2019-12-23 HR Examiner article Dr Tomas Chamorro Premuzic Should we pay people more if they bring their whole self to work photo img cc0 via unsplash baked bread 1756061 by Mariana Kurnyk 544x365px.jpg

“And as recent reviews show, around half of the variability in employee engagement can be directly attributed to the personal disposition of employees, rather than the environment they are in. If organizations are truly interested in engagement, should they not pay people accordingly?”
- Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

When William Kahn first introduced the concept of employee engagement 30 years ago, he noted that systematic productivity and performance differences between employees are due not so much to differences in talent or ability, but rather to motivation. In particular, the degree to which individuals identify with their work persona is significantly link to their levels of effort and performance at work. Imagine two hypothetical employees with similar technical background and skillset, but one of them clocks in and out without finding much meaning and purpose in their job, whereas the other is fully vested and immersed in their work persona. We should not expect them to make an equal contribution to the organization.

Fast forward three decades and we are all pretty familiar with this idea. Engagement is big business, and most large organizations spend a considerable amount of time, energy, and money trying to monitor and boost employee morale and motivation. However, they are largely focused on the contextual drivers of engagement (e.g., leadership, culture, office layout, and permission to dress down on a Friday or bring your dog to work on a Tuesday), and still prioritize results over morale. For example, managers will rarely be celebrated if their teams are engaged but they fail to deliver results, and vice-versa.

photo of Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, HR Examiner Editorial Advisory Board Contributor

And as recent reviews show, around half of the variability in employee engagement can be directly attributed to the personal disposition of employees, rather than the environment they are in. If organizations are truly interested in engagement, should they not pay people accordingly? For example, should there be a special engagement bonus for employees – and managers – who “bring their whole self to work”, or “find their job meaningful”?

One problem with this idea is that it may result in people faking engagement. Indeed, if climate surveys and engagement surveys were no longer anonymous, and we introduced financial rewards for being engaged, people may answer very differently than today, and engagement scores may end up increasing dramatically even if people’s attitudes remain the same. However, if people were truly motivated to fake engagement they would probably want to display higher levels of enthusiasm and work ethic, too, rather than just answer “yes” to statements such as “I am enthusiastic about my job”. Needless to say, we cannot be totally sure that when people endorse such questions today they are being totally honest (not lying to the employer, the survey vendor, or themselves), nor should we care: the only thing that matters is whether those scores predict something meaningful, like how people actually behave.

We can also imagine how AI and neuroscience may be applied to reduce our reliance of self-report measures of engagement. For instance, mining the patterns of communication (e.g., e-mail data and meta-data) could provide real-time measures of engagement at both the individual and group level, as there is clearly a connection between different patterns of language use and underlying emotional or affective states – and vendors offering such analytics
in their platforms. Naturally, this would not be un-fakable: employees would just learn to use the right words on e-mail (e.g., fun, love, happy) and avoid using others (e.g., bored, fed-up, tired), as well as modify their typical pattern of communications (e.g., replying to e-mails faster
and diligently). Though more far-fetched, it is not unconceivable that in the future some organizations may deploy brain scanning technology to obtain physiological measures of affect at work, which would surely stretch people’s ability to fake engagement, and provide another boost to the pharma industry.

Luckily, most civilized places have laws and regulations that prevent some of these creepy methodologies to disrupt the engagement space. And regardless of that, ethical organizations will probably want to avoid them anyway. But for the sake of consistency, those who find such ideas immoral or distasteful should at least come to terms with the notion that it is just fine for employees to avoid bringing their whole self to work, or see their jobs as lacking in meaning and purpose. After all, people are still paid for what they do – not feel or think – at work. This also calls into question interventions devoted to tackle conscious or unconscious biases. Unless
we want employers to become a thought police, or create a cult rather than an inclusive
culture, we need to accept the idea that some people will never care very much about their jobs – and we are not entitled to access their whole selves.

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