive and relevant, this needs to change. And it needs to change fast.  

The employee engagement crisis

If you’re a leader, employee engagement is likely to be one of the most urgent and important challenges facing your organization. And the reeling statistics that swirl around this crisis animate a real, and every-day problem you’re trying (and most likely failing) to solve.


The 2017 Gallup State of American Workforce Report, states the American workforce has more than 100 million full-time employees of which only one-third are what Gallup calls ‘engaged at work’. This means around 33% of your people love their jobs and strive to make their organization better every day.


At the other end of the spectrum, 16% of employees are actively disengaged. This means they are actively sabotaging what the most engaged employees are trying to create and build. A parasitic, systemic, and deeply worrying phenomenon.


But it might not be all doom and gloom. For in between the engaged and actively disengaged lies a chasm... of (wasted) opportunity. It is in between these two extremes that you’ll find the 51% of your workforce that just don’t care. They don’t love you, nor hate you. They don’t help you, nor impede you. They’ve merely lost their desire to engage; to seek, learn and grow. 

Re-awakening employee engagement 

Our human desire to engage; to seek, learn and grow, is fuelled by something scientists call intrinsic motivation. This is the kind of motivation that comes from within. We chase it for its inherent reward. It’s guaranteed deliverment of satisfaction. Intrinsic motivation feels deeply pleasurable, it allows us to get lost in a task for hours, completely absorbed in the present moment. 


From an evolutionary perspective, intrinsic motivation was essential for survival. It was the fuel that lead us to search for food, shelter and protection. As well as to explore the world, form relationships, and learn new skills.


The opposite of this is extrinsic motivation. This is the kind of motivation that is rewarded through external factors, whether that be money and status, or possessions and trophies. And as Dr Sarah Sarkis explains in Motivation: Fuel That Drives Us, ‘most organizations, educational systems, and even parenting methods rely primarily on extrinsic motivators… the “if-then” structures of reinforcement made popular by the B.F. Skinner. And these structures have merit for some tasks, namely those reliant on rote and repetitive actions. But at what cost?’


The cost, for organizations, is deep human engagement. Engagement fueled by intrinsic motivation. And for a while this was ok. For a good 100 years or so, extrinsic motivation did the trick. During a time where exploration and experimentation were detrimental to quality control and mass production, it was the command and control elicited through the carrot and the stick that kept employees focused, and the well-oiled machine running. 


But today things are different. Research shows people are now wanting more. People are no longer looking for just a paycheck. They’re looking for purpose and meaning. They want to create and innovate. They’re yearning for deep connection to themselves, to others, and to the world writ large. And if these needs are not met, you can be sure to find them in that chasm of wasted opportunity. In that 51% of your workforce who just don’t care. The 51% who are dying to be reawakened.

How do you increase employee engagement?

At the heart of our human desire to engage; to seek, learn and grow, is a state of consciousness known as flow. Flow is the scientific term for when we feel our best and perform our best. The term was coined in the 1960s by the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who discovered flow was ubiquitous, definable, and measurable. In other words, flow is accessible to everyone (given initial pre-conditions), and has shared characteristics, meaning what flow feels like is universal. Those moments of complete presence. Where self vanishes, time warps, and the task at hand becomes effortless. 


Csikszentmihalyi also discovered that those who lived high-flow lifestyles were the happiest people on earth. They were able to find purpose and meaning, and a deep sense of fulfillment that came from within. In flow, not only does our physical and mental performance soar, but so too does our sense of wellbeing.


Recent developments in neuroscience have enabled scientists to take Csikszentmihalyi’s work one step further. From psychology to biology, we now have the ability to ‘look underneath the hood’ of flow, and as it turns out, flow has a unique neurochemical signature. 


In flow, the brain releases norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin. When it comes to motivation, these are the chemicals that offer the biggest rewards the brain can ever produce. This is why once we have experienced the feeling of flow in a given activity, we will go out of our way to experience it again, and again. 


While flow can be described as the source code of employee engagement, the benefits go well beyond, with the peak mental state also boosting a number of other core competencies required for organizations to stay alive and relevant in the 21st century; in particular learning, creativity and productivity.


In times of rapid change, our ability to not only learn, but learn faster is critical. Research by DARPA found that military snipers who trained in flow were able to learn 230% faster than normal.


Creativity has been named as the number one skill of the 21st century. Studies conducted by Harvard found creativity levels were heightend for up to 3 days after a flow state. And the University of Sydney found a spike in 430% for creative problem solving when in flow.


Flow also significantly boosts productivity. A 10 year study conducted by McKinsey & Co showed executives were 500% more productive when in flow. That means you can be 500% more productive than your competition. (Or they can be 500% more productive than you).


Flow, it seems, has some pretty hefty street cred. And, no doubt, organizations that are able to create the right conditions for flow, for deep human engagement, will become the game-changing, billion-dollar companies of tomorrow.  But as the Executive Director of the Flow Research Collective Steven Kotler warns in Create a Work Environment That Fosters Flow,  ‘these [competencies] don’t come without serious investment. Restructuring businesses around flow means radically altering their DNA, and shifting emphasis from mechanistic efficiencies to deep human engagement.’


Outpacing the competition requires a mental shift. This means convoluted leadership programs, and faddy employee engagement trends must be replaced by an investment in an awareness of how to use our brains and our bodies to feel our best and to perform our best. An investment in leadership development that creates the right conditions for deep engagement, the right conditions for ultimate human performance.


How do you keep your employees engaged and involved?


We do this at the Flow Research Collective by training in the basics of ultimate human performance. With the development of core foundational high-performance practices. Non-negotiable habits that underpin a high-flow lifestyle embodied first by the individual leader and then throughout teams and organizations. This critical leadership development involves executive coaching focused on five key areas:


  1. Cognitive Literacy: This is an understanding of what’s going on in the brain and body when we’re feeling our best and performing our best.

  2. Maps & Models: The big picture. A systems-level view. So you always know where you are and where you’re going.

  3. Body Hacks: Getting your biology to work for you, not against you.

  4. Mind Hacks: Getting your brain to work for you, not against you.

  5. Craft Hacks: The mastering of our craft, to produce more flow. 


The result -- an organizational culture built around an active desire to engage; to seek, learn and grow. The establishment of a culture of employee engagement designed to simultaneously drive the conditions for optimal wellbeing and peak performance, anchored to purpose and meaning. 


A blueprint for deep human engagement and ultimate human performance, over the long-haul.


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