When it comes to employee engagement, there is no shortage of surveys, models, buzz words, and lingo. It's enough to get your head spinning so fast you'll fall down a rabbit hole and end up talking to a caterpillar. What often gets lost are deeper truths about why and how engagement works.

It all starts with basic human nature. As human beings, we are driven to seek out three things as we live our lives:

1. Safety and resources
2. Belonging and connection
3. Purpose and meaning

These are fundamental for surviving and thriving. Lucky for us, our brains and bodies are wired to respond when we see opportunities to obtain these. Researchers talk about this response with terms like approach motivation, positive affect, and approach behavior.

When you see an opportunity, your brain and body kick into gear. You feel energetic, confident, and motivated. Your thoughts become focused and absorbed in the situation. You behave with effort and persistence. This response means that you are more engaged in situations that are good for you and that you disengage from situations that are not good for you.

This response is fundamental to human happiness and wellbeing. It allows us to build a healthy, happy, fulfilling life. When it breaks down, the result is mental and physical illness, suffering, and a low quality of life.

This process applies to all facets of life, including the workplace. It is why organizations that provide opportunities for people to meet these needs have a more engaged workforce, attract and retain more engaged people, and become known as great places to work and sources of excellence within their industry.

Not convinced? Re-read the description of how your brain and body respond to opportunities to have your fundamental needs met. Now imagine what a group of people experiencing that same response are capable of accomplishing.

One of the big challenges in getting employee engagement right is navigating the vast sea of tools and lingo. The key to employee engagement is aligning your efforts with deeper, more fundamental forces. If you don't, you will be trying to do something that runs counter to human nature. Just browse a few Dilbert strips and you'll see how well that works. In my next entry, I will talk about some of the specific tactics that have proven effective.

Brandon Sullivan has a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Minnesota and is leading a system-wide engagement strategy. He has authored numerous research articles and co-edited the 2007 book Cooperation: The political psychology of effective human interaction.

Why should we care about employee engagement?

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For those of us who study these things, the answer seems obvious - no organization can succeed without an engaged workforce. Yet the concept of employee engagement can be fuzzy and abstract, so I'd like to start my blog by offering an answer to this question.

There's plenty of research on this, but let's begin by imagining a great university - not unlike the University of Minnesota.

This university has talented, hard-working faculty and staff. You hear spirited conversations, passionate debates, and see groups working together. There is an optimistic intensity you can feel as you watch faculty, staff, and students at work. You get the sense that the future is being created. This university is a powerful engine within the broader community.

So what does employee engagement have to do with this story? For starters, this is what an engaged workforce looks, sounds, and feels like. It's powerful stuff. I promise I'm not making this up. It's been the subject of a lot of research.

Now, let's watch what happens when disengagement appears (this is where things get ugly)...

At first everything seems normal. Then, a challenge appears. Maybe it's a change in the economy, the higher ed landscape, competition for grants, or something else. It doesn't matter. Now, enthusiasm seems muted. What was optimism is now more cautious. People are more reactive than creative.

The most talented people are acutely aware of this shift and ask themselves if they are in the right place. This turns into a stream of top talent leaving. Students feel that important needs are no longer being met. There is a general feeling that the university should scale back its aspirations.

This is what disengagement feels like. Research shows that engagement profoundly shapes the quality of our experiences and outcomes in the workplace.

The great thing about engagement is that there are many things we can do within our programs and departments to create and sustain engagement. In my next post, I will talk about some of them.

Brandon Sullivan has a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Minnesota and, after several years in the private sector, returned in January to lead the development of a system-wide employee engagement strategy for faculty and staff

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