Employee Engagement: Flow


Think about a time when work seemed effortless. When the hours flew by without your even realizing. When you finished a time-consuming task and you weren’t emotionally drained. When words, notes, or ideas seemed to spring from your mind fully formed. Have you ever felt like that? You probably have, and you probably loved it. That’s flow. It’s when hard work becomes easy and excellence ceases to be a chore. At times, the end of the day may mean you’re exhausted. At the same time, what you do is exciting, renewing, and energizing. You’re ready to take on another round.


Because employees are motivated in great part by the desire to become more proficient at something that matters to them, everyone ultimately aspires to what is referred to as flow, the mental state first described by psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow, he says, is, “The state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.” pg. 131, MAGIC: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Employee Engagement.


Download our new whitepaper, “MAGIC: Five Keys for Managers to Unlock the Power of Employee Engagement.”



Employee Engagement: Fully Engaged


Employee engagement is an emotional state where we feel passionate, energetic, and committed toward our work. In turn, we fully invest our best selves—our hearts, spirits, minds, and hands—in the work we do. When you see engagement, you know it. When you feel engaged at work, you know it. Most people spend a large portion of their life’s time invested in their careers. How important is it to spend that time being fully engaged in the work we do? Are we happier being fully engaged in our work or simply passing the time collecting a paycheck?


Download the new whitepaper, MAGIC: Five Keys for Managers to Unlock the Power of Employee Engagement.

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. In other words, we’re most engaged not when we’re kicking back but when we’re kicking butt.” pg. 131, MAGIC: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Employee Engagement.

Finding Meaning at Work

Does Your Job Have Meaning Beyond the Work Itself?


When was the last time you felt that the work you were doing had meaning or was about more than just making money? Have you ever done something that filled you so completely that you could work nonstop for hours without realizing it?


If you have, then you know what we mean by “MEANING.” Meaning is how we go from job, to career, to calling. It’s when you know that your work makes a difference that you care about personally. Meaning is why we work beyond the obvious reason of getting a paycheck. It’s also critical because it’s the factor that sustains us during times of difficulty, stress, or challenge. It helps us see past issues and focus on reasons we’re working in the first place. It’s where the heart really kicks in.


DecisionWise Employee Engagement MeaningZookeepers are an interesting example.

Researchersstudying zookeepers found that they are uniquely engaged in their work (something any four-year-old could have told you.). The most interesting part of the research centered on why the zookeepers were so engaged in what is by any standard a demanding occupation. The researchers discovered that while much of the work is decidedly unglamorous (cleaning up animal poop) and some is downright dangerous (working with injured or agitated animals), the zookeepers also felt their work had a greater purpose: caring for every aspect of their jobs was engaging, their jobs as a whole engaged them deeply. They not only brought their hearts and spirits to their work, they did something significant with their minds and hands because of their feelings. They created their own engagement.


Finding Meaning at Work

So many things create meaning for employees and help them become engaged in their jobs. While nowhere near complete, here is a small list of ways we’ve seen employees find meaning in their jobs and become engaged.

    • Mentoring younger employees
    • Earning enough money to pay for their kids to be the first in their family to attend college
    • Helping create products that clean the environment
    • Preventing crime or abuse
    • Improving people’s health
    • Giving people a voice
    • Assembling an awesome product
    • Designing beautiful things
    • Keeping people safe
    • Rescuing or caring for wildlife or environment

How do you find meaning at work? What other ways can you add to this list?


More insight along these lines can be found in our book, MAGIC, Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Employee Engagement.



1J.Stuart Bunderson and Jeffery A. Thompson, “Measuring the Meaning of Meaningful Work: Development and Validation of the Comprehensive Meaningful Work Scale” (CMWS), Group & Organization Management 37, (October 1, 2012): 655-85.


Engaged Versus Disengaged Organizations

Engaged Versus Disengaged Organizations

Employee Engagement Surveys are great in measuring engaged versus disengaged organizations.

They serve as a gauge for not only identifying current levels of engagement, but also in predicting future issues, such as potential attrition, quality issues, and even profitability concerns. They help us identify best practices, and share these with other parts of the organization. In short, they serve as an excellent real-time check on the health of the culture within the organization.

But, aside from looking at survey results, how can we tell whether or not we have an engaged organization?

Taken from our latest book, MAGIC: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Employee Engagement, we’ve put together a short list of what to expect in an engaged organization versus one that is disengaged:

Engaged Organization Disengaged Organization
Employees take primary responsibility for their own engagement. Employees leave engagement up to the organization.
Employees are the strongest advocates for their company and their brand; our research shows that in these companies, more than 80 percent feel that an insult to the company is also a personal insult. Employees don’t care about the organization, and talk negatively about their jobs and superiors.
Employees remain committed, even during hard times. During difficult times, employees complain, blame, shirk duties, or leave (psychologically or physically).
Employees eagerly bring quality and safety issues to management’s attention. Employees have little commitment to safety or quality, beyond required compliance.
Employees create energy in others that can be felt–it’s almost palpable. Employees drain energy from others. The organization feels lethargic.
There is appreciation, gratitude, and willingness to contribute. Employees feel entitled. They become resentful when they don’t receive what they feel entitled to.
Employees engage customers, vendors, and each other. Employees are apathetic.
Employees can engage whether at the office, telecommuting, or traveling. Employees won’t put forth discretionary effort away from the supervision of bosses.
Collaboration is active and enthusiastic. Sabotage is occurring, whether actively or passively.
There is a “we” mentality. There is a “me” mentality.
The organization is self-led, empowered, and determined. The organization is over-managed and under-led.
Feelings of engagement and love for the job are genuine. Enthusiasm for the job is blatantly artificial.


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5 Examples of Toxic Workplace Practices that Kill Employee Engagement

We spend a lot of time discussing how to increase employee engagement, but what about the things that will immediately nix those efforts? Sure you can create development plans for your employees and share a meaningful company vision, but those efforts will be for naught if any of these toxic elements exist in the workplace:

  1. Oppressive Boss: Years ago I spent a significant amount of time working as a volunteer. I was thrilled to spend my time doing work that I found personally meaningful, challenging, and impactful in an organization where I felt connected. I thought nothing could bring me down from this engagement high. About halfway through my time there, I started reporting to an extremely demeaning boss. He questioned every detail of my work, and no matter how much success I demonstrated or effort I exerted, I was never good enough. I soon found myself going through the motions (using my hands and mind), but I’d lost all of my passion for the work. My heart and spirit weren’t in it anymore. Luckily after just a few months I received a new boss, and I quickly realized the difference. The new boss helped create an environment of trust, growth, and meaning where I could choose to be engaged again.
  2. Toxic Co-worker: This is the “one bad apple” idea. I once worked closely with a man who never had anything positive to say about our company. You know the type. He constantly complained about processes and politics. Prior to working with him, I hadn’t noticed any of these issues and was fairly engaged in my work; however, as I started thinking more about his perspective, I began to wonder if he was right. I found myself quickly spiraling into a disengaged state, and I no longer felt the same enthusiasm for my work.
  3. Unsafe Environment: In our book MAGIC, we site an example of an automobile manufacturing plant where an employee was assaulted in the parking lot on the way to work. Talk about an instant engagement killer! Safety is a basic hygiene factor that certainly doesn’t cause engagement, but the lack thereof makes engagement impossible.
  4. Burnout: The perpetual state of too much to do and too little time. I once worked with a team of brilliant engineers who started out passionate about their work, but after two years of insufficient resources leading to missed deadlines, retention on the team suffered.
  5. Ethical Concerns: This can include everything from reporting tips as a waitress to accounting at Enron. I once had a job where I was regularly asked to create reports which included numbers that I thought were misleading. I wasn’t the person ultimately responsible for accuracy, but it still didn’t feel right. I found it difficult to fully engage in my work when I was faced with an ethical dilemma on a regular basis. Still, ethics report may help you identify some problems existing in the employee’s environment.

As a manager, you should watch for signs of any of these toxic elements that will kill employee engagement. Managers need to ensure that employees have an environment in which they can choose to be engaged. Engagement is still a 50-50 proposition, but a toxic environment won’t allow any employee to bring his or her 50% to the equation.


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Does Paying to Freeze Eggs Increase Employee Engagement?

Last year, I wrote a blog post regarding the “perks arms race” happening in Silicon Valley. The latest weapon in this race was announced last month by Apple and Facebook – egg freezing for female employees. This move just took perks to a whole new level of personal. Not only can you take care of all your grooming needs at work via onsite hairstyling and dental care, but now you can include family planning in that ever-increasing list of benefits.


This is a prime example of the Adaptation Principle at work.


Employees of these types of companies now expect certain perks, like free food in the cafeteria, bringing their dogs to work, and impressive stock grants. It’s no longer a bonus, but rather the cost of employment. In order to offer what feels like a perk these days, companies have to be increasingly creative.


The question now is the effectiveness of offering such creative perks. Will egg freezing attract and retain top female (and male) talent? And, more importantly, will egg freezing actually increase employee engagement, or will it simply be yet another form of golden handcuffs? Based on the effectiveness of perks in the past, my suspicion lies heavily in the handcuffs option. If an employee isn’t truly engaged in her work (offering heart, hands, mind, and spirit), she may still choose to stay at the company because it’s paying for her potential future children to be put on hold. And that’s not the reason you want an employee to stay. You want an employee to stay because she is enthusiastic about the work she does, willing to go above and beyond to find creative solutions and provide value. No perk, however creative, can inspire those feelings in an employee.


Want to find creative ways to attract, retain, and engage employees? Consider the meaning in their daily work. How are they changing lives? What opportunities are available for growth and learning? Who are the people they can connect with? A company that can provide meaningful work with opportunities for growth and people with whom I can connect – now THAT’S a company I want to work for, regardless of the perks they do or don’t offer.


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How Patagonia Creates an Impact Environment to Foster Employee Engagement

Do You Leave Work Each Day Feeling Like You Accomplished Something Worthwhile?

Impact is one of the five keys of employee engagement.  We experience impact when we see positive and worthwhile outcomes and results of our work. It’s incremental progress toward a goal, and small wins that lead to big outcomes. We all need to see that the work we do is contributing to our own goals, the success of our team, those whom we serve, and the organization we are a part of. It’s the difference between simply showing up for work and knowing that we’re an integral part of the day’s operations.


Our employee engagement survey research shows that managers consistently fail to recognize employees for their contributions. This same research tells us that many employees don’t see that the work they do translates into results. They spend a significant part of the day spinning their wheels, not going very far. However, when leaders define goals and set clear expectations, measure and acknowledge progress, and help employees see progress, employees are far more likely to engage in their work and contribute to the organization’s success.


How Patagonia Creates an Impact Environment to Foster Employee Engagement



Since its founding in 1973, clothing company Patagonia has demonstrated an unshakeable commitment to environmental stewardship as well as a deep, family-oriented corporate culture. In 2011, the company did something extraordinary that really let its people see the impact of its environmental beliefs: the Buy Less campaign. Patagonia took out a full-page ad in the New York Times exhorting people not to buy as much of its outdoor apparel in order to reduce the industry’s environmental footprint. The company also created an online marketplace on Patagonia.com where its customers could buy and sell used clothing items. Apart from burnishing its public image, the online initiative also gave employees an easy way to go online and watch their employer put its money where its mouth is on resource conservation.


By the way, Patagonia’s famously intimate and engaged workforce helped sales grow by 33 percent in 2012, a year when overall U.S. apparel retail sales grew by just 2.9 percent!


A manager can set the tone for the environment in which an employee can choose to be engaged. The boss can set clear targets, and measure progress against these targets. This allows the employee and the organization to gauge progress, one of the key components of impact. The manager can regularly provide feedback, and recognize and reward performance, but it’s the employee who must choose to be engaged.


Patagonia is an example of a company that created meaning and impact for their employees. Organizations that close the distance between work and impact have higher levels of employee engagement.


Want to learn more about how other companies create an engaged culture?

Read “MAGIC: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Employee Engagement” now available in bookstores and online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.



7 Ways Executive Leadership Can Improve Employee Engagement

Research on the ROI of employee engagement has proven time and again that organizations that create an engaging environment perform better than their competitors.  Results show that engaged companies:

  • Experience a 19.2 percent growth in operating income (over a 12-month period)
  • Grow profits as much as three times than their competitors
  • Have employees that are 87 percent less likely to leave the organization
  • Have two times higher productivity
  • Show as much as a 55% increase in customer satisfaction scores

Executive leadership can improve employee engagement by implementing some of these seven simple and low-cost initiatives that will drive organizational performance.

  1. Communication efforts that connect workers with the direct results of their work
  2. Clear vision and direction
  3. A corporate culture that reflects and promotes a set of widely held, clear values
  4. Inviting and acting on employee ideas and feedback
  5. Attention to satisfaction factors such as compensation, perks, and physical security
  6. Apply strengths tests to help discover and develop their strengths to improve performance and engagement at work
  7. Programs that help employees develop new skills and pursue innovative ideas without the fear of failure
  8. Allowing employees to better control the conditions of their environment

These initiatives work provided they are based on an intimate knowledge of what your employees care about, what motives them, and what they hope to get from work beyond a paycheck. It’s the responsibility of leadership teams to create the atmosphere where employees are able to engage. There are as many strategies and tactics that can inspire employees to engage as there are different kinds of organizations, and not all need to be radical or costly.


4 Psychological Obstacles to Personal Growth and Employee Engagement

Do You Regularly Feel Challenged and Stretched?

There is a strong link between personal growth and employee engagement. Growing in our jobs doesn’t always mean getting a promotion or a raise; these are components of satisfaction. Growth is about mastering new skills, taking on challenges, and pushing to be better—both professionally and personally.


But many employees don’t find their work challenging enough to keep them engaged. Imagine the untapped potential! On the other hand, stretching, taken to the extreme, can result in unhealthy stress. Growth strikes the balance between boredom and burnout.


It seems like everyone would and should want to grow and become a better person, but some people simply don’t see the need for growth.


The fact is most of us are just not very good at assessing our own need for growth. We’re all a little deluded when it comes to looking in the mirror and seeing our shortcomings.

There have been some notable psychological theories about why some of us resolutely refuse to pursue opportunities that will make us better, more skilled, and more successful:

  1. The Lake Wobegon effect (funny name, serious theory): This is the tendency to overrate our own abilities in relation to other people. Simply put, it states we think we’re better than we are. We don’t grow because we already think we’ve arrived.
  2. Positive illusion: This is the tendency to overestimate one’s positive qualities and capabilities while underestimating one’s negative qualities.
  3. American Idol Syndrome: This theory states that we surround ourselves with people who support and reinforce our self-concept. We avoid potential criticism by creating a circle of people who tell us only what we want to hear.
  4. The Dunning-Kruger effect: In this cognitive bias that’s become much more common (thanks to the narcissus reflecting pool that is the Internet), unskilled individuals mistakenly believe their ability to be much higher than it actually is. One just has to look at the YouTube videos and selfies to see what some people think of their own ability.

Our research on over-raters supports this. We conduct thousands of 360-degree feedback surveys. The individual is presented with information about his or her performance and behaviors as seen through the eyes of others. The individual rates himself/herself on the same criteria that others rate them on. When the raters are compared, 78 percent of managers score themselves higher than others score them. What does this show? Well, it means we are typically poor at seeing our own areas for growth.


Managers need to help and guide employees to help them grow. Given consistent opportunities to grow, along with the support they need, most people will engage. Denied those opportunities, people disengage, become apathetic, and leave.



How to Leverage the Five Keys of Employee Engagement

magic-modelTo become an engaged employee, you first need to have the basic elements of job satisfaction. These include pay, benefits, tools and resources, and a safe working environment. Once you are satisfied with these elements, you can fully engage in your work. Our research shows that the five keys to employee engagement include Meaning, Autonomy, Growth, Impact, and Connection.


We’re commonly asked: “Do I have to have all five MAGIC keys present in order to be engaged?”


The simple answer is yes. But it goes deeper than that. A few points are critical to understand in response to this question:

  1. Every variation of the MAGIC keys need not be present in order for you to engage. Let’s look at autonomy, for example. In our roles as consultants working with our partners on engagement initiatives, we spend a good deal of time onsite in their facilities, our spatial and temporal autonomy is restricted. We have some degree of control, but that’s limited by client needs. Are we disengaged? Not at all. We have a great deal of task autonomy, as well as social autonomy. While it’s important for each MAGIC key to be present in order for you to engage, these keys can be present in different ways.
  2. For most people, different MAGIC keys carry different weight. For you, connection may be critical; for others, the idea of social connection is actually disengaging (introverted much?). The socially reticent person may still find organizational connection to be important.
  3. What engages you will not necessarily engage another person. Company engagement initiatives that try to impose engagement on employees are doomed for the simple reason that while a corporate plan to have employees volunteer at local homeless shelters may resonate with some employees, it won’t resonate with all of them.
  4. With engagement, frequency and intensity matter. Do you find meaning in what you do every day or only on occasion? Is the work you do deeply meaningful to the degree to which it feels like your life’s mission, or is it something you merely feel is important until something better comes along? The greater the frequency and intensity with which you experience the MAGIC keys, the greater your level of engagement will be.

The point is to leverage the five keys of employee engagement in a personal way that makes sense for you. If you find that one key is lacking, either try to improve it or look for strength in the other keys to fulfill your need to be engaged.


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