Is an engaged employee born or bred?
(November 23, 2009)
Lots of people are talking about employee engagement because of its relationship to a number of outcomes like retention, performance, and customer loyalty. There seems to be a predominant focus on how to create (or breed) engaged employees through specific leadership and management practices.
However, there is an additional aspect of engagement that is worthy of discussion. Namely, that engaged employees may be born, not bred. We have all witnessed the corporate cheerleader whose optimism and energy know no bounds, and have endured the office buzz kill who spends most of his time getting others to agree about how bad things are now and how much worse they will become. Not even the best leadership practices will convert the chronic buzz kill into a cheerleader. Some researchers have linked the concept of engagement to the rather esoteric term positive affectivity—the extent to which a person has high energy, full concentration, and pleasurable engagement. Interestingly, research has shown that 40% of the differences in people’s positive affectivity is due to hereditary factors.
So, if a significant amount of a person’s engagement is hardwired, what does this mean for companies and managers who want to have engaged employees? One thing it means is that engagement should be assessed during the hiring process. Has the applicant demonstrated engagement in the past? You might ask a question in the interview like, “Can you give me some examples of when you were so involved in a task that you completely lost track of time?” The number and quality of examples would reflect this person’s capability to be absorbed and dedicated, which are indicators of engagement. You should also assess what drives and motivates each applicant (e.g., task significance, skill variety, autonomy) and whether your organizational environment can meet the applicant’s specific needs. If you do not pay attention to the individual’s predisposition to be engaged and the organization’s ability to support each individual’s drives and motives, you will not reap the maximum benefit from people who have the natural tendency to be more engaged, and you may suffer the consequences of increased pessimism, skepticism, and negativity from those who have the tendency to be more disengaged.
Does your organization assess engagement as part of the hiring process?