Happiness and Engagement at Talent Strategies D.C.

Several key lessons emerged from this week’s Talent Strategies D.C., a conference and expo hosted by Talent Management magazine’s parent company, Human Capital Media (including the fact that when U.S. Customs Services agents attend a convention in the same building they come HEAVILY ARMED)! On May 21-22, Talent Strategies D.C. brought together key human resources leaders within various government agencies, branches of the military and private companies with top thought leaders such as Dan Heath and Marshall Goldsmith (and yes, your faithful correspondent). The themes of the sessions seemed remarkably interconnected, although speakers were not requested to tailor their remarks in a certain way. The ever-dapper Mike Prokopeak,  vice president and editorial director of the Human Capital Media magazines, noted two in his closing:

  • Motivation – What really drives employees and teams isn’t just data, but culture and its transmission through stories and personal interaction.
  • Values – People want to work at a place where they can find meaning and expression of  their own values.

The Death Lizards of the Consultocracy would have hated this conference. Stories? How do we measure those?

For me, a key takeaway, after forgetting to eat dinner on Monday night, was that “mint-o-greens” do not constitute a square meal. But that is a story for another day. During the sessions, I was surprised – and pleased, given the focus of “Psychology at Work” –  to find many of the speakers focusing on the role of happiness at work being central to workplace success. Maybe they didn’t use the H word all the time, but it was omnipresent.

Engagement was another theme interwoven throughout the conference. Many speakers talked about engagement in well-argued and informative sessions. Generally, their remarks can be summed up as follows: Employee engagement is GOOD, disengagement is BAD, the way we measure it and the results obtained are largely USELESS, and most companies DON’T HAVE A CLUE on what they want to get out of engagement surveys.

I tend to agree, on all counts. So what are we to do with this? Forget about employee engagement altogether? No, but we need to think very hard about what it is and is not before we can seriously begin to measure and enhance engagement in the workplace.

The great Marshall Goldsmith was the closing keynote, and he nailed it (Marshall was introduced as the “Seventh Greatest Business Thinker in the World.” I wonder who is No. 6?). First, he insisted there are no tricks or gimmicks companies can do to increase worker happiness and engagement. They reside in the same place, inside individual workers (echoing the work of positive psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis). “Engagement is about YOU. What have you done to make yourself happier at work today?” Marshall asked. On the flip side, he noted, a miserable person in life is going to be miserable at work regardless of the efforts organizations take to increase engagement. My takeaway? Companies waste time and money on trying to increase engagement through formulaic initiatives  – they should focus instead on hiring and developing the right people, those who have the psychological and emotional capacity to enjoy life. (I have written about this before).

This seems a bit unfair to some. During my presentation, “Putting the Science of Happiness to Work,” tough questions were asked about how to motivate and engage those who don’t seem naturally gifted at expressing enthusiasm and joy. Fair enough, but the answer is that we have learned over recent years that to a certain extent, personal happiness is a matter of choice – you can choose to be optimistic, and focus on those things that generate positive emotions.

Other takeaways from the speakers, in no particular order:

  • Change requires struggle.
  • Focus on what is working, not what isn’t.
  • Inclusion is about engagement, not affinity identification.
  • Hire people with the right attitude.
  • 70 percent of new hires fail because of lack of fit, not skill.
  • Companies with engaged employees outperform by 47 to 200 percent.
  • Values are as important as competencies.
  • Success follows culture.
  • Human beings waste time focusing only on weaknesses.
  • Optimism is a choice.

See what I mean? Most of these were taken from the live tweets from attendees at the conference (you can see them all at hashtag #TSDC12). The leading thinkers in HR know it is the so-called soft skills, not process management, that drive HR results.

It was a good conference. I encourage you to look on the masthead of Talent Management and find a conference in the future to attend and let us know what themes you find. And stay away from the border guards and mint-o-greens.