How to Improve Employee Engagement: A Human-Centric Plan

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Humanocracy" by Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Wondering how to improve employee engagement? Why do employees become disengaged at work?

In their book Humanocracy, business experts Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini explain why employees become disengaged at work and how to improve employee engagement. They say, to boost engagement, employers should view employees as more than a resource.

Keep reading to learn how to improve employee engagement, according to Hamel and Zanini.

How to Engage Employees

In Humanocracy, business experts Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini explain how to improve employee engagement when you have disengaged and disillusioned employees. They argue that, to solve this problem, businesses need to completely change how they think about their workers. It’s time to move away from seeing employees as mere resources and instead start seeing them as people with their own interests and ideas. 

The authors add that business and leadership experts have known how to improve employee engagement for decades. People do their best work when they have the freedom to explore and find their own answers, chances to grow by learning new things and taking on new challenges, a strong sense of connection with their colleagues, and a mission that they believe in.

(Shortform note: While everything the authors say here about engagement is generally accepted by the business community, their list of factors that increase engagement is arguably incomplete. According to Gallup, another key driver of employee engagement is recognition—people want to feel appreciated for their work and known for their exceptional skills and ideas. Therefore, it’s a good idea to adopt employee recognition and appreciation as another human-focused principle to improve your company and employee engagement.) 

Give Employees a Purpose

To improve employee engagement, Hamel and Zanini place special emphasis on giving employees a purpose. They believe that people define themselves by what goals they work toward, and that’s why people working at uninspiring jobs with uninspiring objectives feel so frustrated and depressed: They don’t want to spend their lives working toward goals that aren’t important to them. 

For example, a high school student who works a part-time job at a fast food restaurant most likely doesn’t care whether the company does well or whether the hundredth customer of the day gets his food quickly enough—those things aren’t important to him. Therefore, he’s unlikely to find true satisfaction and happiness at work.

(Shortform note: If you’re one of the many people who don’t feel engaged at work, there are some things you can do to try to find your motivation again. First of all, raise your concerns with your supervisor or manager. Many of the workplace problems Hamel and Zanini describe, like having uninspiring goals, tie directly back to managers and management style, so a frank discussion could make a big difference. Second, set meaningful goals for yourself: For example, maybe there’s a particular position you want within the company or a certain type of project you want to work on. If none of that helps, try working with an external careers coach: someone unconnected to your company who can help you take stock of your situation and determine your next steps.) 

It might seem that there aren’t many worthwhile jobs available if the only “good” ones are those that inspire their workers by tackling important problems. However, the authors disagree: They say that there are an infinite number of problems in the world that people can try to solve, so everyone can find a job that solves a problem they consider important. 

(Shortform note: In The Beginning of Infinity, theoretical physicist David Deutsch makes a similar claim: that there’s an infinite amount of knowledge humans can create and therefore an infinite number of problems we can solve. Deutsch adds that there’s no such thing as “unimportant” knowledge—every piece of information we learn could be used to solve a problem and, perhaps more importantly, could be the key to greater breakthroughs later. For example, bacteriologist Alexander Fleming discovered that a certain species of mold was deadly to Staphylococcus bacteria; that seemingly small and niche discovery led to the mass production of the antibiotic penicillin, which was a major turning point in modern medicine.) 

People Aren’t Machines

According to the authors, another reason why human-focused principles are so important is that human-focused companies use their resources—that is to say, their employees—more effectively than their bureaucratic counterparts. Bureaucracies try to optimize performance using rules and systems, as if improving the programming on a machine. However, to improve employee engagement, Hamel and Zanini remind us that it’s important to remember that people aren’t machines—trying to control and optimize everything they do is simply micromanagement, which leads to inefficiency and frustration among both workers and managers. 

(Shortform note: Research confirms that people don’t appreciate unnecessary help or instructions in the workplace—it feels patronizing and stifling, and it can make employees resent their bosses for meddling in their tasks or undercutting them. Therefore, not only is micromanagement inefficient and annoying, but the frustration it causes can also severely harm relations between employees and managers. If you’re trying to improve employee engagement, then remember that micromanagement can lead to lower workplace morale and productivity.) 

The authors add that human-focused principles are more important than ever now that machines and computers can do so much of the manufacturing and computation that people used to do. With the uncreative work automated, companies need to let their employees tackle the creative work that computers can’t do and recognize that creativity can’t be managed. 

In recent years, instead of taking the opportunity to improve employee engagement or adopt human-focused principles in the face of automation, many companies have instead doubled down on bureaucracy. In fact, even though experts predicted that managers—in other words, bureaucrats—would become a smaller fraction of the workforce as automation increased, the opposite has happened: Managers form a larger portion of the workforce than ever. This has only led to further micromanagement, inefficiency, and frustration. Both people and companies are suffering from this ever-increasing bureaucracy.

(Shortform note: In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Hamel and Zanini estimate that having so many people in unnecessary managerial positions—instead of doing creative, innovative work—is costing the U.S. trillions of dollars every year. They believe that massively reducing bureaucracy in favor of human-focused principles will not only improve workers’ morale and companies’ performance but also produce enormous benefits for the economy as a whole.)

The authors add that human-focused companies will also solve the threat that automation poses in the workplace—the only reason jobs are threatened by machines is that companies treat human workers like machines. In a human-focused company, where creativity is more important than mere productivity, employees have nothing to fear from automation. 

(Shortform note: As a counterpoint to Hamel and Zanini, even creative work has been threatened by automation in the years since Humanocracy was written. For example, AI programs can now turn text prompts into artwork and write essays almost instantly. Such tools are still far from perfect, but as technology advances, it’s possible that computers will be able to handle creative work and problem-solving as well as any human. In fact, former presidential candidate Andrew Yang predicted that a third of Americans will soon lose their jobs to automation—including AI—and proposed Universal Basic Income as the only way to prevent a major economic downturn.) 

How to Improve Employee Engagement: A Human-Centric Plan

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  • Why employee obedience and efficiency are not the most important traits
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  • The six-tier hierarchy of needs in human-focused companies

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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