Cultures of Engagement: Emotional Engagement

Posted on November 17, 2017

Cultures of Engagement: Emotional Engagement

Regardless of what change you’re considering, people will decide its ultimate success or failure. Over the next two posts, I want to examine characteristics of cultures that demonstrate a high level of engagement, or employee investment and dedication to their work. My argument is that organizations with engaged employees have a tremendous advantage over those with disengaged staff when it comes to making a change. I will divide this examination into two posts, this one on the emotional components that promote engagement and next week; we will examine the structural components that promote engagement.

While making change is often seen as a cognitive exercise, the emotional health of the system will significantly determine whether the process realizes it’s goals. From a wishful thinking perspective, I would love to say that each staff member has an equal effect on an organization’s culture and emotional health. For better or worse (depending on the situation), research demonstrates that those in leadership positions have a more significant overall impact on the psychological health of the culture and those working in it.

Great leaders surround themselves with the best people and collectively accomplish great things. Unfortunately, great leadership is the exception and not the norm. Sutton (2010) found that 75% of employees report their supervisor is the most stressful part of their job, 24% state that their boss is bullying them, and overall people say the worst part of their day is the time spent with their boss. These findings are sad but get scary when you learn that those with bad leaders have a 39% higher risk of a serious heart problem as well as the increased occurrence of mental and other physical illnesses. If your staff is scared of you or hates being in your presence, there is little hope that a change in process will achieve any of its intended benefits.

What leadership characteristics promote emotionally healthy cultures? Here is a summary of my research findings:

Humility: Great leaders see themselves as students as much as teachers. They surround themselves with people with skill sets they do not possess and set them up for success. While humility might sound like a small thing, it sets the stage for certain operational aspects of change processes that we will examine in later posts. Plus, if you have ever worked for an arrogant, know it all boss with an inflated ego, you understand the horrors of working for a leader with no humility (Collin, 2001 & 2011).

Honesty: “What values, personal traits, or characteristics do you look for and admire in a leader?” The #1 answer over a multi-decade study, scoring 16% higher on average than the second highest answer, was honesty. Honesty entails truth-telling, but it goes deeper than that. Honesty is the courage to confront difficult facts head-on in a timely manner. Whether it is staff behavior, unfavorable data, or changes in the environment, strong leaders do not hide from tough situations or tricky conversations. A leader’s honesty sets it as a norm for the culture which is critical for accountability, trust, safety, and democratic approaches are key to a successful change process (Kouzes & Posner, 2007).

Mindfulness: A concept called parallel process describes a psychosocial phenomenon inherent to human systems where the emotional states, team dynamics, behaviors, and morale in one part of the system replicates itself in other parts of the system. As someone who has worked in numerous systems and organizations as a consultant, when I find dysfunction in a team or program, 9 out of 10 times I discover similar dynamics at the leadership level. I encourage all leaders to take up mindfulness practice, so they bring the calm, emotionally intelligence, relational attunement, and intuition gained through their practice to their everyday work.

While parallel processes often spread dysfunction throughout a system, a mindful, honest, and humble leader will have staff that mirrors those characteristics as well. The character aspects are crucial as they promote the relational aspects of a highly engaged workforce. From the research, I have found several relational characters that encourage engagement and set up a change process for success (Siegel, 2010).

Trust: After reviewing many definitions, I define trust as the assured reliance on the character, ability, and strength of the person in which confidence is placed and the ability to predict quality and consistency of the person’s performance. As I mentioned in the last post, we thrive in healthy and positive relationships. Honesty serves as the basis for trust and trust elicits the next characteristic, safety (Wagner & Harter, 2006).

Safety: Organizational safety is a combination of four different types of safety.

  • Moral – Actions of the organization align with its values and mission. The best interest of clients is always prioritized.
  • Social – Values and mutual respect guide group actions.
  • Psychological – Ability to be yourself and know that your ideas are important and will not be ridiculed.
  • Physical – The reduction of violence is often discussed and possible dangers addressed to the extent possible.

Safety is crucial for people to take healthy risks. In an organizational context, these risks include the innovative thinking and challenging ingrained beliefs that are necessary for successful change processes (Bloom & Farragher, 2013).

Shared Values: Values tell the members of a group how decisions are made and which behaviors are appropriate. Tony Schwartz (2010) states “Deeply held values help us to avoid being whipsawed by whatever winds happen to be blowing around us. Values provide an internal source of direction for our behaviors.” A team or organization without shared values operate without a moral compass and risk losing focus of their mission. Bennett and Gibson (2006) provide an excellent model for a value-based decision-making that operationalizes shared values as an organizational tool.

  1. State the decision to be made
  2. Identify decision maker(s)
  3. Name all possible values for the decision, all that matters
  4. Consider importance for all potential stakeholders
  5. Conduct an advocacy round
  6. Decision maker selects driving value(s)
  7. Make the decision
  8. Report it out, including the downside, without equivocation

Positive Regard: Whether staff feels that leaders care about their well-being is the #1 predictor of organizational engagement. Unfortunately, only 38% of workers feel this is true of their leaders, 50% felt their well-being didn’t matter at all to their leaders, and just 10% felt like they were a vital asset to the organization (Rock & Page, 2006). To help clients, we must first care and respect our co-workers. Statements like “I don’t like him, but I figured out ways to work with him,” might work on an assembly line but destroys the cultures needed for helping people change and heal. Staff thrive in cultures where they feel valued as individuals and their professional skills viewed as a vital organizational asset.

Passion: Unfortunately, only 20% of people give a strong “yes” to the question: “Do you like what you do each day?” (Rath & Harter, 2010). Passion connects us to our work and the outcomes of our clients. Engagement is impossible if you hate what you are doing each day. We work in fields where most people fulfill a personal calling to serve others and their community. We need to give people opportunities to talk about their passions and work to keep passion in the forefront of people’s mind. Not only does this promote engagement, focusing on passion is also a crucial self-care strategy.

Recognition: Recognition is rocket fuel for change and excellence. Recognition is a culture’s way of celebrating behaviors that align with shared values, result in positive client outcomes, and support the change process. Organizations with high engagement value recognition. In my work, I have seen cultures in crisis transformed through strategic recognition programs.

We all want to work for leaders, with co-workers, and in teams that embody the above characteristics. Some of my best life experiences involve working in amazing teams and watching their work change lives and communities. Besides feeling good, the above characteristics also get the following results.

Decreases Increases
Secondary Trauma Organizational engagement Stock prices
Vicarious Trauma Profit Personal effectiveness
Compassion Fatigue Sales Company loyalty
Absenteeism Efficiency Consensus on goals
Turnover Morale Company pride
Stress Quality of care Understanding of job expectations
Burnout Safety Effectiveness of teams
Accidents Client engagement Job applications
Defensive behaviors Productivity Motivation
Anger Job satisfaction Resiliency
Frustration Commitment Client satisfaction
Mental illness Performance Client loyalty
Physical illness Revenues Creativity
Secondary Trauma Job creation Stock prices
Vicarious Trauma Organizational engagement Personal effectiveness
Compassion Fatigue Profit Company loyalty
Absenteeism Sales Consensus on goals
Turnover Efficiency Company pride
Stress Morale Understanding of job expectations
Burnout Quality of care Effectiveness of teams
Accidents Safety Job applications
Defensive behaviors Client engagement Motivation
Anger Productivity Resiliency
Frustration Job satisfaction Client satisfaction
Mental illness Commitment Client loyalty
Physical illness Performance Creativity
Revenues Job creation


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