What do employee engagement, world peace, and sweat pants have in common?


I have a theory that we could achieve world peace if we adopted a world-wide uniform of comfy pants and sneakers. Because when things fit comfortably, we just feel better. Imagine that “aaaahhh” feeling at the end of the day on a global scale! I’m a little fixated on the idea of fit actually. I also believe that employee engagement has a lot to do with fit. Fit connotes freedom from constraints. It is nearly impossible for an employee to feel engaged when they’re restricted by bureaucratic nonsense or a controlling boss. Fit also suggests there isn’t too much slack – like a gap between the requirements of your job and your capacity and interest. It implies a lack of friction, such as between people with jarringly different personalities and styles. Engagement means there is a fit between you and the aspects of your work that are valuable to you.

So what do people value? Recent research shows that the three most important drivers of engagement are the quality of the relationship with one’s immediate supervisor, trust in senior leadership, and pride in the company. I suggest we should also consider two more elements: job characteristics and the person’s life outside of work. These key dimensions can be visualized as embedded spheres of influence within which there can be varying degrees of fit. Does the nature of my role fit with my skills and interests? Do my boss and I have matching or clashing interpersonal styles? Does the leadership team embody the values that are important to me, and are they taking the organization in a direction I agree with? Is this a culture I am proud to represent? Do my work and personal lives support each other or are they at odds in some way?

There has been quite a but of tut-tutting recently about the fact that there is naturally going to be a lot of individual variation in what drives engagement. The concern is that this means organizations lack sufficient control to influence engagement levels.  It is true that it is complicated –  there are multiple dimensions we need to consider, people vary in which are more or less important to them, and now I’m suggesting that relative importance doesn’t capture all of the individual variation, that we also need to consider fit. But this doesn’t mean that organizations are empty handed. People want to be engaged, and if you create the conditions that allow it to unfold, it will.

Which still begs the question, how do we create these magical conditions in which engagement can bloom? It’s still about the basics. First, know what you are about. You can’t be all things to all people – but you can get clear on your purpose and values and make sure the people you bring on board fit you. Don’t just ask yourself if they can do the tasks, but whether your values are congruent and if they will get along with their manager and coworkers. Interpersonal relationships are the medium through which people assess fit – do I like my boss? Do I trust higher-ups? Are my coworkers people I respect? Do I belong here?

We talk about engagement as if it is an outcome – people are either engaged or not. But engagement is not static – it’s about dynamic tension. Our interest in measuring and shaping engagement has led us to lose sight of the fact that it is a process, the interplay between the employee and the organization. That’s why the real key is about fit and alignment. We can’t rely on a “best practice” checklist that can tell us how to do it “right.”  Is the “highly engaged job” only one that affords autonomy and challenge? Is there a recipe for the ideal manager? Is there a top-ten list of to-dos for senior managers to ensure they are perceived as trustworthy and effective? What about culture? I think it must be obvious that there is no one-size-fits all culture either. Looking at engagement through the lens of fit reminds us that we need to find a comfortable mix of freedom and structure within which the process of engagement can play out.

Like we discussed in the last post, this isn’t a one-off endeavor. Launching an engagement survey and implementing a few initiatives may make incremental improvements, but to fully leverage the power of an engaged workforce requires concentrated attention to both the big picture (purpose, values, culture), as well as the details (hiring, training, goal setting). Engagement is about fit all the way up, and all the way down.

We will look at each dimension in greater detail in future posts – stay tuned!


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