In 2015 Gordon Pennycook, an assistant professor of behavioral science at University of Regina, introduced the term ‘pseudo-profound bullsh*t‘. Pennycook et al defined, based on an empirical study, that pseudo-profound bullsh*t are statements that are designed to impress, but are in fact totally meaningless.
Summarized, their research found that pseudo-profound bullsh*t is made up of randomly chosen buzzwords that have no meaning but yet inspire many. Some years earlier it was Dan Sperber who published a similar paper introducing ‘The Guru Effect‘, a definition that people have the tendency to judge something they have failed to grasp as profound.
Over the last year it’s these papers I think of when I hear leaders talk about the term ’employee engagement’ – arguably one of the most-used buzzwords in the corporate world of the last decade.
Employee engagement in itself is a meaningless term but it’s used with a profound touch as if it’s the key to ultimate success in business. But do we truly understand what engagement really means? Or is it nothing more than another example of pseudo-profound bullsh*t that tries to frame an issue that nobody can really grasp?
William A. Kahn was the first to introduce the term ‘engagement at the workplace’ in his article ‘Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work’ back in 1990. In this article, he connected the term with three psychological conditions: meaningfulness, safety, and availability.
30 years later and numerous research further, there is still no clear definition in the academic world of what employee engagement really is or how it can be effectively measured.
As a matter of fact, there is still no clear evidence that actions designed to ‘improve’ improved engagement have any positive result for a business. Yet, employee engagement, as a term, has been booming in the last 10 years.
So why is employee engagement important?
I am sure we all agree that the goal of any organization should be to become an effective, high-performing organization. Yet, high performance is not a top priority for most companies.
Before we get into a detailed discussion about whether I am right or wrong; of course, managers are always focused on success, but how many managers in your career were truly after a state of high performance where the full potential of the team and the individuals were the number one focus?
While in sports, focus on high performance is almost common sense, many teams in the business world lack this mindset or don’t know what it is. Professional athletes have a clear vision and a clear goal. They dream big and are prepared to give everything they have to get what they want. They are professionals and get paid to do what they love most. To succeed in their mission, they know that they need to have a great environment, great people, and the best possible facilities. All of this to get the best out of themselves.
In the runner’s world, there is a term called ‘runner’s high‘ which is the moment full potential of body and mind come together. To reach this state a runner needs to be at 70-85% of its maximum intensity, run consistently, and above all needs to get enough sleep.
When ‘runner’s high’ is reached, the body releases hormones called endorphins and endocannabinoids which results in a deeply relaxing state of euphoria. This (addictive) experience of pleasure and excitement and the intense feeling of wellbeing and happiness is the same form of emotion people experience when they reach a sense of high engagement.
The key learning in this example is that ‘runner’s high’ is a result of the perfect balance of all the elements. The focus of the runner is on these elements and never specifically on the state of ‘runner’s high’.
Better culture = better engagement
Employee engagement is like ‘runner’s high’. It’s a by-product of healthy company culture like weight loss is a by-product of a healthy lifestyle. A healthy company culture is a culture where all elements are operating in perfect harmony, on 70-80% of their intensity and with employees having more than enough sleep.
A sustainable model like this will guarantee long-term high engagement scores and, most important, world-class performance levels.
So, how can you drive your team towards a state of high performance?
1. Know your destination
If you don’t know by now that having an inspiring purpose is a must in today’s world, you have been living under a rock. No – I must correct myself. It’s not just purpose you need, it’s a meaningful common purpose that will set you apart from all your competitors. A purpose that not only unites the company with its customers, it also unites the people within that make the dream come to life.
2. Help employees develop self-efficacy
When individuals truly believe in their own capacity to execute the behaviors required to achieve the performance standards of the team, they reach self-efficacy.
A high sense of self-efficacy defines the power people believe they have to face challenges competently and the choices they make along the way. It also promotes human accomplishment; personal wellbeing and it lowers stress.
People with a low sense of self-efficacy struggle to make decisions as they see challenges as a necessary evil that needs to be avoided at all costs. Self-efficacy is all about creating an environment of high trust and psychological safety. An environment where people dare to make decisions and dare to make mistakes. These are the teams where people are on 70-80% of their intensity, have enough rest to focus on their private life, and enjoy healthy sleeping patterns.
3. Sit back and enjoy the ride
Teams in a state of ‘runner’s high’ have the interesting habit of running while being in a relaxing state of euphoria. They know what to do, where to go, and what is the best way to get there. All managers need to do at that point is unleash their value until purpose is delivered and then the process starts over again.
We are living in challenging but exciting times. The future of work is near and will give the power of the companies to the people. People will make or break companies and brands, and building high-forming teams is more important today than it ever was in the past.
The good news is that it’s not rocket science, it’s more about letting go while trusting the process. And I can guarantee that none of this is close to pseudo-profound bullsh*t.