Engagement in the 21st century

  • Owen McCall (Unknown Publication)
  • 17 February, 2012 12:57

Research shows that high levels of engagement are associated with lower staff turnover, high levels of customer satisfaction and superior organisational performance. Conversely a lack of engagement is linked to high staff turnover and poor organisational performance. Because of this link the last decade has seen a significant level of leadership attention on improving employee engagement. Despite this, precious few members of our teams are engaged, less than 20 percent, and this number does not appear to be improving. This begs the question, why is this and what can we do about it?I believe engagement is difficult to improve because our organisations are based primarily on the work of Fredrick Taylor and the scientific management movement of the early 20th century. However, the nature of work and people's motivation to work have changed. So what are these changes?1. Increasing wealth changes motivations. Throughout history up to the early 20th century, people worked to ensure that they had the basic necessities of life. That is, they had food to eat, clothes to wear and a warm, dry house to live in. As a result work was designed to meet these needs with the extrinsic reward of money. You went to work and did what you were told and in return you received enough money to feed, clothe and house your family.Today in the western world this level of "wealth" and existence is guaranteed by the government and the welfare system. People do not have to go to work to meet these basic needs, but they still go to work -- why? Because as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs points out, as one set of human needs are satisfied, others emerge. In this case the needs that emerge are the needs for love and acceptance and ego gratification. The employment relationship of work for money is not designed to meet needs for love and acceptance as these needs cannot be satisfied by money or other external rewards.2. Knowledge work cannot be "controlled". Throughout history the majority of people were involved in physical work, whether this was farming, craft-based work or work on an assembly line, with very few people making decisions. Physical work is easy to define, measure and control. Today, with offshoring of the majority of manufacturing and basic clerical jobs and the growth of the services sector this is no longer true. Most jobs now require some level of complex thinking and decision-making. These types of jobs are more difficult to define, measure and control and as Daniel Pink points out in Drive, our performance in these jobs deteriorates when external rewards are applied.If we can design our organisations, and more specifically work, to meet our higher order needs for acceptance, ego gratification and self actualisation while recognising the need to relinquish management control in favour of employee control, then engagement and performance will naturally begin to increase. The good news is we already have a model of how this could work -- games. In particular, multi-player online games which are played by millions of people of all ages. Please be clear, I am not advocating that all work should be presented as a game (although I do think that would be awesome) but, that the mechanics built into today's games are brilliant at motivating people to play by meeting their higher order needs while giving complete control to the players. The result is that people do hours and hours of "work" in the form of quests or missions, for free (actually in most cases the player pays for the privilege to do this work). There are dozens of these mechanics but the basic building block of all these games are quests (sometimes called challenges or missions). The quest definition usually includes why the work is important, what exactly has to be achieved (eg bring item X to person Y) what rewards are available on completion and some direction to get you started. Importantly a player is not told how to complete the quest, this is up to them. Having defined a series of quests several other mechanics can be linked to the completion of these quests to provide instant feedback to players. These could be experience points, achievements, and levelling up, all of which provide feedback to the player and reconfirm that they are making progress.This is possible to do in the workplace but it does require that we rethink the role of leadership to be more about "designing the game" rather than managing and controlling the game. My future columns will explore how to design the game. Owen McCall is director of Viewfield Consulting. He can be reached through and through his blog at