5 Steps to Engagement in Life and Work

670 300 Russell Potter

Employee engagement and engagement in general, are still not major headline topics but more and more people are starting to ask questions about a general lack of caring and commitment not only in the workplace but also the wider frame.

By engagement we mean caring. Specifically, caring enough about something to want to improve and grow it, whether it be a busines
s, social issue, or local frisbee team, whether that be in the deeply immersed “State of flow,” or otherwise.

According to Gallup, 87% of employees globally are “disengaged.”  That number is shocking. That means that 87% of employees are being paid to do jobs they simply don’t want to do.

Charitable engagement however, seems to have taken a different path. Total giving to charitable organizations was $373.25 billion in 2015 (2.1% of GDP). This is the sixth straight year that giving has increased and the second straight record-setting year, following 2014’s total of $358.38 billion.  Good news on that front.

In more qualitative terms however, with Facebook et al maximizing social engagement, many may believe that we are all already highly engaged yet we are more likely to engage with a picture of someone’s dinner than we are with a major issue of global importance.

A client who is launching a rehab clinic here in Asia recently bemoaned that a post detailing a cutting edge therapy offering relief to thousands will receive almost engagement whilst one detailing a celebrity in rehab will score a home run.

Why are we so disengaged at work and in life? Is there optimism for the future. I think so.

My experience in working on employee engagement highlights 5 main points:


According to a slew of research, we achieve peak performance when we have a growth mindset focused on optimistic outcomes. According to Shawn Achor in his landmark book, The Happiness Advantage, we are more successful, live longer and have a range of measurable health and performance benefits if we are happy. Further, it appears that happiness preceded success and that by focusing on happy thoughts we can achieve the aforementioned benefits. Clearly then, we instinctively focus on the happy, a fact attested to by the huge popularity of inane situational comedy and reality TV.

Based on this insight, would we, by our very nature then, be more likely to evade what we may perceive as negative and unhappy issues and news stories even if they are of global significance in the same way that we procrastinate at work. Indeed many people who follow a “Happiness” mindset watch no TV News (with its negative sensationalism) or Hollywood action movies (with their destructive social scripts).

It would seem then, that we are hardwired to engage more closely with a picture of a cute puppy falling off the sofa than we are with an article on a sofa made by child labor.

Could reframing with a positive, growth mindset be the solution? Would this appeal to our hardwiring for happiness and growth? Ironically, in my work with organizations in creating positive mindsets, it is immediately apparent how few people have such a mindset. This is a superb opportunity, as with some simple exercises we can transfer our perception of a worthy cause from an insurmountable negative issue into an opportunity for growth.

Try this. The next time your team encounters a major problem. As them for 5 ways in which it could be the opportunity of a lifetime.


Our modern lifestyles and technologies have perfected the art of distraction. Social media, email, 24 hour news and stock prices are amongst the bombardment of information available anywhere and in real time.

It is estimated that, on average, only 1.1 hours of real focused work gets done per day and that this is largely down to the distractions of email and the previously mentioned distractions. With so little engagement in even our bread and butter, is it any surprise that we fail to engage with worthy causes (which, for the purposes of this article I will reframe as projects).

As our minds are cluttered our focus becomes more and more narrow decreasing our engagement with even ourselves. The mind has so many “issues” that we lack the headspace to contribute.

Here we have 2 solutions, either we clear each problem one by one, which may not always be feasible, OR we short circuit the system with mindful meditation.

Take only 10 minutes per day to focus only on your breathing and new neural pathways will be created which serves focus and concentration, giving you the power to ignore all of the clutter that simply doesn’t need to bother you.

Taking it one step further, address as many of the issues as possible. Write down all of the issues that are on your mind. Cross off all of the issues which you cannot affect e.g. the economy, your bosses mood, the outcome of the little league game etc. For all of the issues which are in your circle of influence write down a “Next Action,” i.e. the immediate next small step towards resolving the issue. As Psychologist Roy Baumeister says in his book “Willpower,” the brain needs only to know that there is a plan, and the next part of it, for it to cease being a cause of stress. Indeed, this “Internal locus of control” is a predictor of high performing individuals and has major life benefits.

Leverage Narcissism

“If they don’t care about me why should I care about them.” In the Western World (but not the East) we have been brainwashed into an X v’s Y culture in which a zero-sum game of winners and losers is ingrained. Our culture has become narcissistic with selfies and bragmail now duly scripted into society as a norm. A narcissistic society however, by its very definition lacks empathy, is deeply insecure and is inherently self-interested.

Engagement with worthy projects however, requires a great deal of empathy unless it is motivated by vanity and the need to be seen to a good person (for narcissistic reasons).

Again, the answer lies in reframing the engagement as benefiting not only the receiver but also the giver. Vanity or not, at the end of the day, does it really matter?

Avoiding Ambivalence. 

There is a phenomenon of desensitization which pervades our society and workplaces. Norms of growing moral depths are experienced making the original atrocity seem somehow normal in comparison. Socials scripts such as these are alarming psychologists. This desensitization makes us less likely to care about a cause as we are somehow numbed and normalized to it.

I am reminded here of the reaction to a Facebook post about a huge bomb in Karrada, Baghdad which killed over 300 people in July 2016. The blast came some months after a Paris atrocity which claimed the lives of 130. I questioned why nobody changed their profile pictures to the Iraqi colors, as had become a statement of solidarity following the Paris attacks. “We hear about bomb attacks in Iraq all the time but this was Paris,” was one reply.  As good an example as one could hope for of the ambivalence of our desensitized society.

There is hope. The evidence is, that minority groups who are persistent and consistent in their message do eventually succeed in achieving their goals. It may take years, but, over time more and more people will engage with the cause and accept it as not just a passing phase, but a real and worthwhile cause with integrity.  The message is, keep shouting and you will be heard.

Tackle Learned Helplessness. 

In one of the most famous experiments in psychology, dogs were conditioned to expect electric shocks when a sound played. The dogs were then put into a pen which was specially built so that, on one side, the dogs would get the shock and on the other side they would not. The dogs only had to jump over the low wall to reach the safe side.

Surprisingly, rather than head to safety the dogs submitted to the belief that they could not escape the shock so didn’t bother trying to move away from the danger area. They had learned helplessness.

In the two-legged world, Psychologist Marin Selgman took the idea further to prove the concept in human behavior.  Many believe that it’s a senseless waste of effort to engage in breaking established norms even if they are guaranteeing our mutual destruction. Who on Earth would engage in a challenge such as poverty, hunger, global warming, nuclear proliferation or corporate corruption with a “We can never win” attitude?

Luckily, just as we can learn helplessness, we can also learn a growth mindset. Try this exercise. Every day list 3 things that you are grateful for. Do this for one week and a new neural pathway is established which scans the horizon for growth opportunities. That mindset is then permanent and will continue even if the exercise is stopped. Boom!!

Imagine how engaged our society would be is we saw worthy causes as winning opportunities and “projects” rather than depressing demands on our precious time and resources.  Imagine how engaged we would be at work if we focused on the intrinsic value of each task and not the deadline.

In the coming decades, life will in no way slow down to give us time for engagement and more and more people and communities will get left behind. By cultivating an awareness of why we fail to engage and cultivating the skills to achieve it, both giver and receiver can enjoy lifelong sustainable benefits in all areas of their lives, social networks and organizations


Russell Potter

All stories by: Russell Potter