Working and Feeling Good

The Gallup people have done some interesting research on the idea of employee engagement. In fact, I think they initiated the idea in 1999.

They have defined three groupings of employees—those who are engaged, those who are not-engaged, and those who are actively disengaged—and analyzed correlated statistics.

Their research and that of others has shown correlation with intrinsic motivation, and with profitable performance.

A good example is their article Feeling Good Matters in the Workplace, from 2006.

It’s the kind of research that I sometimes find eye-glazing at first blush. But it has some interesting data.

For one thing, the biggest single factor affecting engagement appears to the degree to which the direct supervisor focuses on their strengths or positive characteristics. In other words, appreciation expressed by one’s boss.

That provides an interesting corollary with John Gottman’s work on marriage, which also suggests, if I recall, that the ratio of positive to negative comments to each other is correlated with the success of a relationship.

Gee.  Maybe it is kind of common sense.  But uncommon enough that it still caught my eye.

The other strong correlation in the Gallup article is that between happiness and happiness derived from work. 45% of engaged workers say they get “a great deal” of their overall happiness from work, vs. only 19% and 8% of the other two categories.  Though in a way that’s surprising—if less than half the happy people get most of their happiness from work, then work must not be very happiness-inducing.

Some would say, again, duh. But I found it interesting.

Gallup is careful not to attribute causality. In these matters, it’s easy to fall victim to confusing cause and effect, when causality is inherently unprovable, and often messy.

So, let’s review. Happy people are engaged people.  Or engaged people are happy people.  I suspect it’s hardly one-way causal, but more of a virtuous circle; happy people attract more happiness, disengaged people suck the air out of the room and alienate others, etc.

What I find really interesting is that this sounds very commonsensical.  Yet, it contradicts some received wisdom in business.  Particularly the idea that people are primarily motivated by rewards.

The matching up of extrinsic rewards is virtually an article of faith among compensation consultants, sales organizations, change management theorists, and anyone doing anything with the word “implementation” in it. “You get what you measure,” they say.

No you don’t.

You get what you value people for. You get what you praise in them. You get out of people what you see in them intrinsically—not what you extract from them in work effort for incentive comp.

Want great organizations?  Get happy people. Want happy people? Don’t “align their rewards with their goals and behaviors”—talk to them, challenge them, praise them. Above all, value them.  And not as human capital—as human. 

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