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In a recent post, we looked at HR’s important role in transforming organizational culture to create truly digital workplaces—the kind that attract and retain talent by focusing on engagement and encouraging innovation. We highlighted results from a 2016 Gallup survey measuring the state of worker engagement—among the U.S.’s 100 million full-time employees, a majority are either “not engaged” at work or are “actively disengaged” (51 percent and 16 percent, respectively). Just 31 percent are “engaged”—“involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace,” according to the survey.

These stats should serve as a wake-up call to business leaders—increasing employee engagement should be a top priority. Engaged employees enable companies to innovate. They make digital transformation a reality. They drive organizational success.

But before organizations can increase engagement, they must first understand it. According to Gallup, “One of the greatest barriers to engaging employees is a misguided notion of what employee engagement actually is and what it is meant to do.”

The end goal of increasing engagement must be greater performance, not simply placating employees, according to Gallup. To achieve that goal, organizations need to develop thoughtful, comprehensive engagement strategies that address the varied needs of today’s generationally diverse workforce. For example, Millennials—more than Baby Boomers or Gen Xers—place a high value on jobs that provide learning and development opportunities. In addition, organizations should enable employees to find a sense of purpose—they must communicate expectations, encourage cross-departmental collaboration, and provide the best tools and the most effective training.

When organizations gain a deeper understanding of engagement, they can implement more targeted, purposeful and effective approaches to increase it.

In an essay for Chief Learning Officer magazine, author Michael Seidman describes how adopting a learning and development approach that’s built upon neuroscientific principles can boost engagement, and also deliver other benefits.

Before organizations can increase engagement, they must first understand it

In “The Neuroscience of Self-Directed Learning,” Seidman suggests a two-part strategy. The first phase is identifying what makes your best employees so engaged and productive, and the second is developing a methodology based on that information, and applying it to the rest of your employees.

To be successful, the approach must do the following:

  • Tap into or instill a strong motivation to learn
  • Include ample practice to actually internalize the learning
  • Provide intense social support for the learner

Seidman explains the science behind the approach: “When someone feels they are making a contribution to a greater social good for family, teammates, the organization and/or society, their brain releases endorphins and dopamine—which make them feel great and more receptive to new ideas.”

In addition, when efforts occur in a social group, the brain releases oxytocin and serotonin, two neurochemicals that have been widely studied for their influence on social behavior.1

No matter what an organization’s strategy is based on—neuroscience or otherwise—it’s hard to dispute the potential benefits. In Gallup’s report, researchers note the effects increased engagement can have on a company—decreased absenteeism, increased productivity, lower turnover, increased profits, and greater commitment to customer service, quality and safety.

Companies that prioritize engagement will not only successfully swap ennui for enthusiasm, they will also be better prepared for the digital future.


1. Shen, Helen. “Neuroscience: The hard science of oxytocin,” June 24, 2015. Nature.com. http://www.nature.com/news/neuroscience-the-hard-science-of-oxytocin-1.17813

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