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It is common sense that people who get up in the morning feeling positive about their work are likely to do more and better work than people who reluctantly drag themselves to work and spend the day wishing they were elsewhere.  I think about the difference in what I produce and contribute on a day when I feel great about myself and liked and respected by others compared to a day when I am concerned about the acceptance or approval of others–or just feel “small.”  It is logical that people who feel valued are more likely to be engaged–and that people who feel engaged do better work.   They are also more likely to stay, reducing the costs of turnover.

There are a number of studies that link the level of engagement within an organization to productivity, retention and profitability. The Gallup organization first linked engagement with business outcomes—retention, customer focus, profitability and productivity.  Gallup’s “Q-12” instrument measures engagement through a survey with 12 questions, e.g., whether employees feel that they are doing meaningful work and feel valued, heard, developed and cared for.   In the 2004 study, “The Effort Dividend: Driving Employee Performance and Retention through Engagement,” The Corporate Leadership Council of the Corporate Executive Board linked engagement to emotional commitment to the organization, effort and bottom line results.

What I haven’t seen explored is how engagement is affected by one’s being or feeling “different.”  Consider employees who are different in some significant degree from the norms of the organization. Or think of times you have felt like an “outsider.” I know that when I have had to spend energy trying to figure out the “rules” and trying to conform (“fit in”), I have had less energy to apply to the task; as a result I worked less efficiently; the quality of what I did was lower, and I did not feel as positive about the organization.  When I have felt like an “insider,” i.e., comfortable, valued and included, I have not expended that energy.  I have felt more “engaged.”

Since good business results tend to follow when more people within an organization are engaged, a leader’s challenge is to expand the group that can put their energy into their work.  Today’s workforce is more diverse than ever.  Businesses and professions in a number of categories have still not done a great job of on attracting, engaging and retaining people from non-Caucasian racial groups. For the first time in our history, women now make up 50% of the workforce.  Also for the first time there are four generations working side by side.  Globalization has put us on teams with people whose primary languages are different from ours and who are from cultures different from American culture.

As a result, a leader is challenged more than ever in attempting to engage a broad base of his or her team or workforce.  With so many differences, a leader must recognize that what works to engage some people doesn’t work for many others.  To engage more people requires a leader to appreciate difference.  Appreciation of difference is mandatory for leveraging difference—and understanding difference is the starting place for both.

I have observed that leaders who have themselves felt “different,” and understand how feeling like an outsider can affect one’s performance, have a leg up in tackling this challenge.  I worry that leaders who have never had such an experience may simply not appreciate the potential of expanding engagement by creating a culture where more people feel good about themselves and valued by others.