Employee engagement is a big problem for organizations today. Research has shown that the vast majority of employees are not engaged, thus they aren’t giving their best efforts or aligning their behavior with organizational goals.
A helpful way to understand how to engage employees is to consider the six universal human needs to thrive at work: respect, recognition, belonging, autonomy, personal growth and meaning. These are needs that people long to have met. And even if people are not consciously aware of them, subconsciously our human bodies are wired to have these needs met. When they are not met over time, it negatively affects our productivity, health and happiness.
Let’s look at how these needs play out over the course of an employee’s experience.
We first meet people from an organization during the recruiting process when everyone is on their best behavior. Once we join an organization we expect people to respect us at a minimum. Since they’ve had little opportunity to see the quality of our work and they don't really know us yet respect is about all we can realistically expect. If someone looks down on us or is uncivil or condescending, we get upset and it will affect our engagement. In this case, there is a gap between our expectation of respect and the reality of being disrespected. This gap produces feelings of disappointment that, if continued, result in malaise and even depression.
As our colleagues get to know us and see us work, we expect them to appreciate or recognize us for our talents and contributions. When they do, it makes us feel good and enhances engagement. If people don’t recognize us, it diminishes our engagement.
Working alongside colleagues and getting to know each other leads us to expect to be treated and thought of as integral parts of the community. In a word, we expect to belong.
Our engagement is further strengthened when we feel we have sufficient autonomy and control over our work. Engagement is diminished, however, when we feel others are micromanaging or over-controlling us. This behavior sends the message that we are incompetent or are not trusted or respected.
Engagement is enhanced when we experience personal growth. In other words, our work in the group is a good fit with our skills, providing enough challenge that we feel good when we rise to meet the challenge but not so much challenge that we become stressed out. When we are in the right role and are therefore more productive, we feel more satisfied, plus people notice and affirm us and that ties back to our need for recognition.
Finally, we are motivated when we know our work has meaning and we are around other people who share our belief that our work is important. Meaning comes from doing work that serves others well through truth, beauty or goodness. The pharmaceutical scientist serves others by discovering truth through research that identifies new drugs that help people. The designer serves others by creating beautiful visual corporate identities or packaging design that inspires people. The consumer products company salesperson serves others by selling products that improve the consumer’s quality of life.
To the extent that these expectations for respect, recognition, belonging, autonomy, personal growth, and meaning are met, we feel more engaged in our work. If they are not met, we feel disengaged.
If your organization is struggling to improve employee engagement, evaluate how your organization is doing when it comes to meeting the six universal human needs to thrive at work. Identifying and closing the gaps between expectation and reality will move your organization toward full employee engagement.
More From Michael Lee Stallard
Michael Lee Stallard is a thought leader, speaker and leading expert on how human connection in workplace cultures affects the health and performance of individuals and organizations. In addition to Fired Up or Burned Out, he is the primary author of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy and Understanding at Work.