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HR Leadership Column

Engagement through a New Lens

When attempting to engage employees, HR leaders must understand that individual motivations vary. They must try to create -- for themselves and others -- a sense of meaning, purpose, hope and pleasure on the job that, not only engages employees, but delivers value to customers, investors and communities.

Monday, June 14, 2010
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Recently, I've been slow to read the morning newspaper or check my favorite online news sources. I've also been starving my inner-news junkie by turning off the usual all-day stream of cable news.

I realized I had to pace myself a little more, or risk falling into a funk about the world around me.

Has anyone else noticed how the news seems a little more depressing recently? Headlines just the past few weeks include a catastrophic oil spill with no real end in sight, damaging an entire economy and eco-system; a stock-market slide linked to the economic instability of members of the European community; domestic unemployment remaining unexpectedly high; and tensions increasing between South and North Korea and between Turkey and Israel.

The weakness of the economic recovery has rippled through the world and our national zeitgeist with real implications for the workforce -- and for the human resource executives charged with maximizing worker engagement and productivity.

We know that, when employees come to work, they don't leave their personal lives and worries at the doorstep. The distractions and concerns created by this slow recovery seem even greater because of high rates of personal debt of many employees.

For some, losing a job today could mean homelessness tomorrow.

So, how do you engage a worker in this environment? Do the typical initiatives to increase employee engagement work?

The short answer is "yes," anything to increase engagement is a good thing. But perhaps it's also time to look at employee-engagement efforts through a slightly different lens.

A recent book by Dave and Wendy Ulrich, The Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations that Win, does this. In the book, the Ulrichs describe both the "why" and the "how" of work: "The why refers to the human search for meaning that finds its way into our offices and factories, a search that motivates, inspires, and defines us. The how gets us into the practicalities of how leaders facilitate that search personally and among their employees."

This book focuses on a simple question: How do great leaders create, for themselves and others, a sense of abundance (meaning, purpose, hope, pleasure) that not only engages employees, but also delivers value to customers, investors and communities?

The change in the engagement lens I see with this book is the effort to address -- head on -- the difficulty organizations face when trying to engage people who are all motivated by different things, and to shift engagement from simply "being present" to being emotionally and socially present.

If HR wants to help their leadership team and employees find greater meaning in their roles within the organization, they need to do more than ensure that everyone has a best friend at work or has been coached about their future career within the last 60 days.

Dave and Wendy Ulrich highlight that "meaning" is very personal, and HR executives and other leaders have to be more tailored and methodical in their approach. Drawing on research from multiple disciplines, they refine and deepen the concept of employee engagement, with the notion of "abundance," acknowledging that leaders must be willing to address spiritual as well as economic needs of their employees.

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In the Why of Work, the Ulrichs suggest a list of seven questions for leaders to ask, designed to elicit conversations about what their organizations are trying to accomplish, why and what those efforts suggest about the meaning of individual lives. The questions are:

* Who am I?

* Where am I going?

* Whom do I travel with?

* How do I build a positive work environment?

* What challenges interest me?

* How do I change, learn and grow?

* What delights me?

At first blush, these questions seem unrelated to business and the bottom line. But with each chapter, the Ulrichs address the questions, and explain why the answers can provide such a powerful catalyst to engagement -- and customer satisfaction and profitability.

If the voice of this book feels like a change from other books authored solely by Dave Ulrich, it is because it reflects the insights contributed by Wendy, a psychotherapist with more than 20 years of clinical experience.

For HR executives who are charged with elevating employee engagement, this book will offer them new insights into ways to increase their own engagement -- or to increase the abundance in their lives -- and increasing the value they bring to their organization. It's engagement through a new lens.

Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.

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