Monday, January 20, 2014

Importance of free will for employee engagement

Like many other companies, at Sefaira we realize that empowering and engaging our entire team with the company's mission is critical for our success. This implies those closest to the front lines, i.e. our customers and our code, should feel complete engagement with the goal of the company & motivated to make decisions and act in the interest of Sefaira's success.

The business value of employee engagement isn't suspect, and can be proven by empirical data. Anecdotally, we feel this helps with improve employee happiness as well. However, I recently read a study by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‎ which provides empirical data in favor of this.

Using his novel Experience Sampling Method, Csikszentmihalyi‎ studied a population of workers across a wide spectrum to understand when people enjoyed themselves. He learnt the following -

  • While at work, 54% of the population said they experience enjoyment. During this state of enjoyment they felt challenged & they felt their skills were being used well
  • While at home or during leisure, only 18% of the population said they experience enjoyment. Interestingly, a majority of workers felt apathy & boredom during leisure hours
This clearly showed that people enjoy themselves more at work than they do during leisure hours. However, a 2nd question showed an interesting paradox. A majority of workers who said they were enjoying themselves at work said they'd rather be indulging in a leisure activity. Also, a majority of workers who were bored during leisure stated that they'd rather not be doing something else. 

This means that a majority of workers would rather be bored & apathetic, than engaged in enjoyable work. This was a paradoxical finding. The author states that this can likely be attributed to the social perception that the nature of work is not determined by employees (even though work itself is challenging & enjoyable), and is not under the employee's free will. This lack of free will leads employees to choose to spend their time being apathetic, away from work they truly enjoy.

For us as managers, the lesson is clear. The more employees feel like they are acting under free will, the happier they will be, as they will seek the enjoyment that comes from work. Of course, the business benefits from this if it is organized to allow employees to decide & act in the interest of business.