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Employee Engagement

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

Start-ups Should Sell to Small Businesses, Not Big Enterprises

670 300 Russell Potter

HBR, 1st Feb 2015 > Business-to-business start-ups are an important segment of the entrepreneurial landscape, but many founders hamstring themselves by focusing on the wrong initial customers. They focus on large enterprises, hoping to gain legitimacy from “anchor” customers. This focus can make their path much more difficult, and dramatically reduce their chance of success. Instead, B2B entrepreneurs should focus their efforts on small businesses.

The traditional line against targeting small businesses is that they’re costly to sell to. That’s short-sighted. Selling to small businesses is a great way to start a business, and often sets the stage for selling to larger enterprises later on. In this way, the start-up that initially served only small businesses can disrupt incumbents and come to dominate the large enterprise market, too.

Several examples of this strategy have emerged over the past few years:

  • Salesforce disrupted expensive on-site customer databases by offering a cloud-based solution that replaced substantial up-front expense with a low monthly subscription.
  • Vistaprint disrupted local printing shops by offering web-based design and ordering and centralized production, using economies of scale to dramatically reduce costs.
  • disrupted traditional mail-processing companies like Pitney Bowes by replacing expensive equipment purchases with an online application and monthly subscriptions.

The pattern continues today with start-ups that are in the early phases of this journey:

  • Expensify is in the process of disrupting administrative assistants and office managers with an app-based expense reporting product.
  • HourlyNerd (which was founded by members of my MBA class at Harvard Business School) is disrupting the consulting industry by connecting businesses with independent consultants.

To understand how small business solutions can disrupt large enterprises, I studied HourlyNerd and share here the lessons entrepreneurs can use to create disruptive B2B businesses by starting with small customers.

Because small businesses have similar needs to large businesses, a model that profitably and effectively serves them can be scaled to serve medium and large enterprises with relative ease. Small businesses are also extremely low-risk proving grounds because there are so many of them that failure with any one customer won’t lead to large reputational damage.

Better still, because small businesses desperately want these products but can’t access them, they will be happy with much less functionality than large enterprises that have many products to choose from. This gives start-ups a great entry point for a simple product that can be improved over time to appeal to more demanding customers. Gone are long pre-launch development cycles that attempt to create the optimal product for the most demanding customer. Instead, entrepreneurs can launch quickly with little capital and improve over time. In fact, HourlyNerd was started during Harvard’s FIELD program with only $5,000.

The first step to entering the small business market is to identify opportunities where incumbents are ignoring small businesses because their products are too expensive or complicated. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos recommends looking for opportunities to convert capital and fixed expenses into variable costs. So look for industries where upfront costs are high and new technology could offer similar services with little or no upfront commitment.

Next, create a minimum viable product and work closely with your initial customers to understand what goes right and wrong. For HourlyNerd, this meant individually matching each business and consultant and performing thorough interviews with each before and after the service. It’s important in this phase to temper your growth; make sure your unit economics make sense before seeking to scale.

Keep the product general. Create standardized offerings that many small customers can apply to their unique situation without expensive and time-consuming customization. Similarly, it may be tempting to categorize your customers by attributes like geography or business type, but resist this and instead organize them based on size and sophistication. This will allow you to segment your products and create simple solutions for simple needs and more complex solutions for more demanding customers. Framing your opportunity in terms of the benefits you offer and not customer demographics will help you see opportunities in ever-larger enterprises.Even once you start targeting enterprise customers, it’s possible to do so without competing directly against the bigger competitors. For example, HourlyNerd recognized that while very few people in large organizations have the money or need to hire a major consulting firm, many people have small but important problems that make perfect small consulting projects and space in their budgets to hire a consultant. Similarly, in the post-recession world, many managers have no ability to hire additional staff but have complete flexibility to hire a freelance consultant on a short-term basis. By serving these people, HourlyNerd is now growing in the enterprise space without meeting resistance from big firms, because they’re growing the category with new consumption rather than stealing existing consumption. `

Every business naturally improves its product over time. As B2B entrepreneurs improve theirs, they will find that they can meet the needs of these underserved constituencies in large organizations. The pattern of disruption continues when more demanding constituencies inside the enterprise see the results from the disruptive product and begin to consider it as an alternative to incumbent offerings. Typically incumbents will ignore the startup because they don’t feel any pain from lost sales until their best customers abandon them for the new offering. But by then it’s too late; the startup has succeeded in the disruption and is too big to defeat easily.

This strategy is not without challenges, including brand perception — remember the adage “No one ever got fired for buying IBM.” But with time this can be overcome. While initially many large enterprises may have balked at the idea of using a web start-up called, no one today bats an eye at the idea, even in the largest, most sophisticated companies.

by Thomas Bartman > Harvard Business Review > 1st Feb 2015 > start up business strategy.

How to Motivate Employees the Star Wars Way

670 300 Russell Potter

Leaders spend much of their time figuring out complex systems and how to motivate employees but an interesting lesson comes from the set of the new Star Wars movie.  Jedi mind tricks?

JJ Abrams, the Director of the upcoming seventh Star Wars film, has written a  note to cast and crew to motivate them for the much anticipated project.

Ahead of filming for the latest Star Wars film in the saga, JJ Abrams sent a  handwritten note to everyone involved in order to engage and motivate them all  to give the world “something great.”

The note reads: “Dearest cast and crew, what an honor it is, to work beside all of  you, on Star Wars Episode VII. I can’t thank you enough, for all work past and future.

“Let’s take good care, of not just ourselves, but each other. Amazing, but true: The world awaits this film. Let’s give ‘em something great. XO JJ”

Filming started in May 2014, with the expected release date of the film to be December 2015.

The cast will be made up of both returning actors – such as Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher – and some new talent in the form of John Boyega, Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver, to name a few.

Following the cast announcement in April, Abrams said: “It is both thrilling and surreal to watch the beloved original cast and these brilliant new performers come together to bring this world to life, once again.”

So the lesson to other leaders in all fields from one of the most successful film producers and directors of recent years…build engagement with the personal touch.  May the force we with you all.