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Dr. Paul Marciano Reveals Successful Engagement Needs One Thing

Dr. Paul Marciano

Dr. Paul Marciano is a leading authority on engagement. He holds a doctorate in clinical psychology from Yale. He’s the author of Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work: Build a Culture of Engagement with the Principles of RESPECT.

His interview with SafeStart was conducted over the phone on April 11, 2018. It has been slightly edited for length.

Interviews with other experts on this subject are also available on our engagement page.


There are several different definitions of engagement and a lot of confusion surrounding what engagement is, can you please provide you best definition of it?

Yeah, I actually view it as pretty straightforward and that is an individual’s willingness to go above and beyond and doing so in a way that’s not going to get them rewarded in any way but because that’s their desire.

How do you measure engagement? And what is NOT effective in measuring engagement?

I am so passionate about this issue and talk about it all the time. So: Engagement is a hypothetical construct; it’s something that presumably cannot be directly measured. Such as the construct of depression, happiness or anxiety. It’s a psychological, emotional construct. And if you look in the literature, you’ll see dozens, if not hundreds of various consultants and consulting firms claiming that they’re going to measure engagement in a particular manner. So what you need to realize is on the surface of it, it’s simply absurd to say that you’re going to measure the same phenomenon in a hundred different ways. It’s just not possible. It would be like saying, there is a hundred different measures of depression.

And so, what’s happened is that as the employee engagement has gotten so popular, consulting firms have seen this as an opportunity to make a lot of money by developing such assessment instruments. So, if you look at the individual items that oppose most engagement surveys, a lot of the items are satisfaction questions, which there is obviously overlap in satisfaction and engagement, but they’re not exactly the same construct. And there are a lot of items that are really more factors or causes of engagement. So you know the famous one: I have a friend at work.

Well, having a friend at work may lead you to be actually quite satisfied, but it’s not actually measuring engagement. And by the way, that’s a good example of where having a friend at work may well lead you to be satisfied in your job, but it probably has very little to do with your level of engagement. That’s a great example of how someone can be satisfied but not engaged. May enjoy going to work.

So the idea of measuring engagement, one: it’s a bit difficult to do because people always overestimate their willingness to go above and beyond. So if you ask somebody: do you go above and beyond? Most people say yes. And so, this is known is psychology as the better-than-average effect. You’re going to take a positive attribute and you’re going to exaggerate it.

Couple other points on this and I can send you an article I wrote on this very issue is: if we’re saying that this hypothetical construct of employee engagement is supposed to lead to all these wonderful outcomes such as productivity, quality of work, customer service, retention… if those are the independent variables we actually care about then why aren’t we measuring them? Right? If that’s what we care about?

I mean, if somebody is being productive on a high level, if they’re delivering very high-quality work, if they’re coming in and providing you with, you know, ideas and suggestions, they’re engaged. If a manager or supervisor can’t tell you how engaged individual employees are, then they’re not paying attention to what’s going on.

That obviously makes a lot of sense. But if there are companies out there who have, say, hundreds and hundreds of employees and they’re insisting on getting some kind of surveys, is it worth it trying to convince them not to do them or is there a way for them to design something that will work?

There are some items that I like to use that can get at it. So you could say something like: to what extent are you passionate about your work? Some of the items on the scale that I’ve created are things like: time passes quickly. When you’re engaged in your job, time passes quickly. That’s what happens. You know, I think about work outside of work. That’s behavior consistent with being engaged.

Again, I understand this desire to go measuring engagement. And honestly, quite frankly, it’s really more about the companies, these consulting companies, making money than producing valid survey instruments. I used to teach research statistics methodology, so I know a little something about this. So companies that really want to measure engagement… you can, it’s probably going to end up looking more like a satisfaction survey.

What I challenge companies to do is take a look at, you know, why are you interested in this? And maybe it’s because of a high turnover that’s a point… usually of pain. I remember once going to a doctor’s office. The asked me to come in, they were interested in measuring engagement. And I went to the bathroom and it was like 8 o’clock in the morning and the wastepaper basket was overflowing and the soap dispenser was out and it was, in general, a mess. You know, and I came out and I said: we don’t need to do a survey to find out that your people are disengaged because if they were engaged this wouldn’t be the case. It wouldn’t look like this.

There are items that we can generate to get at that but what’s really important is to identify what are the factors that we know contribute to engagement such as: I am recognized and acknowledged for the contributions that I make. The expectations are clear. You know, I know what those are. More of those kinds of items.

If we can move to safety a little bit because, obviously, that’s our focus. So, in your opinion, how does engagement tie into safety? Because in your book you did mention a couple of examples of engagement in safety, but if you could maybe expand on that a little bit here?

Safety is such an interesting concept because you think that people would naturally be engaged with their own safety. Unfortunately, I think, that level of engagement gets tempered for a couple of reasons. One, you know, being honest, often there’s, depending on the industry, there’s almost kind of a macho thing that goes on. I think that, you know, I’m a construction worker and it’s not cool to wear a hard hat and glasses? I have a motorcycle. I used to ride it without a helmet. Now I ride it with a helmet. So I think there’s a little bit of that kind of general attitude: I don’t need to engage in safety behaviors. It’s not because maybe I don’t care, I just think I’m sort of invincible.

Another is just the culture of the organization in general. So, you know, it doesn’t matter if it’s where you work, worship or work out, there’s a particular culture. And you go into that culture, and if it’s not one where safety is really… people aren’t being held accountable for it… you don’t take that on. Because as I said before, culture drives behavior and attitudes. And that behavior and attitudes reinforce the culture. So if you don’t have a culture of safety, it’s not likely you’re going to get it without a really strong intervention.

If you have somebody who’s driving a forklift without a seatbelt, you send them home. You know, it’s a conversation that says, you know the most important thing for us as an organization is that our people are safe, they return to their family safely at night. We actually believe that and we’re going to let you take a week off or three days off work without pay and ask you to reflect upon whether that’s important to you. And if this is not a place you want to work. It’s, for me anyway, it’s really that cut-and-dried. And that sends a message that this is a culture where safety really matters.

This ties into something I wanted to ask you about companies that try to achieve zero recordable injuries through incentives and rewards. Is there a good way of doing that or is that a bad idea?

Well, it’s done with the absolute best of intentions. I totally understand that. At the same time, when you have that kind of pressure put on, a couple of things happen. One is that, let’s say, you have a program where people want to go accident-free for a twelve-month period. And on January 2nd somebody slips and falls and gets hurt.

Not that anyone is going to actually work unsafely on purpose, but it’s kind of lousy that now all of a sudden, you can’t meet your goal! Now, there are cases in which, again, you have this kind of zero-accident policy, somebody gets hurt on the job and a co-worker will either sort of bandage them up and put them out on the front lines as though it’s… you know, you’re in war, or the person will go home and go to a doctor’s and not even report it was a work injury. It depends on how much pressure is being put on. What’s the carrot for going, you know, accident-free for some period of time?

One organization I worked for… if somebody works unsafely, here are the consequences. Let’s say somebody on the crew works unsafely in some manner. And here is what’s really important. You shouldn’t wait for the accident to occur. You should be paying attention to the unsafe behaviors. That’s what should get consequated right off the bat. So, in this organization, if somebody on the crew is caught acting unsafely, that entire crew comes in on Saturday morning and watches a safety video or gets a safety talk.

There are studies that show that engaged workforces have significantly lower injury rates. Would you say that simply nearly all aspects of business are improved when people are engaged? Is there a correlation between engagement and all business measures?

Yeah. I think everything that we care about in terms of organizational vitality relates to this idea of engagement. Having said that, I think, as I mentioned earlier, the research is terrible. It’s absolutely awful. Because the scales aren’t balanced. But, do I believe that that’s the case? Absolutely. People that are engaged even in something as simple as on a production line, you know, higher quality, you have less defects. And the people are into the culture of engagement, I get the idea that In general, people just care more, if you want to think about it like that. And if they care more, it’s also likely that they care more about individuals’ health and well-being.

What are some common reasons behind this disengagement? More specifically, how do you lose it? Can you give us an idea of what NOT to do?

The lens through which I see the world is through respect. In fact, I ask people to think about a time when they respected the organization, respected the leadership, their supervisor, respected their fellow team-members, took pride in the work they do and they feel respected… When people experience that, experience respect in that manner, they are highly engaged.

When they feel disrespected, when they lose respect for one of those entities, then they tend to disengage. And some simple factors more specifically that relate to that are things like when people aren’t recognized and acknowledged for their contributions, when people are micromanaged—it communicates a message of: we don’t really trust you to do your job. When people are consistently being given, you know, negative and critical feedback.

When people are cut off from communications. When people are—we know this is really true from exit interviews—when people don’t feel as though they’re allowed to use their best talents and skills, so they’re really being underutilized. We know another factor in disengagement is: people aren’t allowed to make decisions having to do with their work. They aren’t given the opportunities to get the kind of training or access to resources that make them successful. So a lot of different factors. Of course, you know many of them are identified in my RESPECT model.

Why is the relationship between respect and engagement so important?

I did a lot of thinking about why respect matters so much and what I came down to is: it is honestly a matter of life and death in our tribes. So if you think about duels, you know, the most famous being Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, challenging somebody to a duel… we did that because it was to somebody who felt dishonored or disrespected in some manner. And so, until the late 1800s, it was perfectly acceptable to challenge someone to a duel to restore the honor and respect and to take on: I am either willing to kill you or be killed by you for this matter.

In Asian cultures, in some Asian cultures, ritual suicide is a way that people restore honor and respect to themselves and their families. If you think about gang members, they kill one another over the issue of respect because they don’t have anything else. You know, somebody gets dissed. You have to stand up to that. And you think about many of the wars, many of the revolutions, they actually largely have to do with the respect of human rights and dignity.

And, in our tribes, the reason it matters so much is because when you’re respected, it means that you have value to your tribe. And when you have value, you’re protected. If you’re not respected, it means that you’re not viewed as having value and you’re expendable. People are not fired when they’re viewed as having value.

And another thing I would say about respect is, when you’re respected as a leader, it means you have influence over others. You know, leaders are only great to the extent that they have followers. And that’s the ability to influence and hopefully influence people to act in ways that fulfill the leader’s vision. You’re not going to be a successful leader if you’re not respected.

The first step in building engagement in your RESPECT Model and other models is recognition. And I’m going to give you a safety example. Some managers might think that being compliant in safety is basically the employees’ job. They’re supposed to follow the rules, so why should they be praised for being safe? Can you explain why recognition is so important and how do you do it right?

Recognition is a critical driver of reinforcing behavior and research on this is very clear. And, as you may know my background is a PhD from Yale in clinical psychology focused on behavior modifications. So, feedback has to be given quickly after the event has occurred, it has to be given in very specific terms, and it should be given enthusiastically. How you say things really matters.

And the other is that it should be done in as physically personable proximity as possible. So we know that, for example, coming over and shaking someone’s hand or putting a hand on their shoulder or some such, and saying thank you is much more reinforcing than getting a text message or an email from somebody.

So if we praise the behavior, it increases the likelihood of that behavior occurring again unprompted. Which is initiative and we love that. Right? We love initiative. And people need to remember that when prompted behavior is not reinforced, it actually decreases the likelihood of that behavior occurring again in the future.

Now, going back to your point, I think it’s really important to prompt for good behavior and we should reinforce it when we see somebody going a bit above and beyond around that. Like, I would want to really, really reinforce the co-worker who says to his or her buddy, you’re not acting in a safe manner right now. Put on these goggles. Like, that’s really having a culture of safety.

And I guess it also is important then that culture would build new habits. Because in your book you say that programs fail because people view them as something to be done for a period of timelike dietingand not as something that needs to be incorporated into their lifestyle. Keeping in mind this idea of changing your habits and lifestyle instead of implementing programs, is making permanent behavioral changes the best way of sustaining engagement?

Yes, and I think one of the most important things is you have… well, you’ve got to hit it every day, every single day. And so, for example, maybe the organization does… every day there is a… you know, it comes out with a safety tip. Every morning at the huddle meeting—and it doesn’t matter if they’re in the field or in the office—there is some comment about safety.

There is signage, right? Little prompts, not just language but also pictures of what safe behavior looks like. So, you know, in terms of the habits, you’ve got to be supported by really strong prompts and then really strong consequences.

And how do you make permanent changes? Because building habits is very difficult.

Well, I think… give me an example of a habit you’d like to build related to safety.

For example, wearing your PPE.

For me it comes down to every employee holding every other employee accountable. So you don’t leave the change room or you don’t walk onto the floor until you conform to whatever the standards of safety are. And if somebody does come onto that floor without it, and going back to my earlier point, Saturday morning everybody shows up for three hours.

That ties into culture again. If your employees feel safe enough and comfortable enough with correcting the behavior of their colleagues then that basically means the culture is doing something right.

Yeah, and you know what? Like any of these behaviors we’ll talk about, it starts with the top, right? It starts with leadership.

You know, when the guy owns the plant, walks through it and doesn’t have his or her hard hat on or glasses on, it’s just not going to work.

That’s exactly what we often say. So could you elaborate on the role of leadership in engagement? And how important it is for managers to have the right leadership skills as opposed to being promoted due to their tenure or being good at a specific job?

It is almost always the case that individuals are promoted into role of supervisor or manager for reasons and skill sets that have nothing to do with being successful in those roles. It’s because of what you mentioned earlier, you know. Their tenure, their work ethic. Typically, because they’re really good at turning the wrench, whatever the wrench is. Not because they’ve been identified as somebody who is a good developer of people, somebody who can delegate appropriately and coach and mentor. Somebody who can really foster a sense of teamwork.

Those aren’t necessarily the skills that get people promoted and, in fact, we can take really good employees and not only demotivate them and set them up for failure but for them to demotivate the staff around them.

Going back to the subject of rewards for a moment, if you don’t mind. Employees work for more than just money and the evidence against using extrinsic rewards to motivate has been around for many years, so why do people seem so unwilling to accept it? Does it have to do with the fact that many people mistake motivation for engagement? Or does it have to do with the unwillingness to, in a way, give up perceived control?

You can imagine my own frustration with the fact that there is forty of fifty years’ worth of research that demonstrates that extrinsic rewards only modify behavior under certain circumstances and for a certain period of time. And of course Daniel Pink talks about this. If you’re trying to get a fairly simple behavior, you’re desiring a fairly simple outcome and it’s for a short duration of time, then you can use a carrot. You can get there pretty easily. But if it’s any kind of a longer-term outcome that you’re looking for and it involves any kind of cognitive complexity then traditional rewards, extrinsic rewards, aren’t particularly helpful. And, in fact, giving extrinsic rewards can actually lead to a decrease in intrinsic motivation.

And I will say that people are often confused between motivation and engagement. So, when I say or somebody is saying: I want to motivate my people, I think of a Mickey Mouse wind-up toy. So it becomes the job of a supervisor or manager to wind somebody up, they run around really fast and then they unwind. And then it also becomes the manager’s job to wind them back up. And that’s really not the game we want to be in. We want to be in a game of helping people be engaged and wind themselves up. There are very specific kinds of skills and behaviors that managers can engage in to increase individual engagement. So we really want to be around that.

I think in some way, the rewards… why do they persist? Because it makes sense on the surface. It’s because it seems like it would be a good idea. And it’s just the way we’ve done things for a long time. When I have conversations with organizations and share with them my philosophy, my view, not just philosophy—the research that traditional reward and recognition programs, not only are they ineffective, they actually lead to an overall decrease in productivity and employee morale. If they’re using those programs, it’s tough to take them away, because then you get employees who complain about that. So they don’t know what to do.

And the other thing I would say is that in order to… I would say it’s the lazy person or the lazy company that uses these kinds of systems thinking: oh, we’ll throw some money at these resources and it’ll help in some way without recognizing that what we need to get done is to really train the supervisors, managers and leaders in how to reinforce behavior, how to use the RESPECT Model to fully engage employees.

This actually links a little to the fact that programs focus on a single outcome instead of the process itself. So if you’re looking for, say, zero injuries, if you focus on the actual process of employees working safely then they will achieve that result.

A hundred percent. You know, it’s like I’ll say to somebody, imagine a baseball coach saying: hey, I want you to hit more home runs. Well, focusing on hitting home runs isn’t probably going to get you more home runs. What’s needed is an understanding of the swing, or your stance, or exercising or whatever goes into and contributes to hitting a home run. So in the world of safety, if you want zero accidents or some such, what are the factors that contribute to that? Let’s start with communication. Let’s start with participation. Let’s start with having appropriate safety gear in place.

Going still with this idea of leadership. Is there a difference between engaging the younger generation and the older, more tenured generation? Or between existing employees and new employees? We’ve often come across situations where existing employees are usually a little more complacent in their job because they have been doing it for 20 years and they’re not as willing to engage in the thought of changing their process or doing something different whereas usually, the newer employees are more inclined to want to learn and want to grow. So we’re kind of just looking for your take on that.

There is a resistance to change because whatever got me here today worked. I woke up this morning. Whatever I did yesterday—a pretty good idea. Right? I didn’t step in front of any cars. So, I think we’re fundamentally lazy… and so… we have a job, right? We got the job yesterday, we got the job today… if there is no sense of urgency to change our behavior, I think we just tend to just kind of do the same old.

Depending on the level of change, it certainly introduces a fear, most typically that the person’s skill sets aren’t going to be relevant anymore. Or say there is going to be some redundancy or such things as mergers. Almost invariably, younger people are more open to the idea of change. I would say that’s especially true of the younger generation.

In terms of engagement, you know, the old model, the old deal was that you would go to work for a company, you would work hard and then they would take care of you. Right? You were loyal to the company and the company was loyal to you. The new deal is, there is no deal. There just isn’t. And it’s on both sides of the fence. So I don’t know the statistics. You may know, it’s easy enough to find out. But when a young person comes out of college, it’s absolutely not their intention to stay with the same organization for a long period of time. You know, they believe that there will be numerous organizations over time. So what’s the value of necessarily really engaging with a company if you don’t feel like you’re going to be engaged with them a long time?

But when it comes to engaging workers, we were also wondering: is it very hard to re-engage workers who have lost their will and trust in the organization? I mean, I can give you a safety example here. So, if there is a company that says: safety comes first. But then, say, there is a rush order that comes through and workers need to rush through it jeopardizing safety. And so they then stop trusting that safety is the primary concern. Is there any way to re-engage those workers who have lost their trust?

It’s very difficult. The first thing you have to do is fire the leader who said that that was ok. Honestly. I think… how do you on one hand say it’s really important, though? And on the other hand have somebody go: no, you know what, we’re going to, just for this particular instance not pay attention to that?

In general, in organizations in which there has been a loss of trust, it is very hard to re-engage people. I think trust is one of those things most of us have to build up over time according to your different, you know, circumstances. And if something one day happens that breaks that trust, it’s like dropping a porcelain piggy bank and it shatters into a thousand pieces. You can try to put it back together again but if you do, you know it’s never going to be the same. Under that circumstance there’s all kinds of bad stuff that’s going to follow, it’s probably better that someone walks away.

Have you done any research comparing repetitive work to varied or creative work in terms of getting and maintaining engagement? So, for example, does complacency affect engagement over time if the workers are doing the same tasks day in and day out?

I haven’t done any of my own research, but certainly there is evidence for that. So people in any kind of a repetitive task, you know, you think of just traditional assembly lines that disengages their brain. The more we can engage people and challenge them in their work and, obviously, also give them a level of autonomy around how they make decisions, that certainly provides a great deal more of engagement than treating people like some sort of a robot.

Is there any way to counter that?

Well, I’d like to think that there’s always a way to… if you care about an individual, care about the success of the organization, you should be curious about what that individual on an assembly line thinks, right? And how can they do their job better and I won’t have the specifics of this, but certainly Harley Davidson in the 70s almost went out of business because of all the quality defects. And it was when they started to really engage the hourly workers and get their input, they were able to transform the organization.

So, getting input from people and listening to their suggestions and their ideas, asking people: how could we do things differently and better? And challenging people in some way. And I will say this: the number one way to build engagement is to build pride. And I don’t care what your organization does, you need to connect what that individual does to some greater purpose. So an individual wants to know that what the company does matters.

So take a construction company. What a road construction company does—it matters. It takes everyone in the world from point A to point B safely; it takes Jonny from home to school safely. So as a leader in the organization you’ve got to highlight that for the employees. And then the employees want to feel proud that what they do makes a contribution. And you should be able to do that at every level including, you know, the person who’s sweeping up the floors. Understand fully. And I think that’s something that’s been done, I think, in hospitals, where the person sweeping the floors understands the contribution they are to the help of that patient.

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