Blogpost

Consider the Meander: How Attention to Timing Can Enhance Employee Engagement

John Boudreau

Professor, USC Marshall School of Business

Patterns in nature are remarkable, from the smallest to the largest scale: The symmetrical pointed star shows up in starfish and segments of fruit. The same fractal patterns are seen in leaf veins, wood grains and branches of trees. Fibonacci spirals are present in the nautilus shell, cabbage tissues and in the way droplets of water fly off a wet spinning ball. Another common pattern in nature is called a "meander." It's the pattern of up and down bends in a crawling snake, the folks of a coral plant and the path of a river.

All of these patterns are visible in the world around us, but what if they also existed in the invisible? Can, for instance, the meander pattern explain things we can't see with the naked eye? Could a meander be present in human emotions and energy, and, as such, in work attitudes and productivity?

Behavioral science expert Dan Pink's new book, "When," describes the compelling evidence that this wave-like meander pattern is a consistent description of individual work performance, energy and mood across the hours of a day. Still, most organizations ignore—or even contradict—these patterns with dire consequences for worker well-being and productivity. HR leaders can help organizations do better by incorporating and considering these important patterns in their analytics and employment practices.

"When" You Work Through the Day

Is there a consistent "meandering wave" pattern that humans experience throughout the day? What if someone asked you to describe your mood every hour between 5am and 11pm? Might it look something like this graph?

This is the mood pattern revealed in a study published in  by Scott Golder and Michael Macey. The duo used text analysis to look at the emotional content of the words in over 500 million tweets from 2.4 million users over two years. In his book, Pink found that the same pattern occured when scientists looked at reported happiness, warmth toward others, enjoyment and frustration—an early spike, a big drop, and a subsequent recovery.

These diurnal rhythms are so powerful that they show up even when stakes are high—and among well-prepared professionals. When CEOs and investment analysts conduct public investor conference calls, researchers Jing Chen, Elizabeth Demers and Baruch Lev, in a study in , found that "the tone of conference call discussions deteriorates markedly over the course of the trading day, ... [and] the time-of-day-induced negative tone leads to temporary stock mispricings." Just like the wave pattern that shows up in snakes, sand dunes and riverbeds, the diurnal rhythm affects virtually everyone at work.

Pink notes that the early spike is the best time to do analytical tasks that require sharpness, vigilance and focus. The later recovery is best for insight work that requires loosening inhibitions and rigidity. HR systems can nudge leaders and employees to understand these rhythms, and allow them to adjust their work accordingly: allowing them to avoid scheduling important work during the trough, or scheduling analytic work for the early spike and creative work for the later recovery.

"When" You Join and Leave

Dan Pink's book focuses on daily rhythms, but if people are like nature then might we see this "meandering wave" pattern show up in longer timeframes too, just as similar wave patterns shows up in the folds of a coral plant and the bends of rivers? In a study published by the , Wendy Boswell, Jan Tichy and I tracked the job satisfaction of over 500 managers over three years. We found that in the year after they changed jobs their job satisfaction spiked, but then it fell significantly in the second year they were in the job, and then recovered to a moderate level with subsequent years at the job. We even found that managers who changed jobs two years in a row got a satisfaction increase for both moves, but then also experienced a trough after that.

It can be tempting to interpret high work attitudes among new hires as effective selection and engagement, but that may reflect a predictable "honeymoon effect," that will soon wear off. Leaders can anticipate this by finding new and exciting challenges to re-engage new employees, before they leave in pursuit of a new "honeymoon" somewhere else.

Our work lives are affected by the same natural rhythms and patterns that affect plants, rivers, tides and winds. These patterns can enhance or decrease well-being and productivity. HR leaders can help their organizations by integrating the rhythms into their analytics, and designing HR programs that works with the patterns—not against them.

Photo: Creative Commons

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How Smart Engagement Builds a Dynamic Workforce

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The Great Engagement Robbery: How Others Influence Engagement

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The Great Engagement Robbery: How Others Influence Engagement

"Don't grab your shovel right away. Just step back and watch the pace and tempo of how we work around here." I hold a strong belief in personal responsibility for employee engagement, but it would be wrong not to acknowledge how relationships can influence and shape how we work. In this post, I will outline how workplace relationships can foster disengagement. We were working on the railroad... The term railroad has two meanings. As a noun, it refers to a system of tracks for trains that are built and maintained by hundreds of employees. As a verb, it means to rush or coerce someone into doing something. I have the perfect story to illustrate both definitions at the same time. In 1974, I got a job with the railway on a crew called the "Perishable Gang" in Thunder Bay, Ontario. It was still the age of nepotism, so I got the job because my father was a railroader. I wanted to make a good impression at work and I wanted to make my father proud of me. The perishable gang was a group of four to eight employees who were responsible to look after livestock cars, heater and refrigerator cars, and pick up large grain spills in the railway yard when there were no freight trains moving through Thunder Bay. ... and then I was railroaded I vividly remember my first day at work. I arrived before eight in the morning and as there were no trains coming for three hours, we drove out in trucks to clean up a large grain spill in the yard. With shovel, burlap bags and great enthusiasm I eagerly went about my task. I rapidly filled a burlap sack with grain, slung it over my shoulder and crossed multiple railway tracks like an Olympic hurdler to sling the bag into the back of the pickup truck and return rapidly to fill the next bag. I thought the rest of the gang was going to be impressed with my show of herculean effort. And sure enough, within twenty minutes, the head of the gang called me over and suggested we take a walk down the track. He asked me, "How do you think it is going?" "I am working about as hard as I can," I replied. "That could be the problem," he said. I looked at him, puzzled. He continued. "I want you to go back to the spill. Don't grab your shovel right away; just step back and watch the pace and tempo of how we work around here. Once you understand our pace, and only after you understand our pace, do I want you to pick up your shovel and fall in." How workplace relationships effect engagement Had you been watching me work, in less than 90 minutes from starting a new job you would have witnessed a highly engaged new employee transform into a plodding and disengaged worker in record time. Ultimately, I did not perish working in the perishable gang as I was let go during the annual seasonal layoff three months later. Don't get me wrong; I take full responsibility for my lack of engagement. But even with personal responsibility for our work other people have a huge influence on our engagement. This early formative experience is why I entered the field of engagement thirty-five years later - to atone for my past sins of disengagement. If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.Let him step to the music which he hears,however, measured or far away. - Henry David Thoreau The purpose of this story is to examine the role of others in your own engagement and the engagement of employees within your organization. Do others enhance or undermine engagement where you work? How are you addressing the role relationships play in influencing engagement? Are you helping employees take personal responsibility for work and educating them on how to do this?

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