Spreading It Thick: The Buzz on Engagement


You know that moment when your favorite sports team came alive and, even though they were down in points, you just knew they were going to win or when your favorite band started to get popular, or a tweet goes viral? And whether we think it is dumb luck, magical (because tweets can be so #magical) or something else, we can't help but want to recreate it or harness that energy in our everyday lives. If only we ourselves could bottle up that energy and release it on a Monday morning or use it to engage our sales folks to hit their numbers this quarter.

Studying these turning or tipping points, while it may not allow us to predict the next trend or shift, can provide us with insight into the levers that make changes more likely and provide valuable context for the circumstances in which individual change occurs. Combined with information on the habituation of these behaviors we can have a better handle on the underpinnings of sustainable engagement in our population.

To understand trends it may be best to think like a marketer, and marketers have discovered how important habits are in our decisionmaking. Just as consumers need to break old habits when they change from one product to another, our employees need to change their bad habits and be prepared to act appropriately. Trying something just once is not a success, they need to be able to maintain (I've tried Pepsi a few times but always go back to the red can). Note that just asking employees what they want may not help as they may not be able to verbalize it. Most of what is driving behaviors is subconscious.

There are several models that can help us to conceptualize what drives behavior. The Fogg Model recognizes two domains: motivation and ability that drive behavior and the Engaging Leader Behavior Model based on the work of David Maxfield expands on this model by dividing these domains to the personal, social and structural sources. This expanded 2 x 3 model recognizes that we are not just looking at the employee but also the social influences and the structural (what is available to them from the workplace like the medical plan, EAP, wellness program etc.). Thinking of behavior in this way allows us to focus tactics in each of the six areas of the model and perform a gap analysis to see where we could improve our approach.

Create the Buzz
These theories are a great way to think about and promote behavior change, but how do you create that initial buzz for the program? Tipping Point Leadership theory says that the call for change must be unarguable and unforgettable. Bob Sutton, in his book Scaling Up Excellence, takes this one step further recommending that leaders create emotional arousal around a concept. To do this we should focus on quality, rather than focus on how many individuals are participating: we should spread the mindset; take time to get it right; train and retrain, understand what the obstacles are and get them out of the way. To do this we can use social networks - understand who are the influencers and find out if they will support you and how. The concept of using champions fits well here. These individuals are the advocates that help to spread the word. Don't spread your message too thin - move from one social network to the next; you don't have to do it all at once. Finally, use storytelling to get the messages across, and connect with your audience. Personalize using real people, branding and company values that are epitomized in the culture so employees will identify with the message.

Keep Employees Fully Charged
Not to overstate the obvious, but energized employees are more engaged which makes it important to consider their fuel levels. Tom Rath has spent his career researching what keeps employees charged. According to him, the three key areas that you should focus on for this are interactions, energy and meaning. If on a daily basis you can limit your negative interactions with others, put your energy first (eg. sleep, eat, exercise) and do something that shows meaningful progress you can be more fully charged.

Big Data?

Speaking of buzz, big data seems to be the trend in engagement, particularly as it relates to healthcare. Can big data be used to predict engagement trends? The music industry has been using it to predict what songs/artists will make it big. We also use it for weather forecasting and a host of other natural phenomenon (eg. spreading of germs/diseases). If you can get your hands on enough data it may behoove you run the analytics to supplement your fact finding.

So while we may not be able to predict the level of engagement of our employees, through behavioral theories supplemented with big data we can have a better idea of what approaches may work best. We can make it easy for our employees with the social and physical environment we create, charge them up and train them so they will want to engage. Then through individuals and social networks we can drive lasting trends while continually gathering data and breaking down barriers to engagement.

One final note here is that people tend to gravitate to social networks with similar behaviors so that can be a significant barrier when trying to change those behaviors. For example obese individuals are more likely to spend time with other overweight folks; smokers will find other smokers, etc. These may be the toughest groups to change if you are trying to improve health but the more we analyze peer effects on social networks, spreading phenomenon and the like the better armed we are to tackle complex problems. Nicholas Christakis a social scientist and physician directs the Human Nature Lab at Yale University and has done a significant amount of research in this space.

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