For decades now, companies have been relentlessly tracking levels of employee engagement. Every large company I know has an employee engagement survey it regularly administers. Is it possible that they’re tracking the wrong thing? I’ve come to believe that engagement is a distraction from the real issue – the lack of worker passion. Let me explain.
Employee engagement is a concept that is used widely and somewhat loosely. If I step back from all of the employee engagement studies and surveys that I’ve seen, the concept broadly focuses on three elements:
- Do the employees like the work they do?
- Do the employees like the people that they work with?
- Do the employees like and respect the company that they work for?
Why has employee engagement become such a significant issue for companies? It’s not just because it’s the “right thing” to do. It’s because more and more research suggests that engaged employees are substantially more productive than employees who are not engaged in their work. One widely quoted study showed a 21% increase in productivity if employees are engaged in their work. There’s a significant bump in productivity that can be fostering by creating more employee engagement.
In a time of mounting performance pressure, it’s completely understandable therefore why companies are so focused on worker engagement. A more productive workforce can be a significant competitive advantage in the marketplace.
So, why is employee engagement a distraction? Because it has limited impact. True, it generates a substantial improvement in productivity, but it’s a one-time improvement. The research shows that an engaged employee is more productive than an employee who is not engaged. But I’m not aware of any research that shows that engaged employees become more and more productive over time.
In a world of mounting performance pressure, that’s not enough. If you’re not accelerating performance improvement over time, you’ll become increasingly marginalized. You may buy yourself some time by expanding employee engagement, but it won’t be enough to keep up with markets that are demanding more and more rapid performance improvement.
Passion of the explorer
That’s the reason we ended up exploring arenas where sustained extreme performance improvement is required. We went into many arenas far removed from business, ranging from extreme sports to online war games. What did we learn? We found that, despite the great diversity of these arenas, they all had one common element: all the participants were deeply passionate about their quests.
Now, passion is another word that’s used widely and loosely. We found that the participants in these arenas had a very specific form of passion, something that we call the “passion of the explorer” and that we’ve written about here. This form of passion has three components:
- A long-term commitment to achieving an increasing impact in a domain
- A questing disposition that creates excitement when confronted with an unexpected challenge
- A connecting disposition that motivates the individual to systematically seek out others who can help them to get to a better answer faster when confronted with an unexpected challenge
That’s a powerful combination. People with the passion of the explorer are never satisfied or happy with what they have accomplished. What excites them is the next challenge on the horizon – it’s an opportunity to achieve more of their potential and take their impact in the domain to the next level. They are constantly seeking out those challenges and connecting with anyone who can help them address the challenge.
What drives passionate people is the opportunity to do better – constantly. Can you see why I’ve become so focused on passion as the key attribute for employees in a world of mounting performance pressure? These are the people that will be accelerating performance improvement over time, rather than just yielding the one-time productivity improvement that comes with engagement.
Who has passion?
Now, here’s the bad news. Our latest survey of the US workforce confirms that employee passion levels are remarkably low – far lower than employee engagement levels. Our best estimate based on our survey is that only 13% of workers have the passion of the explorer.
Why are passion levels so low? This isn’t an accident, but the deliberate product of the scalable efficiency model that all of our institutions have adopted. In a scalable efficiency world, workers are expected to deliver results predictably and reliably, performing highly specified and standardized tasks that are tightly integrated.
In that kind of work environment, passion is deeply suspect. Passionate workers don’t keep to the script and they’re constantly taking risks to get to that next level of performance – something that’s anathema in the scalable efficiency world where “failure is not an option.”
That’s why our school systems have been systematically designed to take students who are curious, creative and imaginative and train them to listen carefully, memorize what they’ve heard and repeat it back reliably on exams. The message is that, if you have a passion, that’s what playgrounds are for but, when you’re in the classroom, you need to focus on the assigned task. Our schools seek to make us successful in a scalable efficiency world.
I’m often told that it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to develop and nurture a passion in work. A common view is that passion is restricted to the select few and that most of us just want to be told what to do and receive a reliable paycheck in return. My response is to take those skeptics out to a playground and watch children 5-6 years old. There’s not a single one who isn’t passionate and curious and creative. Something happens between that age and the age that we’re at now – and my belief is that it’s our experience with the institutions that teach us to leave our passion outside.
If the schools don’t squeeze the passion out of us, our work environments surely will. But, here’s the challenge. As I’ve written before we’re moving from a world where our institutions are driven by scalable efficiency to a world where our institutions will be driven by scalable learning. And passion, which is so suspect in a scalable efficiency world, becomes a prerequisite in a scalable learning world.
People with passion will learn faster and accelerate performance improvement much more effectively than those who lack passion. I’ve written elsewhere about the need to redesign work environments with the primary design goal of accelerating learning and performance improvement. There’s a lot that can be done to apply design thinking and methodologies in this context to our work environment. But, if the people in those environments lack passion, they won’t be able to harness the full potential of those environments.
Another issue with employee engagement
As indicated earlier, employee engagement is characterized by happiness with the work and work environment. While this is certainly a laudable goal, it does have its downside. If the employee is really happy with the work that they’re doing and the people they’re working with, what’s likely to be their reaction when faced with the prospect of fundamental change? There’s a risk that they will resist the change – they’re happy with what they’re already doing. Why mess with a good thing? Engagement can breed conservatism and resistance to change, something that could be dangerous in a world where fundamental change is becoming more and more necessary.
In contrast, passionate employees welcome change, provided it can help them get to the next level of impact. In fact, they’re often frustrated with the current environment because they can see all the institutional obstacles that are undermining their ability to increase their impact. Even more, they get bored and restless if the environment isn’t changing and providing them with more opportunities to have even more impact.
The dilemma of engagement
Here’s something that I’ve never seen discussed. If employee engagement is so important and companies are spending so much money over decades to drive engagement levels higher, why have engagement levels remained so low?
I suspect that the answer might be troubling to institutional leaders. Maybe the reason that engagement levels remain so low despite so much focus and spending is that scalable efficiency environments are simply not conducive to engagement, much less passion. Maybe we humans don’t particularly like to be put into environments where we are expected to perform tightly specified and highly standardized tasks day in and day out. Maybe that’s not what humans were meant to do with their lives.
Maybe this is yet another reason to step back and question some basic assumptions. Perhaps the shift from scalable efficiency to scalable learning is not just necessary for our institutions, but essential for us as humans to achieve more of our potential and to feel that we are in fact needed as individuals, rather than just cogs in a well-oiled machine.
What can leaders do?
For those who recognize the imperative to catalyze and amplify passion within the workforce, what is to be done? I develop this in much more detail in our new research report, but here’s a high level view of the opportunity to drive change:
Lead by example. If you as a leader are not passionate about the work you do, all the words in the world will not inspire others to pursue their passion. Celebrate those who are passionate (remember there are 13% of the workers who already have this kind of passion) and who are taking risks in addressing challenges that will help them, and the organization, get to higher and higher levels of performance.
Provide focus. The most effective leaders in a scalable learning environment are not those with all the answers, they’ll be the ones with most inspiring and high impact questions. These questions help employees to focus on the challenges that matter but they also highlight the opportunity to get to new levels of performance. If the leader is excited by the questions, it will help to generate excitement within the workforce.
Create the environment. We can do a lot to create environments that will help catalyze and nurture passion. Provide platforms that can help people who are excited by high impact questions to find each other, connect with each other and learn from each other as they take on the challenge of getting to the next level of performance. Deploy experimentation platforms that invite workers to test out new approaches while managing the risk associated with those new initiatives.
The bottom line
In a world of mounting performance pressure, we need to shift our focus from employee engagement to employee passion. This is an imperative not just for our institutions, also for all of us as individuals. We have an opportunity to create far more value and achieve far more of our potential than we ever imagined possible. But to harness that opportunity, we need to navigate through the big shift from scalable efficiency to scalable learning.