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. 

0 replies
  1. Paul Hebert
    Paul Hebert says:

    I make my living helping companies align the behaviors of their employees with the objectives of the organization.  One very effective tool is reward and recognition.  I can point to countless organizations that have used rewards and recognition effectively to achieve their ongoing goals.  So it’s probably no surprise that I take exception to the last paragraph in this post.

    You say "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. "

    The talking, challenging and praising are all forms of recognition and reward.  Treating them as human is ethical and required in today’ s market.  I think sometimes we lump poorly designed "incentive schemes" with properly crafted performance programs that provide reward and recognition for behavior change and alignment with corporate goals.  Many programs are simply focused on very short-term company benefit (call it bribery) with little regard for their residual "hangover" effects that demoralize an organization.

    When properly designed, a performance strategy will reinforce the culture of praise, eliminate the bad apples and provide a standard of performance that is tangibly demonstrated through frequent, public and worthy reward and recognition.  But I rant.

    Reply
  2. robert edward cenek
    robert edward cenek says:

    A very interesting post…

    I would like to advance one thought – that being that happy employees are not necessarily engaged employees. Happiness is a passive state; engagement is an active one.

    Folks can be showered with pay, perks and the like, and even receive nice positive feedback on a regular basis, but they still may not be engaged (for a variety of reasons).

    robert edward cenek
    http://www.cenekreport.com

    Reply
  3. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Paul, your comments are thoughtful and I think almost certainly quite right. I tossed off a shorthand attack on what you rightly characterize as bribery. More broadly, praise and public recognition and rewards can indeed play a constructive role. Your concept of reinforcement strikes me as very useful.

    I think, though, there is much more thoughtless bribery out there than there should be. I see a lot of well-meaning organizations who really don’t know how to construct a nuanced praise and reward system because the dominant quick-think response out there is to equate "reward" with "compensation," then to drive it to shorter and shorter terms and tighter and tighter behavioral definitions. The thinking doesn’t get terribly far past linking bonus pools with some metrics. And when you’ve done that, you’ve kind of forgotten all the good stuff at the root of praise and reinforcement.

    Another way to put it is Alfie Kohn’s distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Intrinsic rewards are what encourage people to do more of the good stuff they’ve done—because it is good, and they value doing good things. But an unthinking compensation link-to-metrics encourages extrinsic rewards: as Kohn puts it, incentive reward schemes definitely incent people—they incent them to get more rewards. That’s extrinsic behavior, which encourages people to do the right thing because they earn money by doing it.

    The ultimate absurdity—and I do get real world well-meaning clients trying to do this—is trying to craft reward programs that tie monetary incentives to short-term behavioral indicators of unselfish behavior.

    Think about it: the message is, if you behave unselfishly, you’ll get a lot of money. It perverts every good intention in the book. And as my blog-readers know, that’s exactly what’s happened to the concept of loyalty: we have taken a noble concept about human interactions and perverted it into a short-term grab bag of price promotions.

    Now you’ve got me ranting Paul, sorry about that.

    And Robert—I like the "happiness is passive, engagement is active" concept; it makes intuitive sense. I don’t know how Gallup thinks about that, perhaps they can weigh in?

    Reply
  4. Brett Rogers
    Brett Rogers says:

    Gallup’s data for this is heavily detailed in its excellent book, 12. Juxtaposing that with its StrengthFrinders work, I would say that aligning people with a job in which they feel confident and productive leads to happiness in the workplace. And if it lines up with their passions, then they’re really cooking. They love coming to work. Pay is almost irrelevant in that environment. The true reward is the work itself.

    Reply
  5. Paul Hebert
    Paul Hebert says:

    I’ve used this line before either in one of my posts on my blog or on comment somewhere but a scalpel in the hands of an untrained person is a weapon – doing more harm than good; but in the hands of surgeon it is a tool that can provide miraculous results.  I feel similarly about reward and recognition programs.  As you’ve said… they can cause damage. 

    I don’t always agree with Kohn in that the goals of well-crafted rewards and recognition programs should be to align a persons innate talent and intrinsic motivations with the company goals and objectives.  I don’t need to provide external reinforcers for someone who is using their talents and desires in the right way.  Therefore, when people interpret Kohn as saying "incentives = bad" I think you need to understand that incentives to do what you love = bad, but incentives to focus your passion in a new direction = good.

    As business goals change I do need to nudge work and focus in new directions.  Well designed incentives and rewards can grab someone’s attention and get them to focus their strengths in the new direction.  I’m not changing their desire or motivation – just redirecting where it is applied.

    That is the true value of a great reward/recognition program.

    Your comment on providing incentives to reward unselfish behavior also struck home.  I posted "Can You Buy Altruism" with the same conclusion.  Interesting stuff.

    Reply
  6. Lion Kimbro
    Lion Kimbro says:

    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.

    Wait– How does that follow?

    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.

    This only talks (if it summarizes correctly) happiness derived from work.  There are many many many other ways of "deriving" happiness.  (I happen to think that happiness is the base state, rather than something aquired.)  I was a disengaged (from work) person, but very happy, in general.

    And there are a lot of engaged people who work very hard, who "suck the air out of the room."

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.