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Activated and Engaged Part 1
Employee Engagement is all the rage these days!
A recent report by US-based Bersin & Associates entitled Employee Engagement: Market Review, Buyer’s Guide and Provider Profiles, cites that “organizations currently invest approximately $720 million annually in engagement improvement, including both outsourced and internally developed programs”, and that “only 50 percent of the potential market has been tapped”.
Here are some generally accepted statements regarding Employee Engagement:
  1. High employee engagement translates into improved productivity, profitability, safety, staff retention, and customer service.
  2. Employee engagement is discretionary, it cannot be ‘required’ (i.e. mandated and/or enforced) as part of the employment contract.
  3. Most employee engagement initiatives fail to achieve the desired aim of engagement
Never before has so much (money, time, energy and effort) been spent with so little result.  Despite the vast sums which are being invested in employee engagement, workforce morale continues to sag.  It’s time for us (quite literally) to apply our minds to this problem.
Activated and Engaged takes a peek into the human brain, and presents a NeuroLeadership perspective on creating an environment in which employees delight in throwing their full weight behind the health and wealth of the brand.
Before we delve into the brain-based science of engagement, however, a distinction needs to be made between a motivated employee and an engaged employee:
A motivated employee is largely opportunistic, focused on reward and recognition. The waxing and waning of this employee’s motivation will be reflected in his performance, and for the most part he will tend to focus on activities that result in personal reward.
An engaged employee is a different creature altogether, defined by her resilient motivation and consistent levels of performance, even in the face of adversity.  She is focused on the big picture of the organisation, consistently looking for opportunities that may contribute further to accomplishing the mission of the organisation.
A peek into the brain of an employee reveals that, very simply, its organising principle is to minimise danger and maximise reward.  Engagement is closely linked to this threat/reward functioning.  When the ‘threat sensors’ in an employee’s brain are triggered – even just a little – he’ll begin to slide uncontrollably towards a state of disengagement.  It’s important to remember that these ‘threat sensors’ aren’t merely detecting fear; threats include anything that the employee might want to avoid, including sadness, anxiety, lack of safety, depression and even mind-wandering.
When we consider the vast amounts of precious brain resources that are being wasted on a state of disengagement, the steep investment in employee engagement programmes suddenly begins to make sense.  A state of disengagement affects our cognitive networks which enable focused attention and clear thinking; our central and autonomic nervous system; our social brain which causes us to understand and collaborate with others; and our self-regulation network which is responsible for diverse functions such as controlling heart rate and blood pressure, resolving conflict and regulating our emotions.  As if this isn’t  already a scary list, a state of disengagement also affects our working memory, which quite simply means increased difficulty with mental calculations and recalling names, facts and figures.
The SCARF model (developed by David Rock in 2008) summarises five domains of threat or reward, namely Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. Engaged employees experience high levels of positive rewards in the SCARF domains, whereas disengaged employees experience high levels of threat in these domains.
Status is about relative importance, i.e. a perception of where we are in relation to the people around us.  Our sense of status goes up when we feel we are ‘better than’ someone else, creating a reward response.
Certainty is about eliminating ambiguity.  The brain is a pattern-recognition machine that is constantly trying to predict the near future, and so it craves certainty in order to make prediction possible.
Autonomy is the perception of having control over our environment; a feeling of having choices.  Our inability to influence outcomes triggers our ‘threat sensors’, which results in a fight or flight response.
Relatedness involves deciding whether we are ‘in’ or ‘out’ of a particular social group.  People naturally like to form ‘tribes’ where they experience a sense of belonging.
Fairness in interpersonal dealings is intrinsically rewarding, independent of other factors. The need for fairness may be part of the explanation as to why people experience internal rewards for doing volunteer work to improve their community; it is a sense of decreasing the unfairness in the world.
The Gallup Organisation’s Q12 is one of the most common (or is that popular?) workplace engagement models.  After 80 000 in-depth interviews with managers in over 400 companies, the Gallup Organisation says that measuring the strength of a workplace can be simplified into 12 questions.  When viewed through the lens of David Rock’s SCARF model, six out of 12 questions related to status; one related to certainty, one to autonomy, two to relatedness and one to fairness.  Rather than replace Gallups Q12, SCARF provides a roadmap for ‘populating the page with the correct answers’.
In Part 2 of Activated and Engaged we’ll use SCARF as a lens for understanding why many attempts to foster a culture of engagement fail.  We’ll also offer some practical handles on employing SCARF as a tool for creating a workplace culture that inspires employees to give of their best for longer.
We’d like to leave you with this quote which beautifully encapsulates our intentions for this article: “In addition to building better products, a more open world will also encourage businesses to engage with their customers directly and authentically.” – Mark Zuckerberg
We invite you generously to share your questions, comments and stories, as we commit to sharing ours with you.  Let’s start a meaningful, productive conversation.
Simon Kozlowski is an associate of the NeuroLeadership Group SA (Link to partnership page on USB-ED)
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