An asset-focused approach to employee engagement for organizational professionals
Employee engagement has long been a predictor of organizational performance. To boost engagement, many Human Resources professionals, and providers of employee-engagement surveys, emphasize the importance of creating the conditions so employees can flourish—such as managerial support, access to information and resources, and opportunities to develop and grow. They are all important. But when your employees are skilled professionals, it’s crucial to put the professionals in the driver’s seat when it comes to engagement.
Organizational professionals—classically known as knowledge workers—contribute substantial value by virtue of their formal education, functional expertise, strengths, and experience. Each professional is unique and multidimensional, motivated by certain passions and propelled by individual ambitions. While they may work in teams and within defined organizational structures, it can be constructive to think of each professional as an individual, self-contained contributor, moving through their careers under their own steam, toward destinations of their own making.
With that frame of reference, the engagement equation changes. The professional becomes the active agent. Rather than waiting to perform their best until certain conditions are provided by others, they take charge of their engagement, just as they take charge of their own professional development and career.
For professionals to thrive in this construct of engagement, certain elements must be activated in each person, including their passions, their strengths, their authentic contributions, and their character.
The importance of activating professionals’ passions and strengths
There is ample evidence, going back to self-determination theory, that people do their best work when they have the agency to pursue what they love to do and what they are good at doing. When that’s the case, they have more energy. They can bring forth their gifts. Their contributions can be richer and more dimensional.
While organizational professionals are bounded by their job descriptions and obligated to fulfill certain objectives, they nonetheless can bring their passions and strengths to their job if they choose to. If a professional loves problem-solving and excels at it, then they can seek opportunities to do so within their job. If they are motivated by connecting people together and are good at doing so, then they can incorporate that into their work. Because skilled professionals have agency, they can choose to add their passions and strengths to what they do on the job.
Importantly, professionals need to know what motivates them the most and what they’re consistently good at doing. This calls for self-examination, a potentially joyful discovery process that can span beyond searching the skills and accomplishments in their résumé to include other passions and strengths: “I love and am great at mentoring younger workers.” “I excel at and have passion for distilling complex challenges and finding the most strategic way forward.” “I’m delighted when I get to onboard new clients, and people tell me I’m great at it.”
Once they discover and take ownership of what motivates them, professionals must then make deliberate decisions and take intentional actions to bring their passions and strengths to work. This reveals an important element in this revised approach to engagement for professionals—with agency comes responsibility. Professionals may have the freedom to bring their best to work, but their level of engagement also depends on how and whether they activate it.
The importance of making authentic, active contributions
As management thought leader and pioneer Peter F. Drucker wrote in 2005, a knowledge worker should be preoccupied with these questions: “What should my contribution be? … What does the situation require? Given my strengths, my way of performing, and my values, how can I make the greatest contribution to what needs to be done? And finally, what results have to be achieved to make a difference?”1
Whatever their role in the organization or the team, professionals should ask and answer these questions regularly. Implicit in Drucker’s questions is, again, the topic of agency: Knowledge workers bring unique assets to work, and as such have certain power to apply those assets should they choose to. With his questions, however, Drucker is also underscoring the individual responsibility each professional has to contribute their best to the job, to the team, to the larger goals.
By answering Drucker’s questions, professionals can tap into another element of self-directed engagement: the deep satisfaction that comes when they make their best contribution to joint objectives. When a professional can say “I offered my best, and it made a difference,” that is very powerful, and serves as fuel to propel them to the next project and the one after that. However, it starts with confronting the questions, and answering them fully and responsibly.
The importance of character
Organizational professionals do not work in isolation. Even if they are self-propelled and self-motivated, they operate in a larger system that includes other people and other considerations. For professionals to make their best contributions, they must also demonstrate excellent character.
Character means: I can be trusted. I fulfill the promises I make. I have the greater good in mind. I help and look after others. I am reliable. I seek to become better.
In the system of organizational work, a professional’s expression of passions and strengths, and even their authentic contributions, mean little if their character is deficient. If I offer you my best ideas and creativity and they make a positive difference, but I break my promises and denigrate my colleagues along the way, then the net effects will be more negative than positive. Character in an organizational context means that even though professionals have agency, they also have larger obligations about who they are in relation to others.
This engagement equation for organizational professionals—with passions, strengths, authentic contributions, and character at the center—is not meant to suggest that the professionals are entirely on their own. Others in the organization have a role, too.
Creating a support system for professional engagement
In organizations where skilled professionals are seen as primary agents of their own engagement, there are critical roles for organizational leaders to play:
- Team leaders and supervisors can assign tasks that encourage and challenge professionals to put forth their passions and strengths on behalf of organizational and team efforts. They can be champions, coaches, mentors, and advocates for resources.
- Human Resources professionals can provide infrastructure and resources to support and measure engagement. They can serve as brokers to enable individual professionals to contribute their gifts and energies to different parts of the organization and on behalf of strategic goals.
- Executives can champion authenticity, passion, ethics, and drive. They can mentor, advise, and model engagement excellence.
Like other approaches, this one acknowledges the systems nature of employee engagement, and the different levers available to support it. But it also emphasizes the agency and responsibilities of professionals to drive their own engagement, recognizing the distinctive and powerful role they play on behalf of organizations and the larger economy.
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