CEO at Debut Group, experience & communication design powered by behavioral science & AI. Author of the upcoming book, Engagement: Decoded.
How often do you think about quitting? With job uncertainty as high as many of us will ever experience, it is not surprising that droves of employees are trying to regain some control in their lives by changing companies or careers.
In April 2021, almost 3% of the American workforce—4 million workers—voluntarily left their jobs. That was 1 million more resignations than April 2020. That’s like the entire state of Rhode Island quitting in one month. The record-breaking trend now called the Great Reshuffle had arrived.
These staggering numbers have experts scrambling to understand the ongoing impact of the Great Reshuffle. Large-scale workforce surveys show that the challenges of remote work and social isolation, alongside other factors, have over 60% of North American workers feeling disengaged from work.
At the same time, the evidence shows that companies able to meaningfully engage with their employees enjoy competitive advantages like decreased turnover and absenteeism as well as higher profitability compared to those that can’t or won’t.
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So, how can you achieve engagement? This article reveals the crucial ingredient for navigating the Great Reshuffle and engaging with employees—understanding the mental processes motivating workers’ decisions using insights from behavioral science.
Researchers have been studying work engagement for decades. Despite these efforts, attempts to apply this research to business practice have been routinely met with the engagement definition barrier—there are so many conflicting definitions of engagement, it is unclear how they should be put into practice. This leaves some companies using definitions of engagement that are unclear or poorly linked to business success.
Engagement is fundamentally about connecting with people. To understand engagement, we must consider how the brain processes information at work. In our 25 years of working with companies to increase engagement, we have learned that the best way to engage with audiences is by creating what we call cognitive resonance—a psychological state in which people feel connected, attentive and inspired. Attentional economics, strategic mood induction and value internalization are factors that build off each other to create cognitive resonance, the precursor to behavior change.
Attention is a limited resource. Our senses continuously collect far more information than our brains can process or remember. As a result, our minds are in a constant state of triage, attending to selected details from our environment that seem important or interesting. This happens largely outside of our awareness and represents an information bottleneck into our minds.
One way we manage our attention is by creating psychological boundaries, a process called boundary management. This includes boundaries between work and nonwork roles. These roles are typically reinforced physically—work happens at the workplace during set hours. Or it used to. The remote and hybrid work models required to respond to the pandemic changed that for many people.
Constantly dividing your attention between multiple roles like parent, spouse and employee is exhausting. When our attentional systems don’t get the breaks they badly need, stress, increased conflict and burnout occur.
Re-creating physical aspects of work at home can help workers manage the boundaries between their work and home lives. This includes things like maintaining a workspace as physically separate from your living space as possible. Continuing to dress the part can also help. Enclothed cognition research has shown that selective attention is increased when wearing appropriate clothes.
Strategic Mood Induction
Strategic mood induction is being deliberate about when and how we induce emotion to produce meaningful and memorable experiences without overstimulating. Humans are fundamentally emotional. Our emotions influence almost everything we do in ways we are only sometimes directly aware of.
Strategic mood induction means matching the mood to the context, which does not always mean uplifting the mood. Social isolation and economic recession resulting from the global pandemic have affected many people’s mental health. During the pandemic, about 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, four times the reported rate from January to June of 2019.
This should inform planning around what moods are appropriate for company communications and events. Looking to foster hope, appreciation or resilience rather than excitement at your next company event, for example, may align more closely with people’s recent experiences.
When the values and goals of an organization are adopted by its members as their own, we achieve value internalization. Strategies that respect the constraints of attentional economics and appropriately induce mood won’t lead to value internalization on their own, but they create the mindset necessary for value internalization to take place.
Workers who do not feel heard or valued will not internalize your company values. A recent survey showed that 52% of workers want to give feedback to improve their company, but nearly half of employees and 40% of the executives did not believe their feedback led to meaningful change.
Our brains are constantly monitoring others for social cues, even when we are not aware we are doing it. Being ignored or excluded elicits strong negative emotions that activate some of the same neural networks in the brain as physical pain. Collecting responses from employees but never acting on them activates these emotions. If we are going to ask our workers to have a voice, we need to listen.
To succeed under current uncertain conditions, you need to rely on evidence—not guesswork—when engaging employees. Engagement is fundamentally about connecting with people. Because engagement is psychological, you need to look to behavioral science for evidence to guide your engagement strategy.
When we design strategies that respect the constraints of attentional economics, think critically about how and when to induce mood, and enable value internalization, the result is employees who are more engaged with their jobs, experience less burnout and act in ways that benefit the company and themselves.
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Author: Ben Moorsom, Forbes Councils Member