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“Entangled” versus “Engaged” – The Difference between Good and Great Companies

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“Employee Engagement” and discussions about company culture have become inseparable. Why is employee engagement such a hot topic?

Engagement reflects the commitment people have toward their jobs and the work they do. Engagement can be either rational, where a person is committed because of some perceived benefit, or emotional, where a person is committed because of an attraction to a person, mission, or cause. Leigh Buchanan, Editor-at-large for Inc. Magazine, has described how emotional commitment has four times the power of affecting performance when compared with rational commitment.

Recent research has shown how customer satisfaction leads to financial gains resulting from repeat, loyal business, which stems from emotional engagement within employee-customer interactions. The Gallup Organization, which uses 12 questions to assess employee engagement, has been polling employees and tracking employee engagement for several years.

Gallup’s data is disconcerting because only about 11 percent of workers worldwide are “true believers” and fully engaged; a staggering 50% of the workforce is disengaged. The economic impact of less than optimal productivity is staggering. American business leaders must do much better if we are going to save our economy.

The Entangled Culture – How Top Performers Operate and Set Themselves Apart

During our research to understand how truly successful companies operate, we discovered organizations that go well beyond employee engagement to what we identified as employee entanglement. At first blush, the word “entanglement” means being caught in a difficult and complicated situation that is difficult to escape. At its core, entanglement implies tension.

Yet, we found entanglement to be an extremely positive force that drives individuals, teams, and organizations to achieve better results because of the tension between the existing state and the knowledge that things can always be better. This knowledge helps define personal and organizational expectations for excellence and the gaps between “what is” and “what can be.” Filling these gaps requires collective efforts by dedicated people who are aligned on common values, purposes, and goals, which is a shared attribute among entangled organizations.

We found the desire to create organizational excellence drives continually better performance, outcomes, and sustainability. We also found that entanglement rather than engagement is the critical force that separates world-class from common performance, providing a distinctive competence that makes imitation impossible, competitors irrelevant, and the company a leader among its peers.

Entanglement versus Engagement – A Brief Comparison

Comparing employee engagement and entanglement is analogous to college athletes versus Olympians. The average college athlete may be a high performer engaged in a sport, but she also has her sights on other things besides training and competition; classes, assignments, one’s social life, and future plans outside of sports also occupy her time.

In contrast, Olympians have a narrower focus attuned to achieving greatness, such that every action concentrates on attaining the highest level of performance. Every aspect of living— diet, sleep, training, work, exercise—must align with the Olympians goal to achieve the very best outcome.

Whereas Olympians interlace all aspects of life into their quests for gold and perfection in their chosen sports, entangled employees do the same for the success of their organizations as well as the perfection of their own performances. Where Olympians ask, “Will this action improve my skills or better my chances of winning?” entangled employees ask, “Will this action improve my individual and our organizational ability to achieve success?”

Perspective is a key differentiator between entangled and engaged employees. Whereas engaged employees make individual decisions about their work, entangled employees see beyond their own accomplishments and consider the impact their actions have on the organization as a whole. They see each encounter with a customer or other key stakeholder as possibly their first and only opportunity to make a positive impression. Not waiting for second chances, entangled employees constantly and consistently put their best foot forward in every interaction. Each decision in the workplace and outside of it is focused on gaining the best possible result.

Thinking As Owners Do – How Entangled Employees Engage Discretionary Thinking

Some outsiders have “accused” entangled employees as “drinking the Kool-Aid” or having “blind faith” in swallowing company doctrine, but entangled employees we interviewed see their worlds much differently. Entangled employees fully embrace their cultures because of three essential elements: Shared values, belief in a common purpose, and commitment to excellence. Usually the first to admit that some others would not fit within their companies, entangled employees value and appreciate their distinctive and unique cultures.

What makes these cultures so special in the eyes of fellow employees, customers, and other stakeholders who share their passion? Entangled employees devote more of their mental energies toward finding solutions to vexing problems, such as improving the quality and quantity of what they do to serve fellow employees, customers, communities, and constituents. Entangled employees think and act like owners because they use their discretionary thinking differently.

According to the Institute for Human Health and Human Potential, less than 10 percent of the human brain is involved when processing thoughts related to the task at hand. That leaves a little more than 90 percent of one’s thoughts—what we label “discretionary thinking”—to wander. While “average” employees use a small fraction of their mental processing capacity for work, entangled employees allocate and direct more of their discretionary thinking toward organizational challenges.

The vast majority of employees within entangled organizations constantly think past the requirements of their position to ways that help the organization achieve maximal performance. This extra effort stems from a strong, developed, and well-maintained employee-focused culture where leaders recognize and reward discretionary thinking such that this behavior becomes commonplace.

Entanglement – The Difference between Good and Great

For many who have suffered within dysfunctional organizations, the entangled organization is merely a mirage. Yet, hundreds of employees work within entangled cultures and take justifiable pride in their continual journey for performance excellence. These employees do not merely believe in entanglement; they constantly act on their beliefs that their companies are great but can be even greater tomorrow. Each day they are energetically drawn into the magnetism of their entangled culture to do more, achieve more, and be more than any one person believes possible. The eight organizations we highlighted within It’s My Company TOO! are simply “the tip of the iceberg” of a growing number of entangled organizations we are discovering through our continuing research.

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