Why engagement?

Why leverage engagement as a driver of behavior?

Scientists have found, and our own experience confirms, that human beings have a mix of drives. One is the biological drive. We eat when we’re hungry, drink when we’re thirsty and have sex to satisfy our carnal urges. That first drive is part of what it is to be human. Few would dispute that. But equally, few would argue that the biological drive explains everything it is to be human (except perhaps in the case of young men between the ages of 15 and 18).

After all, we also have a second drive. You, I and the rest of our species often respond exquisitely to rewards and punishments in our environment. Promise us a pay rise or a bonus, and we’ll work harder. Threaten to dock us for showing up late or for incorrectly completing a form, and we’ll arrive on time and tick every box. This second drive “ our reward-and-punishment drive “ is part of who we are. But once again, it’s not all we are.

Because human beings also have a third drive. We do things even when they don’t satisfy our biological urges, win us a reward or help us avoid a punishment. We play musical instruments during the weekend simply to master something challenging. We quit high-paying jobs to take new jobs that are less lucrative but more meaningful. Human beings, says University of Rochester psychologist Edward Deci, have an “inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise their capacities, to explore and to learn . Few would deny that this third drive is also part of what it is to be human.

In the business world, however, we too often stop at that second drive. We organise our enterprises around the belief that the way to improve performance is through an elaborate architecture of carrots and sticks. If we reward the behaviour we seek, and punish the behaviour we dislike, individuals will perform at a high level and their organisations will flourish. Or so the theory goes. In the 19th and 20th century, that approach “ enacted in businesses large and small on both sides of the Atlantic “ had a sturdy logic. Indeed, it works quite well when people are doing relatively simple, routine, rule-based work, whether this involves turning a screw on an assembly line or processing paper in an office.

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