The Engagement Problem

Excerpt from “LIKEONOMICS: The Unexpected Truth About What We Believe, Who We Follow, and Why We Buy” by Rohit Bhargava (Wiley, May 22, 2012).

By Rohit Bhargava

In 2007, global professional services and recruiting firm Towers Perrin conducted a survey of nearly 90,000 employees in 18 countries around the world. The aim, as it was every year, was to spot some trends in how satisfied employees were with their jobs and what they were thinking. Unlike many other surveys, this was global and reported back on countries individually in the results. What they learned was concerning: The global workforce is not engaged. on the job.

In English, this meant that only 20 percent of an average professional workforce was actually trying as hard as they could to produce quality work. More disturbingly, nearly four out of ten (38 percent) were described by what the study called “disenchanted or disengaged.”

Ironically, the study also found that despite the pitifully low levels of engagement, employees worldwide wanted to give more, but were being held back for some reason. The majority of the reasons did not come down to compensation, but rather the employee’s relationship with the organization, its leadership, and their work experience.

It is no wonder that in 2011 a book with the title “How to Work for an Idiot” was a New York Times best-seller.

Our relationship with work is rarely one that inspires a “full discretionary effort.” There are plenty of people who don’t necessarily love what they do, and put in the effort required but not much more.

The gap between what organizations are able to inspire their employees to do, and what those same employees are capable of is considerable. It was enough to explain why an manager’s focus on motivating his team of financial advisors helped them consistently rank higher than most of their peers across the country.

It is also why the business culture today celebrates the few companies such as Zappos that have focused on creating a dynamic and incentive-rich culture where people are empowered to deliver great service and act on their own ideas. Creating more engagement among employees, and also among people, requires a more direct and human connection.

When you have a real human connection, you can deliver the three most important elements of motivation:

  1. Purpose: Answering the all-important question of why something should matter and is worth doing or believing in.
  2. Empowerment: Giving people a sense that they have influence to control their own actions and are trusted to do things to the best of their ability without needing permission for everything.
  3. Appreciation: When people feel that what they do is important and they are thanked for their efforts, they are more likely to be motivated to do more and perform better.

The principle that lies underneath each of these elements is simple. People are inspired and get engaged because of leaders who can connect with them personally. One of the most powerful stories that proves this is the dramatic 17-year reversal of fortunes for a country that once was only known for its violent ethnic wars.

The Reinvention of Rwanda

In the span of 100 days in 1994, more than a million people died in an ethnic war in Rwanda while the world sat back and did nothing. It was one of the darkest moments in human history—but it was also a turning point, bringing a rebel army to power that was led by a man named Paul Kagame. For the next 17 years, he would remain president of Rwanda and lead his country in an unprecedented revival.

Though South Africa gets a lot of media attention for its recent prosperity, it has a lot of natural benefits that Rwanda never had: plentiful coastline, a large and connected immigrant population, and vast natural mines of diamonds. Rwanda, in contrast, is a mountainous country about the size of Maryland and has the highest population density in sub‐Saharan Africa. As head of a land-locked country in Eastern Africa, Kagame was quick to realize Rwanda’s ability to build relationships with others around the country would be crucial.

He focused on encouraging more Rwandans to become businesspeople and opened up trade routes with neighboring countries such as Congo and Tanzania. He sent teams of people on fact-finding missions to places such as Singapore to learn from their examples about how they managed to create reputations and desirable qualities to grow their economies. And he personally went out and made friends.

He invited Costco CEO Jim Sinegal to visit Rwanda, and struck a deal whereby Costco began purchasing about 25 percent of the country’s premium coffee crop. Sinegal introduced him to then-Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz, who promptly agreed to become the country’s second top buyer. Kagame established a well-connected circle of business leaders to join his “Presidential Advisory Council” and began to see even more successes.

Kagame started to invite prominent Rwandans such as Clet Niyikiza (a drug researcher who helped create the pain reliever Aleve). In 2009, the country struck a deal to invest $100 million to lay fiber optic cable that rivals most that of Western nations and would make Rwanda one of the most connected countries in Africa. Most importantly, Kagame built and used his direct connection to some of the most influential people in the world to make sure they were not only invested in the country, but that they also had a front-row seat to watch the transformation of Rwanda.

It has worked. Since 2004, the GDP for the country has risen every year. It now is listed by the World Bank among the top 50 countries in the world to do business in, the same list where it used to be ranked 150th. Most interestingly, according to the World Bank’s Doing Business Survey, it now is tied with the United States as the ninth-easiest country to do business in.

As Niyikiza, who became a member of the President’s Advisory Council, noted “ wanted advocates for the country to the rest of the world … the idea was to do that through relationships.” None of the success Rwanda has enjoyed would have happened from people coming to Kagame’s aid.

For years, the world was inactive as more than a million people were massacred. Today, businesses such as Costco and Starbucks actively buy from the country. A new Marriott hotel is being constructed in Kigali (the capital). In his address to the nation, President Kagame promised that “those in need of health care will have easy access to it, and all Rwandan children will be able to go to school in 2012.”

Excerpt from “LIKEONOMICS: The Unexpected Truth About What We Believe, Who We Follow, and Why We Buy” by Rohit Bhargava (Wiley, May 22, 2012).

Rohit Bhargava, author of “LIKEONOMICS,” is a marketing expert focused on helping to bring more humanity back to business. He is the author of “Personality Not Included,” a founding member of the world’s largest team of social media strategists at Ogilvy, and professor of Global Marketing at Georgetown University.

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