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Scott Mautz Brings to Light How to Make Employee Engagement Matter

Scott Mautz presenting

Scott Mautz is an expert on employee engagement, motivation, inspiration, workplace fulfillment and others-oriented leadership. He’s also the author of Make It Matter: How Managers Can Motivate by Creating Meaning and a follow-up book Find the Fire: Ignite Your Inspiration and Make Work Exciting Again.

His interview with SafeStart was conducted over the phone on April 18, 2018. It has been slightly edited for length.

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


What’s the difference between motivation and engagement?

That’s easy enough. I might even take it a step further if I might. I’m going to draw a distinction for you between the difference of engagement, motivation and then even one step higher, inspiration. Engagement is the basic understanding of how to be fully involved and present, in the moment with one’s work or another human being. It’s the basic standard of being present enough to be able to provide useful output as a human being; it’s a very basic standard.

I would argue that you go a notch above that to compare the difference between motivation and inspiration because in a chain of events what research has shown is that engagement is the base, a step above that is motivation and a step above that is inspiration. So it’s helpful for you if I discern the difference between motivation and inspiration now. And here’s the way I would think of that if engagement is the baseline. And the way I often talk about this is motivation is the pragmatic consequence of inspiration. It’s the engineer in you that kind of proceeds in a step-by-step fashion, with its marching orders in hand until it achieves its goal.

Inspiration comes in advance of motivation. Inspiration yields moments of energy that galvanizes and a vision that shoves motivation into action. Or better said: with motivation, we take hold of an idea and we run with it. But with inspiration, an idea takes hold of us and it makes it the most powerful form of engagement of all.

So you have engagement, then you have motivation where we, you know or I guess I should say engagement you’re present for an idea, you’re engaged in an idea or a person or an activity. Motivation is a notch up where you take hold of an idea with vigor and conviction. And a level above that still is inspiration where you can’t help but act because the idea, the person, the engagement itself takes hold of you and you’re off and running.

As you pointed out in your research, on average 70 percent of the workforce is disengaged. Before we get to the ways of achieving engagement, what are some common reasons behind this disengagement? More specifically, how do you lose engagement? Can you give us an idea of what NOT to do?

When I first came across that statistic I had a hard time believing it, I actually had to go back and confirm it. Unfortunately, it’s confirmed every other year by Gallup—Gallup polls—and the problem is getting worse, so the disengagement levels are very, very real. And many things happen that cause you to become disengaged. And what my research shows is there’s nine core forces that cause us to disengage. What I’d call the nine anti-muses.

Greek mythology would tell you that there’s nine actual muses, that we’ve come to know through popular culture. I like to play with that and say what if, for a second, there were nine anti-muses. Because the data lines up that there are actually nine forces that break out from the pack. It’s disproportionately responsible for dissolving our engagement. And I just find it very curious that there’s nine, just like in Greek mythology there’s nine muses, so I’ve kind of termed them the nine anti-muses and I’ll quickly tell you what each one of them are to answer your question of why do we become disengaged.

Very quickly, number one is fear. Fear of failure, fear of change, fear of criticism and it’s just a fact, this is not my opinion, it’s just a fact that research shows that fear of failure is the number one factor that keeps almost 53 to 54 percent of all adults from achieving or even revisiting their goals. Fear is the number one cause of disengagement, we become afraid and the best thing to do is to disengage from the current and the present moment.

The second is probably more common and if you had to take a guess you would probably say it’s the next one which is settling and boredom. Where we become complacent and we unplug from the concept of challenge in our life and we basically hit a plateau. And we assume that it can’t get any better and that it’s out of our control that our job is just our job, it is what it is, and we thus begin to disengage because we can’t imagine a better future.

The next anti-muse, or the thing that zaps our inspiration or engagement at the base level, is inundation, becoming overwhelmed. I often say to crowds that inundation, being overwhelmed is like the new black, you know the new fashion statement. It’s so cool to say how overloaded you are in your work hours and how you can barely keep up. Well, the truth is that it has a major impact on us where we get to the point where we’re so overwhelmed that the easiest answer is to just unplug and start to disengage from the day-to-day.

Related to that is the fourth anti-muse which is loss of control. Where we feel like we no longer really have an influence on the outcomes in our life and the events in our life. It might be caused by any number of things; by a chaotic work environment; too much work going on; a crazy boss; an unempathetic―that’s a word―chain of command. When we feel like we’re no longer in control of our circumstances, one of the easiest things we can do is to simply disengage.

Fifth cause is dwindling self-belief. Where an environment beats us up, a boss beats us up and, guess what, worse than any of that—we beat ourselves up. We engage in this never-ending discussion with ourselves, our internal monologue of: am I good enough? Do I measure up to others? We engage in a constant comparison to other human beings and we continually beat ourselves up to the point where we undermine our own self-confidence and it creates disengagement because you feel like you can’t excel in the environment you’re in.

The sixth is what I call disconnectedness. We’re social animals by design. That’s not my opinion and you probably know that intuitively but social sciences taught us for years, for decades, eons, that we’re a social species. And in a work environment when we become disconnected from our coworkers, for example when a toxic worker enters the foray, and suddenly it disrupts team chemistry; when someone starts to work remotely and they don’t have the proper channels to feed back into the team; or just when someone starts to feel like an outsider of a team because they don’t share a lot in common with the team and the team has their own cliques, it starts to dissolve culture. That sense of feeling isolated and disconnected causes us to disengage from the work environment as well.

A couple more, three more. A lack of creating, believe it or not, causes us to disengage. I’ve conducted thousands of interviews with disengaged employees one of the most heartfelt confessions that I get from people is when they realize, often in the middle of talking to me, that they just stopped creating. They stopped developing unique contributions and output that marks and defines and helps build their self-identity, it helps bring real value to the workplace. And you know we stop creating for any number of reasons, we become too busy, we work in an environment that kind of crushes the ability to stop and pause and be creative and think creatively but for whatever reason when we stop giving our unique contributions to the world, often the answer is, well I’m no longer able to be my unique self, I’m going to disengage.

Two more. This one is almost as punishing as fear which is insignificance, a sense of insignificance. That the work one is doing doesn’t matter. That it really doesn’t make an impact at the end of the day, that it’s being lost in the shuffle, that it’s not congruent with someone’s self-identity and who they are, their values and what they want to be. They begin to assign and associate that sense of insignificance with their whole being. And the next thing you know, and this one is probably not hard to imagine, when you feel like your work doesn’t matter that is literally the opposite of meaningful. It’s not meaningful at all then and it becomes very easy to disengage at that point. Which by the way is why I think the area of safety there’s a lot of opportunity to spell out the significance of the work in driving safety because it’s almost inherent in the nature of what you’re trying to do and prevent.

And then the last is what I call the lack of evocation. And what I mean by that is, often we have a draw inspiration from things that… it evokes in us. So, we see a beautiful sunset, we hear a stirring speech, we come across a brilliant idea and it evokes in us a sense of engagement, an inspiration, and we want to be a part of that. Well, what happens when you work in a truly toxic environment or you work for a truly evil boss that makes it almost impossible no matter how creative you are or no matter how fearless you are, no matter how excited you are about your work. It erases all of that in such an environment and makes it almost impossible for you to evoke any feelings of engagement or draw any inspiration from your surroundings. So probably a more thorough answer than you wanted but that’s what causes our disengagement.

What our research tells us is that the average employee, whether it’s Canada, Latin America or the United States, that’s where I have the data, on average they experience three to four of them periodically or constantly so there’s no shame in feeling, I could tell you right now to this day I still deal with a sense of a fear of failure despite my successes. I still have to work on my gift of creating and, you know, there’s truths in all of this for many of us.

Going from what not to do, let’s move to achieving engagement. How do you create meaning and engagement?

I’ll try to be brief. What I’ll do is I’ll try to sum it up for you, and this is where I get to the core of the book Make It Matter. What I’ve discovered is that first of all people misunderstand. And if I were to poll the United States and Canada, and I have, and were to ask the average manager of others what do you think creates engagement? For the most part, on average about two-thirds of leaders will say it’s either perks, promotions or pay. And just in the interest of time, suffice it to say the data does not support any of those as being sustained drivers of engagement.

What the data does tell us is the presence of meaning and how important it is in creating meaning for employees to sustain engagement over a time and what I’ve been blessed enough to uncover are what I call the Seven Markers of Meaning. I’ll touch on them very briefly to help you understand in case you don’t already understand or aren’t familiar with this.

The first is you know work that matters, simply. Knowing that you’re working with a sense of purpose behind what you’re doing, what I call the profound why behind your work. Purpose has been gaining a lot of steam and you’ve probably already heard about it from the likes of Simon Sinek and many others, so that’s not an unusual thought. Articulating your purpose is much more difficult, but being able to do that brings tremendous meaning, as does being able to articulate your profound what, which is your legacy. How often do we get a chance to pause and say what we want our legacy to be in the jobs we’re currently in right now? When you can do that—articulate your purpose and your legacy—that fulfills the first marker of meaning which is really feeling like your work matters. And that’s probably the most fundamental way to drive meaning and engagement.

The second one, which continues to surprise people because it’s so often and easily I guess for lack of a better word overlooked, which is enhancing and working with a sense of learning and growth. It is still fundamentally true as human beings we’re extremely motivated when we’re learning and we’re growing. And what I usually like to tell people, if you think back to a time in your career when you weren’t happy, when you didn’t feel that fulfilled, there’s a darn good chance it was a period when you weren’t learning and growing, when you felt you were plateauing and you were saying to yourself am I wasting my time here?

So by being very, very intentional about creating learning and growth opportunities and holding those opportunities sacred; not letting them fall for the priority of the minute passed down by management or you know whatever other source; by really investing and creating other opportunities that’s the core of being human. Becoming a better version of ourselves and so many companies overlook it as a way to drive engagement. And it has to be learning that meets the people with what they want to learn about, of course, but it doesn’t change the fact that too many companies kind of overlook that for lack of a better word.

The third marker of meaning is working with a heightened sense of competency and self-esteem. And a lot of folks say, surely that’s a given? But you know, one of the largest studies ever conducted on college campuses was just completed and it showed that self-reported, emotional well-being amongst students in college campuses is at the lowest level since they started recording it—a direct side effect of the low levels of self-esteem that college students are facing and the increasing pressures they’re putting on themselves in the college campuses.

Yale University’s largest, most enrolled class in 2017, was a class on how to be happier and build your self-esteem. These are 19-year-old kids packing a rehearsal hall with a class size of 1200 people, 24 teacher’s aides to teach this class to 19-year-old kids who need to figure out how to be happy. And the reason I bring that up is, guess what those millennials, well I guess Gen Z now, they’re going to be tomorrow’s workforce. And they bring that with them that underpinning of low level of self-esteem lower than it’s been recorded in the past. And people often say, well surely they’ll figure it out, they’re adults, they’ll get to the workplace and they’ll figure it out.

I wish that were true. I just finished conducting a survey amongst 1000 employees across the United States and I asked one question in the survey, just one. In the past sixth months have you experienced a hit to your self-esteem such that it left you questioning your ability, made you doubt your self-confidence? 93 percent said yes, in the last six months they’ve experienced some form of self-esteem hit.

This is the backdrop that we’re facing today as leaders and so many leaders are so quick to push this off and say, what are you talking about building their competency and self-esteem? That’s up to them. I’m not a babysitter. Well, you know I’m sorry in today’s workforce the reality is the reality, with the backdrop of social media causing us to compare our blooper reel to everyone else’s highlight reel constantly, there’s all kinds of natural forces acting that creates a less self-assured generation than ever before, so building self-esteem and self-confidence and doing the little things as a leader to consciously and intentionally do that are critical to building engagement.

The fourth marker of meaning that I talk about is maybe one of the easiest ways I would argue which is to, as a leader, grant autonomy. As human beings, we fundamentally thrive in the face of being given opportunity to decide on our own. I often ask audiences: raise your hand if you like to be micromanaged. I don’t have a single taker yet, you know in all the years I’ve been talking about it. The fundamental human truth is we operate at our best when… even if it’s scary. The key is to grant autonomy intelligently because we could screw it up and not mean to. I don’t know if this tell me if this has ever happened to you, you ever have a boss delegate something to you and you thought you had it and then at the first sign of trouble what happens? The boss comes in the side door and starts taking things over and you’re like well, wait a minute I thought you delegated this to me.

Or we can have what the social sciences call the soap box mentality kicks in, sorry the sandbox mentality kicks in, whereby the leader grants autonomy. The person or the group granted autonomy does very well with it, very well with it. In fact, so well that it causes the leader to doubt him or herself and the value that they’re bringing to the table. So what do they do? They start to creep their way back in so they can be involved, they discover that the team has taken their autonomy to another level outside the scope of what they’re comfortable with and he creates this approach from the group that’s been granted the autonomy to stay outta my sandbox. Your boss will learn that we can do this on our own. Thus the term sandbox paradox. It’s easy to say: just grant autonomy. You just have to do it smartly and intelligently by outlining the scope, being very clear on what’s in scope what’s out of scope, helping the person succeed with the autonomy by giving them the resources they need and the guidance they need, so that you’re not dumping you’re delegating effectively.

The fifth marker of meaning is the type of culture that you work in. And my research has found when you know there’s a lot of great cultures you know cultures of innovation and cultures of accountability, they’re all great, the discerning point that I’m making is what’s typical of the type of culture that scores highest for creating a meaning-rich organization? And then by the way, scores highest from employee satisfaction? And that’s an atmosphere of caring, authenticity and teamwork. Caring sounds easy but it’s not because research shows that most people will say— the vast majority of people say—I’m not convinced that my boss truly cares about me, they care about results. About me as a human? Yeah not so much. So there’s a lot of room for us to go as human beings, but it makes sense, right? When you know your boss cares about you as a whole person, of course, you’re going to you’re more likely to be engaged deeply into your work. And it’s something we overlook as leaders to not show visible signs of caring every now and then, to just let people know you’re more than just a unit of labour to me. And teamwork… I just bring that from the perspective of… we’re social animals and a lot of our identities are defined by the teams we’re a part of, and so reinforcing the importance of teamwork, while I’m not an expert in building teamwork, I’m certainly an expert in the importance of building teamwork. Because it builds a sense of social identity which is incredibly meaningful and keeps us motivated. Much like being an authentic leader as well.

The last two are feeling you get meaning as an employee. You’re engaged as an employee deeply when you feel connection with and confidence in your leadership. And if any one of you have ever had the experience of working for a boss—I don’t know I’m making this up here—who lacked vision, or wasn’t inspiring, was the opposite of inspiring. It’s very, very hard to be as engaged in your work as you can be because you’re not confident in where you’re heading. You might not be confident in the leader or in the mission itself if you don’t believe in the mission of the organization. So the best leaders are very cognizant of how they message. They communicate competently, they have a clear vision in mind, they articulate the vision consistently and repetitively. I once worked for a CEO… he said this, I don’t know how many times, but he said that 90 percent of a CEO’s job is communication and within that 80 percent of that is the same thing over and over and over. That’s no different with a vision. And when you can do it consistently, it starts to build confidence that you’re going to stick to the mission and you’re a lot more engaged in the job in and of itself.

Then the final marker of meaning is being astute enough as a leader to avoid the opposite. What I call the components of corrosion. Where we do all this hard work to create a nurturing environment, where it’s filled with autonomy and the work is meaningful, people are learning and growing, we’re enhancing self-esteem, we care, we’re engaged in teamwork and authenticity and then what happens? We engage in corrosive behaviours that drain the meaning right out the back door. So for example, some of the classic corrosive behaviours that simply just drain meaning are, for example, killing feelings of ownership. This is something that I had to work on early in my career as a leader. Someone would be working on a project, let’s say they have—I’m making this up—six projects. In my zest as a young manager, in thinking that it was important to keep everybody feeling like they’re working on fresh things and challenged and excited, I overlooked the importance of a sense of completion. So I was taking projects away from people before they could complete them. And that is the opposite of meaning. Think about how frustrating that is if you can’t see something through to its end.

As human beings, we’re bound to want to complete what we started. That’s why cliffhangers in movies are so popular. Because it keeps you edged in… or TV shows—you can’t wait to see what happens the next time because of what neuroscience teaches us. Our brain treats the unknown almost as if it’s an error. When you don’t know, you’re unsure, you want to fix that error. That’s what it’s like when you don’t get a chance to complete what you started because you don’t know how it’s going to end and it drives you crazy. So doing things like killing feelings of ownership, creating rework, and being indecisive could be the opposite of meaning (because people are caught in this parallel path middle-world of lack of productivity), lack of communication and listening is a major drainer of meaning. If you’ve ever been engaged in a discussion with someone, for example, when they’re on their cell phone and they’re half on their phone and they’re half listening to you, you don’t even have the energy to want to continue let alone be engaged in the conversation in front of you. So we get engaged in many corrosive behaviours being inconsistent, being indecisive… that can really drain meaning out the other side. So part of creating an engaging atmosphere is to be aware of those and prevent yourself from engaging in them.

Is there a good way of using incentives or rewards to get zero injuries or achieve a goal?

I think so, certainly, I’ve talked to plants before where they do a mixture of incentives, that monetarily… they serve as the baseline. Where I haven’t seen it as successful is when it’s the only thing that you do. In a way, it’s almost expected that you do some kind of incentive. In my humble opinion, for it to be maximally productive it has to be enshrined in something bigger than, right? I’ll make it up… you know, at this one plant they had an incentive package: not only cash bonuses but these prized parking lot spots. You can imagine in many plants… the plants are huge and you’ve gotta park like a country-mile away—so they had prized parking spots. But then they wrapped all of that in a number of those small little fun things, you know, like ice cream safety days, where you come learn about safety and they have amazing local ice cream and lunches and catering. But they encapsulated all of that in a bigger message of caring and that safety is the peak of the summit for them, it’s what defines who we are as an organization. You get the point. So I do think there’s a role so long as the incentives are not stand-alone.

How does a company’s vision or mission factor into the engagement of employees? For example, a company says that, for them, safety always comes first. But then a rush order comes in and safety is overlooked for productivity.

First of all, the vision has to resonate with people’s identities. It especially doesn’t matter if the way the vision is articulated no one really cares about and it’s not in line with what really drives people. And I usually preserve that comment for people that think a vision is a number. Getting to 10 percent less safety incidents is a number. Producing $100 million more in revenue is a number. Two more points of market share is a number. No one cares about that vision, why is that important?

First, you’ve got to start from a place where it’s not just a number it’s something that resonates with people’s identities, what makes them feel special, what feels meaningful to them, first and foremost.

Second, then yes, of course, it has to be consistently communicated and then, when the rubber hits the road, it’s so critical that you follow through on the vision. Otherwise, it goes to the values of the company.

Now, if you plug in safety, it’s very difficult to recover in those moments when you place short-term priorities over something long-term. You either believe it or you don’t. You’re either going to stick by it in times of crisis or you’re not going to, right? And in times of adversity character arises. So I feel like I’m probably telling you things you already know but it’s very, very true. The consistency of the vision is critical.

Speaking of leadership, what’s the role of leadership in engagement and how important is it for managers to have the right leadership skills, as opposed to being promoted due to their tenure or being good at their specific job.

Yeah, great question and it’s also one of the big barriers that… because we work in a culture where people tend to get promoted for their level of incompetence, often what happens is you get the people—operationally speaking—that are in the right roles, but they don’t have the mindset in place of what it takes to create a meaning-rich organization. So the obvious answer to your question is probably… it’s absolutely vital that the leaders role-model this. Especially because sometimes, you know, things like granting autonomy, making sure you’re staying true to the purpose, investing in learning and growth over short-term priorities and not letting… holding that learning opportunity sacred—they come with risk, right? There’s real risk.

One of the reasons leaders don’t grant autonomy is they’re afraid of what’s going to happen if that person fails when given the autonomy because it still reflects on them as a leader. So you have to have the right risk-tolerant mindset and it has to be role-modelled from the top because otherwise what happens? the first sign of someone acting otherwise, it sends the message of: ok, I see, we don’t really care about creating a meaningful environment, we don’t really care about safety and it becomes an excuse and the whole things folds in on itself.

It absolutely has to start at the leader level and I’ve talked to a lot of companies that attempted grassroots outfits where the employees try to build it from the ground up and they only get so far before they run into leaders who visibly role model it.

You touched on culture when you were speaking on the markers of meaning. To improve performance and engagement you obviously need to enhance the culture. And you say that cultural change isn’t as easy as flipping a switch, but leaders think they can dictate culture. So, how do you impact the culture of an organization in order to enhance employee engagement?  

Yeah, this is certainly not my opinion this is a lot of people smarter than I am in the area of social behavior and organizational dynamics will tell you that culture change really starts from the top, is energized by the bottom and lives day to day in the middle. And what I mean by that is: it has to start from leaders at the top deciding that things are important but enrolling the organization underneath them in the importance of does this make the cut, is it in line with our values, is what we’re trying to do with culture here the right thing, this is why we’re trying to do it? because at the end of the day, right, changing the culture is change. People struggle with change. And the old adage you’ve gotta weigh-in before you can buy-in is very, very true. Especially in culture change. People have to be a part of the change, they have to understand the need for why you’re changing the culture to begin with. A lot of leaders make the mistake of they come up with their culture initiative, they decide I want my culture to be X, Y, Z and I want it to start tomorrow. And they just deploy it, it doesn’t work that way.

It has to be grass roots grounded into the values of the company, the purpose–the ultimate reason behind it, people have to agree to it before you start developing that initiative. So if you want safety to be a part of your culture for example you have to enroll employees from the ground up of why it’s so darned important. Once they’re bought into that, you know this is where the grassroots-inspired energize it, the employees at the bottom of the organization, because they’re the ones they’re going to have the most energy to carry it out, they’re going to associate with their identity and tie it to the company.

The middle managers are just as important because they’re most likely to be the real change agents, right? The ones at the top are too far removed, the ones at the bottom don’t have the executional authority and power to role model. The middle managers are probably the key in culture change, at least this what organization dynamics teaches us. Because they are the ones with enough power, say, sway over other people to role-model the change, to enroll change agents, to be smart enough to sell the case for change and to be consistent about the benefits of that change. So, it definitely takes a three-pronged effort to change culture but when it’s happened, that’s usually what’s happened. It’s that three-tiered approach.

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