One of the most important tasks and critical tests of leadership today is the ability to inspire people with a shared vision. Leaders who envision the future by imagining exciting and even ennobling possibilities inspire those they lead. This inspiration allows them to enlist others in a common goal and increase employee engagement by appealing to shared aspirations.
Leadership experts Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner found that next to honesty, being “forward-looking” — in other words, visionary — is the second most valued characteristic people look for in leaders. This quality is valued because it works.
Inspiring a shared vision boosts employee engagement and increases their effectiveness. Jim and Barry found that the most effective leaders “inspire a shared vision” about 54 per cent more often than those evaluated by their people as least effective. The least engaged people report that their leaders inspire a shared vision about 41 per cent less frequently than the leaders of the most engaged people.
Jim and Barry explained the results of their research this way:
“[The] findings suggest that there’s more to work than making money. People have a deep desire to make a difference. They want to know that they have done something on this earth, that there’s a purpose to their existence…
“The best organizational leaders address this human longing by communicating the significance of the organization’s work so that people understand their own unique role in creating and performing that work.
“When leaders clearly communicate a shared vision of an organization, they ennoble those who work on its behalf. They elevate the human spirit.”
A “nine to five” job mentality cultivates employees who have to be corralled, reprimanded, and controlled in order to accomplish tasks. A job that provides meaning and inherent motivation, on the other hand, leads to high employee engagement and self-direction.
Mindful leaders recognize this, and they tap into and awaken our innermost yearnings for meaning and purpose. They create a mindful vision for their teams and organisations — a vision focused on making a positive difference and alleviating suffering in the world. They prioritize doing something that is good for everyone, not just for shareholders at the expense of other people or the planet.
When leaders transmit a mindful vision, people feel whole again, and are awakened to the best within themselves. When we know our organisation is making a positive difference, it opens our hearts to be present with the purpose of the business. We cease looking at our work as a just a job, where business ethics and practices are separated from our personal ideals and goals.
This is the heart of employee engagement, far beyond monetary rewards.
Employee Engagement Statistics
What does a mindful vision for a leader or organization look like? Consider these two simple criteria:
• Does the vision and underlying intent of our organisation support connection, wellbeing, joy and love for ourselves and all our stakeholders?
• Does our core purpose support mindfulness, as defined by a deep sense of heartfelt engagement and presence, or does it stand in the way of employee engagement, thus leading to alienation, disconnection and suffering?
The statistics on global employee engagement indicate we have a lot of work to do in this area. According to a 142-country study by Gallup:
• only 13 per cent of employees worldwide are engaged at work, engaged employees being defined as “those who are involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace.” In other words, only about one in eight workers are psychologically committed to their job.
• Over half of workers, 63 per cent, are classified as “not engaged,” meaning they lack motivation and are less likely to invest discretionary effort in organisational goals or outcomes.
• At the low end of the spectrum, 24 per cent are “actively disengaged,” meaning they are unhappy and unproductive at work and likely to spread negativity in the workplace.i
These employee engagement statistics suggest that in general our workplaces, and by implication the leaders of those workplaces, seem to be producing suffering and disengagement, the very opposite of the intent of mindfulness.
It seems that most people are in a kind of psychological purgatory at work. Throwing a few mindfulness courses at people in these kinds of workplaces is like giving people stranded in a desert a bottle of water: it might help a little in the short term, but it doesn’t provide a sustainable solution for employee engagement.
Mindfulness is a challenging practice, and if the environment (leaders, culture) work against an engaged, honest, caring kind of mindfulness practice, it becomes nearly impossible to sustain. Furthermore, those people who practise mindfulness skilfully will leave because the dissonance will be too great as they “wake up” to what is really going on.
But what if it could be different? What would it look like if leaders and organisations built a spirit of mindfulness into the very fabric of organisational leadership, vision, strategy and culture, and by doing so radically changed levels of engagement, happiness, loyalty and connection?
What if team members could bring their whole selves to work and feel incredible pride and joy in what they do and who they do it for? And if this level of employee engagement is possible, how can it be achieved?
Meaning Matters More than Money for Employee Engagement
The conventional wisdom that external reward (for example, money) is the best way to engage people has been turned on its head by the extensive research detailed in the paradigm-shattering book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by bestselling author Daniel Pink.
When it comes to complex tasks requiring cognitive thinking, Pink says, standard rewards and punishments do not work. Money does not motivate or increase employee engagement. What does motivate and engage people, studies show, are three factors:
• autonomy — meaning our desire to be self-directed. Pink explains that management is good if compliance is the goal. But if you want wholehearted engagement, self-direction is better.
• mastery — meaning the urge to constantly improve any skill we develop or project we undertake.
• purpose — meaning the determination to make a positive contribution. Pink explains that when the profit motive is unmoored from the purpose motive, as it so often is in the corporate world, bad things happen, both ethically and in terms of quality and performance. Flourishing companies are those that are animated by a bigger purpose than profits alone.
In other words, the secret to high performance and satisfaction and employee engagement in the workplace is the deeply human need for freedom, growth and creativity, and to know we are making our world a better place.
It’s simply not exciting, inspiring or meaningful for people to work hard merely to increase “shareholder value.” Such a goal, promoted so often in the corporate world, does not inspire people to give their best.
Inspiring people with an authentic mindful vision is one of the most important things a leader can do to boost engagement. A mindful vision is about creating an organisation with which people can connect emotionally, and in doing so enrich their lives, making them more meaningful and worthwhile. Mindful vision awakens the best in us by reconnecting us with what is most important, making it so much easier to be engaged and present at work.
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh explains it this way,
“[Y]ou have to find a way to earn your living without transgressing your ideals of love and compassion. The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self, or it can be a source of suffering for you and others…Our vocation can nourish our understanding and compassion, or erode them. We should be awake to the consequences, far and near, of the way we earn our living.”
Following the principle of mindful livelihood is how we find meaning in our work rather than just earning a salary. It is what we do to alleviate suffering through our work.
When we connect our livelihood to making a positive difference for others, we are much more engaged and happy in our work. We make ourselves happier by making others happier. We transcend selfishness, rather than remaining mired in the pursuit of endless consumption.
Inspiring people with an authentic mindful vision is one of the most important things a leader can do to boost employee engagement. A mindful vision results from creating an organisation with which people can connect emotionally. This connection then enriches their lives, making what they do feel more meaningful and worthwhile.
Mindful vision awakens the best in us by reconnecting us with what is most important, making it so much easier to be engaged and present at work.
People need to be inspired and know that what they are doing matters. And leaders must lead out by practicing genuine mindfulness, and by demonstrating that they truly know what their employees care about, and demonstrating that they care about the same thing.