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How to Ignite Emotional Engagement

Once you get past food and shelter, human beings have two fundamental needs: connection and meaning.

We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, and we to know our work counts for something.  These two needs transcend cultures, age, race and sex. If you want people to care, about your company or your cause, you need to find a way to help them fulfill these two fundamental needs.  Too often, leaders proclaim goals without providing a framework for emotional engagement.

Here’s how to use connection and meaning to improve engagement:

1. Start with connection.

Connection is about our need to be aligned with others. From an evolutionary perspective, we don’t do well in the wild on our own.  Humans are hardwired with an innate need to belongWe crave connection. Our survival depends on it. Isolation is devastating to our brain. It makes us feel like an outsider, it’s threatening to our primal sense of belonging.

When an organizational culture feels like an every man for himself rat race, people go into survival mode. They focus on self-preservation instead of collective success.  It’s critical for leaders to collective goal that include stories about the team coming together.

2. The second big human need is meaning.

We want to know our individual contribution counts. The more meaning people attach to their job, or a task, the more effort they will put into doing.

Here’s an example of how to connection and meaning into an IT project.

Imagine speaking to programmers, who have to write code for lots of processes. The leader could say, “We need all this done by next week. Put your heads down and crank it out.” The expectations are clear.

If the leader wants to leverage connection and meaning, they could say. “This project will transform daily business life for our customers,” then pull out a picture of one customers, put her on the wall and say, “This is who we’re doing this for. We’re going to save her an hour each day with these system improvements.”

The message is now framed as a group effort (connection) in the service of helping others (meaning). Which one of these is more appealing to you?

Now take it a step further, imagine you are a programmer, and after hearing this framing, you boss says something specific to you. “Rachel, all that code you wrote helps this become seamless for the client. I’m so glad you are part of this team, it’s exciting.”

How do you feel about your job now?  The words of the leader matter.  When you let people know directly and often, exactly how their work is impacting the project, they engage in a more meaningful way. This goes beyond simply thanking them for their deliverables. Instead, be clear about the impact they have on the larger whole.

A word of caution here, trying to rally people around a financial goal doesn’t work, at least not long term. Making more money for stockholders, doesn’t provide meaning and connection for team members.

Instead spell out the impact your initiative will have on real live people.

How does it help members, customers, or colleagues?  How is this work making a difference?

You belong, and you matter. That’s what we all want to hear. When you infuse your projects with meaningful language, people get engaged, and stay engaged.