The Missing Links

Tying Baldrige, quality values to increased employee engagement

By Henry J. Lindborg

The Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence presents an ideal pattern of values to which quality professionals can aspire. Tracking its development throughout nearly a quarter century reveals shifts in the quality community’s thinking and language. 

The term "performance excellence" is evidence of such a shift. Another is "engagement," a concept discussed in Tom Becker’s recent QP article, "Happiness Helps."1

Becker reports on rather disappointing results from an engagement survey—conducted by Right Management—that reveal some wide gaps in employee commitment. Becker then offers advice on career development ideas to close those gaps.

The article headline, however, may seem provocative in an environment more focused on survival than happiness. Yet, it’s worth reflecting on where engagement fits into our set of quality values and how we respond to corporate efforts to enhance it.

Defining engagement

Section 5.2 of the 2011–12 Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence, "Workforce Engagement," asks, "How do you engage your workforce to achieve organizational and personal success?" Engagement is defined as "the extent of workforce commitment, both emotional and intellectual, to accomplishing the work, mission and vision of the organization." The question assumes that engagement produces success.

Though the term has become popular in just the last few years, how engagement affects employee and customer satisfaction, how it relates to other factors at work and how it may improve the bottom line have been extensively researched throughout the last two decades.2 Virtually every type of organization has been studied, and most employee surveys are now structured around workforce engagement. Additionally, as testament to the idea’s reach, a survey of student engagement is widely employed in higher education.3

Engagement is a hot topic in our world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA). The topic is popular because of the rapid transformation of industry and workforce demographics, with anticipated talent wars for highly skilled professionals, many of whom have become disengaged from their workplaces.4 

A number of large–scale surveys, in addition to the one by Right Management, have alerted employers to low levels of engagement and warned of the consequences of weak corporate ties to the workforce. Firms such as Blessing–White and Gallup have conducted similar surveys and now offer a range of consulting and training to improve employee commitment.5

It’s hard to argue against efforts to provide interesting work—one of the most desired factors in a career as reported in surveys throughout the world—development opportunities and defined career paths. If anyone is to argue, however, it’s likely to be those who have been downsized due to outsourcing and the economic recession.

In seminars my organization has conducted, I have learned that attendees find a career metaphor in the game Chutes and Ladders. These employees may respond with cynicism, fearing that classifying the engaged and disengaged may become another "rank and yank"6 or require hypocritical allegiance to the organization’s espoused mission, vision and values.

They want engagement and meaningful work, but there are many reasons for alienation, including poor—even corrupt—leadership and management in turbulent times. As with other VUCA challenges I’ve discussed in this column,7 however, the quality profession offers sets of effective core values and practices that help shape organizations.

Recipe for success

The Baldrige question links corporate and personal success. This is the essence of engagement, or the guarantee that it’s not a fad, but rather the heart of meaning at work.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, is often cited as evidence and inspiration for seeking engagement. Csikszentmihalyi’s standing as a psychologist—he was once the psychology chair at the University of Chicago—distinguished him from authors of popular articles on personal development and surprised many who thought psychologists ought to deal with angst rather than happiness.

His writing has continued to explore the notion that we are happiest when we are fully involved in life and work, at a level of near self–forgetfulness, in which boredom and anxiety vanish. He has extended his writing to explore student success, creativity and leadership.8

Another psychologist who explored happiness is the late Donald O. Clifton, author of How Full Is Your Bucket? Positive Strategies for Work and Life9 and the driving force behind Gallup’s system for identifying personal strengths.10 As Gallup’s CEO, Clifton preached workforce engagement and directed research toward improving individual and organizational performance.

This work is additional evidence there has been a convergence of what we’ve learned about personal happiness with how to build the types of organizations we want. This is exemplified in the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence and through principles that have long been embedded in quality thinking—notably, W. Edwards Deming’s insistence that workplaces be free of fear, involve all in transformation and encourage pride in workmanship.

Quality professionals are fortunate to have clearly defined values, criteria and practices for creating the types of organizations that foster engagement. Their challenge, as it has always been, is learning from an expanding body of knowledge, holding a vision in difficult times and ensuring that practice is aligned with promises. Quality professionals are also challenged with avoiding buzzwords and detachment from workplace reality that alienate rather than engage.

References and notes

  1. Tom Becker, "Happiness Helps," Quality Progress, January 2011, pp. 16–22.
  2. Many researchers trace contemporary academic interest to William A. Kahn’s "Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work," Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 33, No. 4, 1990, pp. 692–724. The humanistic psychology of Abraham Maslow underlies the entire field.
  3. The National Survey of Student Engagement, developed by
    George Kuh, http://nsse.iub.edu.
  4. E.E. Gordon, Winning the Global Talent Showdon, Berrett–Koehler, 2009.
  5. The "Blessing White’s Employee Engagement Report 2011," for example, is global in scope and continues research begun in 2003, www.blessingwhite.com/research.
  6. According to MSN Encarta Dictionary, "’Rank and yank’ is a system used to review employee performance in which top performers are slated for promotion and compensation increases and low performers are slated for reassignment or termination," http://encarta.msn.com/dictionary_701709124/rank_and_yank.html.
  7. Henry J. Lindborg, "Curbing Career Fears," Quality Progress, October 2010, pp. 52–53.
  8. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Harper, 1990.
  9. Donald O. Clifton and Tom Rath, How Full Is Your Bucket? Positive Strategies for Work and Life, Gallup Press, 2004.
  10. Donald O. Clifton, Soar with Your Strengths: A Simple Yet Revolutionary Philosophy of Business and Management, Dell, 1995.

Henry J. Lindborg is executive director and CEO of the National Institute for Quality Improvement, which provides consulting in strategic planning, organizational development and assessment. He holds a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and teaches in a leadership and quality graduate program. Lindborg is past chair of ASQ’s Education Division and of the Education and Training Board. He also chairs the IEEE–USA’s Career Workforce Policy Committee.

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