Seek Lasting Engagement at Work

We must be doing something wrong. We say we prize engagement (why wouldn’t we?), but we don’t do a good job of achieving it.

The alarm goes off. We hit snoozeand bury our heads. It goes off again (ugh). We throttle the vile machine, drag ourselves out of bed and lumber towards the day. Does it have to be like this?

Are you excited about your work? Is it a fulfilling endeavor that you’re proud to take part in, and which you enjoy doing? Or is it more of a grind?

A recent Gallup survey found that only 30% of U.S. workers are “actively engaged and inspired at work,” while 50% of us aren’t engaged, and the rest were actively disengaged.

Work is just tolerable for half of us, and a fifth of us are miserable.

This is woeful.

Are the bulk of us destined to spend our lives working in unfulfilling roles?

As the survey revealed, work isn’t a slog for everyone. Nearly a third of us are well engaged with our work. What gives for them? Are there really people who spring out of bed on Monday with the anticipation of a child on Christmas? If so, how did they get there? Maybe some of them are just lucky – having fallen into the right opportunity, or grown up knowing what they wanted to do and having the wherewithal to get there, but I’m guessing there’s typically hard work that goes into figuring it out.

Let’s think about this for a moment in terms of McGregor’s Theory X (People are lazy and have to be monitored and coerced to get them to do their work.) & Theory Y (People are intrinsically motivated and can flourish when given the right conditions in which to do so.). I think this is often viewed as a dichotomy, so I thought I should call this out as McGregor did not think of these as binary options, but rather as poles on a continuum. Perceiving the theory as intended turns the idea on its head. I think this is worth mulling over for a moment as we try to consider the engagement problem anew.

So what makes the difference for the fortunate few? How do they get there? If you asked me, I’d say it depends as I believe there are multiple paths to engagement. It could come from a great work environment, or having a boss that inspires the best in you. It could also come from working for a cause that you really care about, or having coworkers who are like family.


You need fuel and fire

For this, I think we have to get a couple of things aligned. The first of these is passion. Engagement is the desired outcome, whereas passion is the driver. “Passion is the force which can help you achieve and maintain engagement.” I think of it in terms of fire. You want heat, but by itself heat is not self-sustaining.

Passion is the flame which provides the heat.

Further, while flames are needed to produce heat, flames are dependent on a fuel source to keep from being exhausted. Purpose is that fuel. In other words, purpose is meaning. Passion is excitement. Engagement is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow. If we want to be engaged in our work, we should work to understand and align these factors.


The Passion/Purpose Engagement Matrix displays the potential pitfalls of lacking alignment. If passion and purpose are low, active disengagement probably ought to be expected. The farther we go into that corner, the better it fits the concept of Theory X, but I would ask that we consider whether that should be an indictment of the employee, or of management? As John Hagel writes, “it is not surprising that passionate people often flee the confines of larger firms.”

As purpose goes up, but passion stays low, we move over to the non-engagement quadrant. There’s meaning in the work, but for whatever reason, there’s no excitement. Fuel abounds, but the work doesn’t provide a spark. We may not be destructive with our efforts, but we’re surely missing an opportunity as there’s no way to link the meaning which exists, to the heat which is desired when the excitement isn’t there.

If we slide over to the upper left quadrant, we have the spark, but without purpose, how long can it last? It’s like a bottle rocket – taking off fast, but quickly exhausting whatever fuel was there. (Pop!) I’ve been here before – thoroughly excited about a new work opportunity – only to find myself deflated and questioning what had happened just a few months down the road.

In the last spot, with purpose and passion aligned, we have the possibility of lasting engagement. But here’s the bad news. Even if we land there, I don’t think there’s anything that can be done to guarantee that we’ll stay. But I do think that knowing what got us there, and staying mindful of that, could greatly increase our chances.

I say we give that a try, and if things go really badly we can fall back to Plan B and take the Blue Pill.

Flickr/Simon and His Camera
Flickr/Simon and His Camera

Can we find our ‘you-shaped’ hole?

This leads me to a great quote from Nilofer Merchant, whose idea of Onlyness is one I recommend getting well acquainted with.

Instead of trying to be weird in a normal world, maybe be normal in a weird world. In other words, you should always go where there is a ‘you-shaped’ hole in the world. Don’t wait for permission, give yourself permission. Don’t wait to be seen, see yourself. Stop waiting for a big idea, because you can make your idea big. Instead of waiting for a place to fit in, make a hole in the world that is right for you. In other words: own that spot in the world only you can stand in, the place of your history and experiences, visions and hopes … stand in your Onlyness. It is a position of real strength and from that place, you can dent the world.”

Think about this. If what you’re doing now doesn’t fit well, start looking for a better fit. Or, see what you can do to change the shape of the hole you currently inhabit to make it more ‘you-shaped,’ as I doubt there are many of us who will find opportunities which fit us like Cinderella’s glass slipper. Instead, I suspect it’s more like a new baseball glove which has to be broken in a bit before it’s ours.

So if you’re wearing a bulky, catcher’s mitt, but you know you’re meant to play short stop, by all means work on making that change. But if you’re in a role that could be ‘you-shaped,’ then I think it’s best to try to break it in a little better before you give up on it.

What do I mean by that?

I think you have to put in some serious effort towards making any role you assume suitable. That will take time, effort, and intentionality. You need to understand the things that will help you bring purpose and passion to your work, and you’ll have to think about how to integrate those factors. Further, you’ll have to build the trust necessary to stretch the role. Nothing breeds breathing room like a little success. Get on the same page with your boss. Learn what they really want from you and exceed their expectations. As you do that you’ll likely find the constraints loosening.

As you build up confidence, you can think about how to approach the tweaking of your role. Can you have a direct discussion with your boss about it, or is it something that’s better dealt with indirectly? Can you volunteer for opportunities that are interesting, or tackle a need without being told?

Note of caution: Whenever we work to change the roles from what’s been defined, there’s going to be a bit of risk attached to the effort. Depending on the circumstances, it could be a lot of risk. Please take care to assess the circumstance and be cognizant of your risk tolerance and personal situation. Pushing against a rigid system could lead to fulfilling growth and self-actualization, but given the current job market, it’s probably better to hedge a bit towards caution.

What do you do if you don’t know what fills your cup?
Fortunately, Aaron Hurst’s new venture, Imperative, has put something together which can help. The Purpose Profile is a brief survey which helps us determine what our motivating factors are. I found the survey while researching this article and was pleasantly surprised by the outcome. At the end of the survey, the results told me that my imperative is “to drive systemic change to make the world more just by facilitating the transition from knowledge to wisdom.”

I wouldn’t change a word.

It’s time to start figuring out what revs our engines. You could visit to take the Purpose Profile, or whatever such inventory you have access to and begin figuring out what your ‘you-shaped’ hole looks like. Poke and prod at the one you’re in to see if you can make it a better fit. If you find it’s a lost cause, look for the next one.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all turn off the first alarm (Who needs a snooze button?), leap out of bed into our Lycra-tight ‘you-shaped’ holes? We may have a long way to travel, but working towards purpose is a noble cause. Let’s set ourselves to this.

As Lao-Tzu wrote, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Let’s take that first step today.

This post first appeared in SALT Magazine.