Get Smart about Energizing Your Organization

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Employee engagement is now a high priority in most corporations, yet most of these efforts are pursuing the wrong tactics. Research shows that most elements of employee engagement don’t lead to higher success or profitability. If you’re going to invest in energizing your business organization, get smart about it.

Have you ever tried to energize a lifeless organization?  I recall one time working as a junior executive for a company that was lacking vitality. You could detect it as you walked through the offices, as everyone seemed to be in a bad mood. The executive team knew there was a problem and that it was contributing to lower profitability.  They decided to fix it by pursuing an employee engagement strategy, which was supposed to get people more satisfied and enthusiastic about their work and the company.

I remember being in a meeting with the “employee engagement” consultants that were hired, and they were walking us through the survey that we were to have our employees take. They poured through about forty questions covering how employees felt about their compensation, management, and the future of the company. I remember thinking that these questions were as lifeless as the organization. I didn’t believe that focusing on these things was going to energize the organization and lead to greater profits, and research backs me up on this.

Sure, there is a wealth of research showing a strong correlation between employee engagement and profitability, but most of it is misleading about what came first, the engagement or the profitability. I’ve only seen one study, published in 2003, that measured employee engagement over time (eight years to be exact) and then correlated it with financial success over that same time period. This enabled the researchers to see which came first, employee engagement or financial success. The researchers found that employee engagement doesn’t cause, or precede, higher profitability, but rather higher profitability causes, or precedes, higher employee engagement. So pursuing employee engagement, at least the way it’s conventionally defined, isn’t going to lead to higher profitability. By the way, the study included large and esteemed U.S. corporations, most of which were on Fortune magazine’s list of most admired companies.

Yet we all know there’s something about an organization’s environment, or culture, that is a pre-requisite to success and profitability. Dan Pink has likely uncovered part of the answer. Most of us are familiar with his work on employee motivation, and we believe that some form of autonomy, purpose and mastery are important to motivate workforces. This is an important finding, but it only covers motivation. I work primarily with professional organizations, and quite frankly, the people in these organizations have enough self respect and personal pride to be highly motivated. Motivation is not the problem. In fact, a 2010 IBM survey of over 1500 global CEO’s concludes that creativity is the number one quality that organizations need to succeed. They hold that as the business world becomes increasingly complex and fast-paced, employees are challenged to find local, instant solutions that satisfy customers, and this requires effective creativity. So how do we foster this creativity in an organization?

This is where research about the connection between emotions and brain function becomes invaluable. Scientific experimentation shows that emotions profoundly impact our brain’s ability to process information and arrive at sound conclusions. When employees feel positive, heartfelt emotions at work, their minds become far more sharp and clear, and they’re able to see possibilities where previously they could perceive only dead-ends. They’re able to rapidly recall information committed to memory and mentally sift through large amounts of data, finding the most relevant facts and making the best decisions. In contrast, when employee emotions are negative, their learning, memory, cognition, and problem-solving are severely limited. This causes poor or short-sighted decisions, difficulty remembering key facts, and the feeling of being overwhelmed. People and organizations in this state are inhibited in their ability to find solutions, and they simply can’t compete effectively.

So how do we create positive, heartfelt emotions in an organization? Sure people need to feel good about their compensation, manager and future. Yet it takes much more than this to engender profound positive, heartfelt emotions. It takes: 1) making emotionally positive people prominent, 2) fostering emotionally positive relationships, 3) effectively addressing negativity and fear, and 4) resonating with the deepest values of employees, which are rapidly becoming self-sufficiency and societal stewardship. When we seek to energize an organization, it’s positive, heartfelt emotions that we should seek.

As we learn more from neuroscience about the incredible power of group emotions, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, including research references, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.


About the Author:

Jackie Barretta is a writer, speaker and consultant helping organizations strengthen agility and performance by shaping emotional energy. She is a thought leader bringing to light the new science of group emotional energy and connecting it to business performance. She has had a 28-year award winning career as a C-level Fortune 500 executive and Big Four consulting firm professional.
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  1. Martin Hough  June 25, 2012

    Great article! It is a complex issue. It goes back to the statement, if all we look for is problems, thats all we will find. However if we look for positive aspects of the organization and what the organization does well we can use that to change toward the organizations strengths rather than simply away from the problems.

    Thanks for sharing

  2. Myles Suer  June 25, 2012

    Very interesting article. It seems to say to me that if you are a cool, hip, new company than you will have high engagement to go along with your profitability. The Fortune list of best companies seems to have many of these types on the list. But there are examples like SAS, Whole Foods, etc, that are stand-outs year in year out. I think these companies have a culture of engagement and it is part of what helps drive engagement and the bottom line of their business model. But it will always be a chicken and egg problem. So a question for you. If engagement matters, does it need to be measured more frequently? If so what do you think of WorkersCount?

  3. Jackie Barretta  June 25, 2012

    Myles, I don’t see it as though the company has to be new. I think many companies have done a good job of engaging the hearts of employees for many years. Southwest Airlines is a classic example. As far as measurement, yes, it’s helpful to measure it but it doesn’t necessarily need to be measured frequently. That’s my view.

  4. Christina Venter  June 26, 2012

    Thanks again Jackie. I always learn from you. And a big thank you to our management for allowing us full internet access in working hours. This makes me want to complete the incoming calls prompto.

  5. Dana Morris-Jones  June 26, 2012

    The ‘chicken or the egg’ question (which comes first, engagement/positive emotions or company success/profitability?) is an intriguing one that merits more discussion. The research we have done suggests that most people are ‘motivated to do their best work’ when they experience things like 1)Opportunities to use their sklls and abilities, 2)Recognition for their contribution, 3)Ability to work without close supervision (autonomy) and
    4)Opportunity to learn and grow. Similar to Daniel Pink’s thesis, this suggests that ‘engagement’ is fundamentally tied to a person’s sense of his or her own value and capability and the belief that this workplace will afford them the opportunity to become even more valuable. It is hard to imagine these conditions existing in an organization that is not experiencing some level of success; and of course engaged and motivated employees are essential for success. Perhaps the variables ‘Engagement’ and company success are interdependent and correlated in complex ways rather than one being the cause of the other

  6. Jackie Barretta  June 26, 2012

    Dana, yes, I think it’s valid to think of employee engagement and success as being intertwined. However, the usefulness of employee engagement is in helping leaders determine the tactics they can implement to lead to greater success, so it seems we have to answer the cause-effect question. I don’t see a way around it.


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