Translating engagement into something line managers can work with. 

Focus on Practicalities

As you’ve probably seen Cathy Brown saying in the ‘Hello” video, Engage for Success is celebrating four years’ work with a big push from Passive to Active. Time to get it out there into the focusworld and focus on practicalities.

I have to declare an interest here, having spent years developing a product that helps people operationalise the concept of engagement in the workplace, but this sounds like a turning point to me.

Adrian Phipps’ E4S radio show on ‘making employee engagement stick’ caught the mood very nicely. Adrian is clearly an enthusiast who loves helping people improve the way they work at Arqiva. But, more importantly from our point of view, he got right to the core of the engagement question at the end of the show when he said that in the end ’we all have the same fundamental needs’.

This must be the epicentre of human motivation and engagement. Long before we had language and logic we managed well enough with a system of instincts wired into us that helped us get our life needs meet. We’ve moved on in many ways but the same instincts are at work in us today.

Human beings are, as a result, a social, problem-solving species. Our core modus operandi is to get into groups, solve problems and make things happen. That’s how every development in history has happened, whether at work, looking after children or doing some voluntary activity – we naturally collaborate to do things that meet our practical and emotional needs. The activity we call ‘work’ maps onto this innate process – to a greater or lesser extent, depending on how the work is organised.

This humanistic view of human motivation predicts that if we can organise work so that it suits the innate programming of human nature we can expect people to do what they do naturally and contribute to the work effort, so work will go well. However, if you push people to do things that don’t contribute to the meeting of their human needs you can expect resistance, friction, incomprehension, upset and under-performance are likely to occur.

How to define Human Cognitive and Emotional Needs

If you’re with us so far, the next questions have to be how to define human cognitive and emotional needs, and how to diagnose where people’s work conditions need improvement, and of what sort. This is not completely straightforward – the idea of human beings having needs like any other species is not commonly discussed, so it would be quite possible to be upset and not realise why, or even to be upset and not be consciously aware of that fact.

There are many models of human motivation, but arguably the most robust and best-researched understanding currently comes from self-determination theory. This holds that motivation depends on activities which produce an experience of relatedness, autonomy and competence. This is a good start; these top-level domains are familiar and, inevitably, overlap with those in other well-known models like Herzberg’s and Maslow’s, so it feels right.

However, while SDT is academically impeccable it is not in itself a practical motivation-raising scheme – asking how autonomous, related and competent staff feel might get you a scale of how work is working for them, but it doesn’t have the granularity to produce a practical action plan for improvement.

To make active steps and turn engagement into reality we suggest you have to unpack the abstract quantities of relatedness, autonomy and competence into something that could be used directly by line managers. Our contribution is a 16-point model that covers the bases of motivation at work without, we think, being over-burdensome to complete. Anyone who would like to experiment with the model can find it here.

We also have a software system that uses the model to uncover causes of upset at work and show where the opportunities are to improve the way work meets human needs. It asks people about their working lives, analyses the results and presents line managers with a dashboard showing where upset and underperformance might be rooted, plus a list of conversations that need to be held.

Talking to companies about using this system has provided some interesting windows on the way engagement is viewed, and a couple of themes are emerging which suggest where some relatively easy gains may be for the engagement movement, the economy, practitioners, companies and their staff.

The first is that HR departments realise that there are different kinds of people in their staff, and some companies have a lot more ‘people people’ than others. If the client is in the creative industries, healthcare and so on there’s a good chance they will ‘get’ engagement straight away.

This may also mean they won’t actually need it, in small companies at least, as the managers will be in touch with people at the shop floor level already. However, if senior management is separated from the coal face by at least one layer of line management, and especially if the staff includes people with scientific, technical, legal or mathematical brains, it is a different story.

Last week alone we had several conversations with heads of Learning and Development responsible for helping technically-minded line managers to get satisfactory results in that role, and while this is obviously anecdotal, there is agreement among our customers that some people find line management easier than others.

This is not surprising – there is a well-known trade-off between analytical skills and empathy because they use different networks in the brain and we can’t use them both at the same time1. As a result, some people are naturally much more likely to respond with analysis when an emotional connection is needed, and vice-versa.

The bottom line is that people vary significantly in their ability to understand what’s going on in other people’s minds, especially when they’re not expressing their problems directly. If line management consists at least in part of understanding why people are unhappy, this is a pity, but this is also where the main opportunity for improvement sits.

Four main areas to Investigate

As you would discover by looking at the model, we suggest there are four main areas to investigate: people’s individual and joint understanding of what they are supposed to be doing and why; their knowledge, skills and available resources to do the job; the social ‘atmosphere’ and how functional the social group is; and how much they worry about working life for various other reasons.

Looking at people like this is useful for company that wants to get active and build engagement from the inside, because it gets us away from trying to ‘push’ engagement on staff and into the position of asking people what they would like to be different in order to make their work-life happier.

Practitioners reading this will have their own ways of doing this – it might be interesting to have an area within E4S where we can compare the different models. Our way of doing it involves a cloud-based Software as a Service system. It might sound paradoxical using technology to help people accomplish an exclusively human function, but of course the computer system does not step in and do the coaching and I hope it never will – the computer simply asks staff where the stresses are in working life so their line manager has the material to start coaching conversations.

This is something that some line managers would be good at doing anyway, but this brings us to the second theme that has been emerging from our conversations with users.

We talk to a lot of line managers about how to use the system and how to implement the action plans it produces. For the most part they did not sign up to be ‘management’, but acquired a team by virtue of experience, knowledge or seniority, and now they have to fit in their shepherding duties alongside doing what they think of as their ‘real’ job. Others are simply new to the role and have not yet learnt how to read situations, intervene confidently and help find a solution.

Put this together with the fact that some people are not so good at doing the ‘people’ stuff in the first place, and we think it makes sense at least to scan the territory to see where the problems are arising, or rather where the opportunities lie. If you can present people with a practical action plan to remove the road-blocks at the same time, everyone will be better off.

Best of all, the improvements will have come about as the result of collaboration between the staff themselves and their managers, giving them control over the process and credit for the improvement, fulfilling Lao-Tzu’s condition for the best kind of leadership: ‘when the people say “we did it ourselves”’.

As Cathy Brown says, at its best ‘engagement isn’t something that we do to people, it’s a way of being … that builds healthy, happy, high performing workplaces, and well, fulfilled and committed people’. But it is not something you can get in a canister, you have to engage with the innate needs of the human being in order to understand why engagement and motivation do or don’t work in a given situation.

We hope the E4S movement will help staff find that kind of work becoming more common, and extend an invitation to consultants / practitioners who would like to try a software tool that helps make it happen.

Piers Bishop


1. Anthony I. Jack, Abigail Dawson, Katelyn Begany, Regina L. Leckie, Kevin Barry, Angela Ciccia, Abraham Snyder. fMRI reveals reciprocal inhibition between social and physical cognitive domains.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Subscribe to our newsletter

Sign up to get the latest news, events, podcasts and more!