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Engaged work driven by 3 needs

“Research indicates that workers have three prime needs: Interesting work, recognition for doing a good job, and being let in on things that are going on in the company.” – Zig Ziglar

It is a fascinating thought experiment to boil work engagement down to these 3 questions:

  • Do I find my work interesting? Could also be stated as pleasantly challenging or that feeling of anticipation to dig into a project.
  • Am I recognized for my work or the contribution I make to the organization? Considering we spend so much of our lives at work, if we are not recognized on a VERY regularly basis, it could be like growing up with a family who never expressed love. I would think lack of recognition could be damaging to a person’s psychological health.
  • Do I know what is going on in the business around me? I suppose this is a pathway of sorts. If I don’t know what is going on, how will I be able to contribute in the best way? I can’t do my best work if I have limited context for how I fit in.

There are likely many more ways that employees might express feelings of disengagement when asked. There are times when gathering lots of data is a good idea. But, when trying to address issues which are critical to people, I think it is most important to keep it simple. If we can’t answer the easy questions first, there is no need to go further.

If I think about my own experience with decades of working years behind me, the answers to these 3 questions are key to understanding how I felt about each position I have held. Everything with a new employer seemed to start out with so much promise. Like falling in love, a new job is a wonderful thing. But just like a romantic relationship, staying in love takes effort from both sides.

Finding interesting work to do has never been a challenge for me. Achieving a good balance with the things I do and don’t like to do is another matter. At some points in my career I became fixated on the negative so that I couldn’t appreciate the parts of my work that I liked. I’ve also experienced periods where my interest fades when I became quite skilled. Strong leaders would increase the challenge at that point. But, the employee needs to communicate how they feel about their level of interest.

Recognition is a curious topic for me. On one hand I don’t think I require it. On the other hand I can clearly remember the times I was missing it. As well, I think that it is human nature to point out what is going wrong in a loud voice and give out encouragement or recognition in a rather soft one. I don’t mean the actual pitch of speech, (although I have experienced leaders who yell), but rather the quality of word choice. Communication is going to be perceived as negative if it mostly contains criticism, veiled as ‘improvement needed’ type of comments!

Knowing what is going on in the business around me or having ‘inside information’, is a tricky thing. Being loaded up with too much of this kind of knowledge can feel like a burden, particularly if you have to hold it for a long time. When it is finally communicated, others can feel really left out. That FOMO, (fear of missing out), is a powerful driver of disconnection between people. Being OK with information being passed to you at the right time is a difficult skill to learn.

Balancing my feelings about interest, recognition and access to information is probably where I have struggled the most. Within the same company, but over different time periods and leaders, my perception of importance shifted. For example, I have experienced a change in role that created very high interest. Recognition was inconsistent and to some degree, more negative than positive. Where I had once been given access to loads of information, I found myself on the outside. This situation was very distressing for me.

Years later, as I reflect on the example from above I can see the problem more clearly. I wanted it all. I expected high interest, positive recognition and the same access to what was going on in the company as I had been given previously. I could not reconcile the difference between my expectations and reality. I couldn’t be grateful for how good I had it, I was focused on what was not perfect or what I had lost. Not knowing what was going on felt like a demotion. Having feedback focused primarily on what was not working made me feel hyper focused on constantly finding solutions and feeling on my back foot. Burnout was probably inevitable.

I still struggle with these 3 ideas of engagement. The line between being content and striving for more is not obvious to me. I receive negative feedback more loudly than positive comments. I am highly motivated by interesting and challenging work. Having deep access to information and all the responsibility that comes with that, is not a problem for me, I thrive in that environment. My challenge is to balance my expectations to reality. I suppose that is true in all aspects of life, anyway.

“Set the standard! Stop expecting others to show you love, acceptance, commitment, & respect when you don’t even show that to yourself.”
― Steve Maraboli, Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience

I have finally arrived at an equilibrium. I try to do my best work and then walk away feeling satisfied. I’m paying attention to what is in front of me and serving the person who is most effected by what I do. That could even be me, sometimes. I’m not striving to impress my boss or be the smartest person in the room anymore. I wish I had figured this out earlier.

As a leader, I have to do more than set a good example with my behaviour. It is my responsibility to lean in and lift people up. I don’t always have the answers, but loads of information is at hand to help me, help others. Some interesting ideas include:

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