Beyond Satisfaction: On Engaging and Thriving as Leaders

December 16, 2015 Sarah Payne

Catherine Flavin

We spend a lot of time in HR and management talking about employee engagement. But are we all talking about the same thing? Or are some of us just talking about employee satisfaction? And why is the difference between the two terms so important to gaining that competitive edge and retaining employees?

I recently sat down with Catherine Flavin, WorkHuman 2015 speaker and Managing Partner at Thrive Leadership, to tease out answers to some of these topics. Trained as a political scientist and survey researcher, Catherine’s life work is in supporting leaders who want to engage their followers. With 20 years of experience in leadership, engagement, diversity, empathy, and organizational development across industries—Catherine certainly has a wealth of knowledge to share.

Read more in our Q&A with Catherine below.

Tell me a little bit about Thrive Leadership.

At Thrive Leadership, our essential focus is helping leaders find success. We chose the name “Thrive” because that’s what we want for each client—for people to go beyond surviving, and to bring their best in their work and lives. Through coaching, workshops, networking, and original research, our clients learn the skills needed to fully engage themselves and others—and to enjoy their work! One of clients said it best when he described us as having big firm expertise with small firm involvement and commitment.

How well understood is engagement?

Engagement is the best and most ubiquitous “lead indicator” of how effectively human capital assets are deployed.  Look at any company with enviable business results, and you’ll very likely find a workforce that’s engaged in delivering those results. People want engagement, but the understanding of what is meant by “engagement” is often more superficial than I expect. People use the term as if there were a common understanding of it. There’s not. We have seen all sorts of measures being labeled as engagement. Way too many otherwise savvy leaders still use the terms engagement and satisfaction interchangeably when they are absolutely not the same. Or “engagement” serves poorly as a catchall term for how employees feel.

How would you help someone understand what engagement really is?

When we talk about engagement, we are talking about the extent to which employees are personally invested in the organization. This has two basic components.

  1. Discretionary effort that is channeled towards organizational goals. Getting that is harder than it sounds. People deploy extra energy all the time; it’s not always well directed towards a larger organizational interest.
  1. Emotional commitment to the organization. Emotion is contagious, and positive emotion creates energy that can be deployed for organizational goals. People with passion and pride will run through a wall for their clients. They take on challenges, strive, and achieve.

Think of engagement as continuum that measures how that discretionary energy and emotion are channeled. Employee engagement falls into 1 of 3 levels – and yes, people can move from one level to another.

  • Disengaged = detracting value from your business.
  • Satisfied (“complacent”) = generating value as consistent contributors, but not reaching beyond their roles.
  • Highly Engaged = giving more, producing more, reaching beyond what is required, and adding value that exceeds what you pay them.

Getting from Satisfied to Highly Engaged takes strong leadership at all levels – from senior leadership, from the direct boss, and from the employee! 

If we want high levels of engagement, what are the implications for how we develop leaders?

This is such an important question. We do need the basic leadership skills and training – e.g., interviewing and selection, matching readiness to a task, setting expectations, making decisions, setting goals, and the like. Those skills create conditions for employees to perform in their jobs. However, to lead to engage and to sustain engagement, we need to teach emotional intelligence and positive psychology skills. These create competitive advantage in retaining key talent. Among the things we focus on at Thrive Leadership are:

  • Self-awareness and awareness of others’ styles, preferences, etc.
  • Productive inquiry, deep listening and observation to engage people via two-way dialogue.
  • Working from a place of appreciation of strengths and successes. Engaging leaders are able to build, generate a sense of progress and possibility, and celebrate successes.
  • Cultivating flow to reach new challenges and create optimal experiences.
  • Feeding positive emotions, and enabling people to develop appreciative connections and relationships.
  • Building skill at two-way feedback conversations, especially positive feedback.

How does recognition support engagement? 

There are some leaders who resist recognition, fearing that programmatic efforts will create an entitlement mindset and give them yet something else to do. Their hesitation likely comes from the real problems in the old-school “satisfaction” framework. However, that resistance is often misguided if you fundamentally understand what engagement is and what it requires.  A leader’s will and skill to recognize others shows me something about how well he or she understands engagement and how emotionally intelligent that leader is. To recognize people, a leader needs to…

  • Pause to see and appreciate other people’s strengths and contributions. Working from a place of skill and strength is a top driver of engagement, so it’s wise to reinforce that.
  • Deviate from his or her path, from busy schedules, to acknowledge those things. Doing that demonstrates empathy, a higher-level emotional intelligence skill.
  • Know how to fuel and motivate future performance, particularly (but not only) of high performers. By noticing what people do well now, leaders can invite them to reach for and hit their next level of excellence in support of organizational goals. This helps employees know where they really add value and take on challenges to add more value.

Furthermore, multiple researchers have demonstrated that recognition, like gratitude, is good for the person who does the recognizing too. It gives energy to both the giver and the receiver. We know that a leader’s emotional energy is contagious to their followers. Done with a better-than-average understanding of engagement as the end goal, recognition can be a win all the way around—for the leader, the employee, and the business.


Engaging and thriving as leaders: interview with @cathy_flavin #workhuman
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