Click here to preview the new Fast Company

Want to try out the new

If you’d like to return to the previous design, click the yellow button on the lower left corner.

Feeling Blah About Work? Don't Blame Your Boss—Get Engaged

As an employee, you have three choices: Accept what you've been given, change what you've been given, or leave what you've been given. We want to focus on the second option. If you feel underused and undervalued, you can do something about it.

You may be tempted to hold the organization accountable for your engagement. If you still don't buy the argument that you're in charge of your own engagement, ask yourself: have you ever had true passion for something in life?

Most likely you can answer yes. So where did that passion come from? You get the point. Nobody can give you passion. Nobody can instill in you deep and rich and vibrant engagement. You have to do it. You should do it.

Engagement drives performance, both personally and organizationally. Torrents of data and reams of analysis have proven a direct relationship between the two. Engagement is the passion you have for what you're doing and the affection you have for the organization and its people. It's the comprehensive expression of your motivation and desire to contribute. Of course engagement levels vary. That's the problem. Some people are on fire. Others are frozen solid. Highly engaged people demonstrate focus, energy, and commitment. Disengaged people languish in complacency, indifference, and halfhearted effort. They think, feel, and act differently from truly engaged human beings. But that's not all. Engaged human beings deliver different results—to themselves and to their organizations.

Individuals who dive in and participate fully earn greater rewards and experience deeper personal and professional fulfillment. Show us a disengaged person, and we will show you lackluster performance, limited personal growth, and diminished rewards. Show us an engaged person, and it's just the opposite—high performance, accelerated personal growth, and inevitable success.

Two primary types of factors drive engagement: extrinsic factors and intrinsic factors. An extrinsic factor is something that comes from the out-side—meaning outside of you. It's something in the environment, something in the conditions or circumstances that surround you that influences you to become more engaged. For example, you may have a great boss, a nice office, or a new computer; the organization may be performing well; or perhaps you've been given a lot of training to do your job and a generous budget to accom- plish your priorities. These are all extrinsic factors—things that come from outside. Extrinsic factors are important, and they do have an impact on engagement levels. They create engagement from the outside in.

Intrinsic factors, on the other hand, come from the inside. They are inherent and are not dependent on outside conditions or circumstances. They are based on what you do. They're based on human action rather than environmental conditions. We've all experienced the power of an intrinsic factor. Just think about the times at work when you felt high motivation or a sense of deep satisfaction. Perhaps you learned something new. Maybe you really delivered on a project. Maybe you overcame a challenge. Maybe you helped someone who needed your help. Maybe you really love the kind of work you're doing. When you notice that your attention and motivation are increasing as you are doing something, that's an indication that something is going on inside, that intrinsic factors are at work and your engagement level is rising. When you act based on intrinsic factors, you don't do it for material or social rewards, you do it for invisible emotional, intellectual, and moral rewards. When you're engaged, it shows. It shows in your concentration, your effort, and your emotion. You can't hide it. Intrinsic factors create engagement from the inside out.

There are six drivers for engagement:

1) Connect: This driver includes developing great relationships and connecting socially. There's an intellectual dimension of connecting, which means that you connect to the work, people, and place on an intellectual level, and you find it stimulating. There's an environmental/cultural dimension of connecting, which means that you connect to the organization through its culture, its geography, and its environment. And there is an inspirational dimension of con- necting, which means that you connect to the organization based on its cause, mission, vision, values, or goals. On this dimension, you connect to what the organization represents and where it's going. To unlock this aspect, you have to discover which of these dimensions help drive your engagement and which one is your primary anchor.

2) Shape: Although you may not have complete control over your work and your work life, you do have more infl uence than you may realize. Shaping is the process of customizing, personalizing, and tailoring your professional experience based on your preferences while pursuing the organization's goals and acknowledging real constraints.

3) Learn: Think back on a time when you felt the thrill of learning. It was really stimulating, wasn't it? When people successfully learn and apply new knowledge and skills, it fuels their engagement.

4) Stretch: Stretching means leaving your comfort zone, passing through your discomfort zone, and pushing on to your outer limits. Stretching increases your capacity to perform. It creates both discomfort and exhilaration. Whenever you stretch and go to your outer limits, you increase capacity and drive engagement to a high level.

5) Achieve: Achieving replenishes energy, boosts confidence, deepens fulfillment, and elevates engagement. When you achieve, it becomes a self-reinforcing cycle that allows you to rely less on outside rewards.

6) Contribute: Human beings want to make a difference. It's an innate need, and we find that when an individual is contributing to another person, a group, or the greater good, he or she reaches the highest level of engagement. Contributing is the driver that brings the other fi ve together and gives them a higher level of expression and purpose.

There's no justification for an employee to wait expectantly for the organization to furnish engagement, as if it's something somebody can give you. The key to sustainable high engagement is taking primary responsibility for it. Now is the time to own your own engagement.

Excerpted from Timothy Clark's The Employee Engagement Mindset, ©2012, McGraw-Hill Professional; reprinted with permission of the publisher.

[Image: Flickr user James Whitesmith]

Add New Comment


  • Jim Watson

    From the standpoint of taking personal responsibility, this article is Spot-on!

    But I do feel that many employers either omit, or gloss over an important factor here:  They don't tap into the employee's human nature to contribute toward a greater good; or the employers and hiring managers don't do it as regularly and as rigorously as the could.

    Here's what I'm proposing:

    Do the following during the onboarding process of each new employee, and again during peformance evaluations, and hey, as often as it makes sense to do so:
    Help the employee to clearly see and understand the ultimate connection between what they do, and the success of the organization.  Connect the dots, no matter how many dots may exist between the individual employee's responsibilities, and the outcomes that the organization produces.  Help the employee to understand how what they do, and how well they do it, will in fact, make a difference in the success of the company.
    I think back to the story about JFK touring the NASA facility in Houston.  The President came upon a custodian in the hallway, and asked him, "What is it that you do here?"
    The custodian responded, "I'm helping to put on man on the moon."
    While it's important for an employee to help themselves to stay motivated, it's incumbent upon the employer, and the hiring manager to lay the groundwork for that, and to cultivate it through their HR processes.

    Jim Watson
    Portland, Maine

  • Kate Bouwens

    Good observations. I think it's a matter of conquering feelings of worthlessness that can set in when there's not a lot of direction or even things to DO. Showing employers you're ready to work; ready to engage translates into "I am competent, I have skills to offer and you need my skills." I think too, though, there is a lot of responsibility placed on managers managing. Don't take for granted that you have good employees who are self-directing. HELP them! Direct them and they'll appreciate it. Make sure your office is an environment where people feel they can fess up when the work is light and not fear their jobs. It's a two-way street and if followed well, will lead to happier, strong employees and enthusiastic managers. 

  • Ara ohanian

    Tim, interesting article. I hope you haven’t been too burnt by the flame
    comments you’ve been getting! You’re right that two factors drive engagement –
    intrinsic and extrinsic. And I’d say from an extrinsic point of view that it is
    the absolutely the role of managers and leaders to make sure employees are
    challenged and allowed to get on with their jobs. Employees should always feel
    supported in their role and that’s a manager’s job. But you’re also right that
    employees intrinsically  make a huge addition to engagement and you list
    six laudable drivers for engagement.  But there is one other one that I
    would recommend any employee which I have always taken both as an employee and
    as a leader of a successful company and that’s this: remember it’s only a job.
    It is the rest of your life that provides usually both the reason for carrying
    on when things are tough and the delight in financial and other success. And as
    managers and leaders it’s important for us to remember that employees are not
    robots and to respond to their outside lives as well.

  • Bryan

    ...and what an engaging rebuttal. I think everyone will be ever more enlightened by your well thought out counterpoint.

  • S.S

    Eff that. I will never sell my dignity. We are all human beings, not robots. Way to sugarcoat some bullshit sir. Overworked & underpaid. Cheapest Productivity. Good at your job? You WONT get a raise, You'll get more duties, because all they care about, saving money for themselves.

  • Bryan

    So what would you suggest as an alternative? Holding your breath until you get your way. Assuming your observations are accurate, you infer that the way to counteract overworked and underpaid is to underwork and expect to be overpaid? What exactly is fair? Can you proclaim what is fair to everyone? It seems to me that you just intended to spread discontent versus actually engaging in dialogue. Where is your alternate viewpoint? How would you suggest to move forward?

  • Bigredone

    What a load of crap.  This is a primer on how to become a mindless 'Stepford Wives' like employee.  Mindlessly accepting your fate and being happy that your hard work and success helped the owner buy a vacation home, airplane, hot air balloon, membership to exclusive country clubs....

    For people that have confidence in themselves and their work, as well as a track-record for meeting or exceeding set objectives and helping companies generate double and even triple-digit growth for more than two decades....the only option is leave.

  • Bryan

    Rather than apply the topics discussed here to your very personal experiences, consider that perhaps not every employer in the world is out to squeeze every ounce of blood, sweat, and tears from their employees. Unless of course you have worked for every employer. In that case, you are free to make such broad observations.

  • Joy_jacob45

    Very good observation. Much the same idea I gained on reading, 'The Leader Who Had No Title' by Robin Sharma.

  • Tony

    7. Leave. Organisations that respond to such things as discussed above are as rare as diamonds. Which only leaves this option.

  • Bryan

    ...and responded to by a bitter employee. Read the beginning of the article and apply it your work life instead of posting bitter assumptions here.

  • Greg Marcus

    Employee engagement is great for the company, but is it always best for the employee?  I agree completely that it is the employees responsibility to feelings of blah.  

    But before jumping to the conclusion that more engagement is the answer, wouldn't it be better to diagnose the cause?  Maybe you feel blah because there is something inherently dissatisfying about the work.  Maybe you are overworked, and in danger of burnout.  Maybe you are feeling conflicted between work and family.  Having a challenging and rewarding career is a good thing, but ultimately happiness does not come from work.  Happiness comes from engagement with other people.

    Greg Marcus, author of Busting Your Corporate Idol: How To Reconnect With Values and Regain Control Of Your Life.

  • Miquelangelony

    False!  An engaged person may provide higher performance and accelerated
    personal growth but that DOES NOT guarantee inevitable success.  Several points not
    included in this article: defining expectations of success, having the opportunity to succeed, the political positioning often required, contributes to a
    complicated formula of achievement.  I know plenty of talented, driven
    people in all kinds of industries who have not enjoyed the appropriate level of success for various
    factors outside of their control - right place,
    right time matters a lot!