Francesca Gino, an author and Harvard Business School Professor, researches and writes often about employee engagement. In her groundbreaking 2013 book Sidetracked, Gino applied her behavioral economics research to practical business issues such as decision-making, motivation, management, and employee engagement. She currently co-chairs an HBS Executive Education program on applying behavioral economics to everyday organizational problems. Gino is currently writing a second book, this one exclusively about the topic of employee engagement. The NCMM spoke with Gino recently about cost-effective strategies middle market companies can use to better engage their workforce. 

What follows is an edited transcript of our discussion. To hear the full conversation, you can listen to our “Expert Perspectives” podcast embedded at the end of this interview.

When it comes to engaging employees, getting the most out of the capabilities they bring into the workplace every day, how are organizations doing at the moment?

Gino: Unfortunately, we’re not doing too well. When you look at employee engagement surveys conducted by polling firm Gallup, they show striking results. For instance, Gallup recently surveyed 230,000 employees in 142 countries; the results showed that only 13 percent of workers feel engaged by their work. So it seems that across the globe, work is more a source of frustration than fulfillment for almost 90 percent of employees. This is not good for employees or their employers, for a number of reasons.

So why should employee engagement be such a big concern for middle market companies?

Gino: Both employers and employees pay a high cost for disengagement. For organizations, a lack of engagement hurts innovation and productivity. When disengaged employees come into work, they strip away their identities and their ability to express themselves, so they feel less satisfied with their work. Disengaged employees simply don’t bring their best selves into work; they are bored and unproductive. This costs companies a lot in lost productivity and innovation.

How can middle market companies create a “sense of ownership” in order to better engage their employees?

Gino: Many of the research studies I’ve done have shown that giving employees a sense of “psychological ownership” over their work is highly-beneficial for employers and employees alike. When employees feel they “own” the ideas they bring and the activities they do, it translates into higher levels of engagement, satisfaction, and motivation. It also gets employees to go that extra mile in whatever they do. So this “psychological ownership” is a powerful force.

Middle market companies can promote a sense of ownership by making small changes. When, for instance, middle market leaders tell employees what to do and how to do it, they risk taking away an employee’s sense of ownership. Employees gain a sense of ownership when they feel they have some choice about how they do their work. When it comes to solving problems and coming up with ideas, giving employees a voice in the process promotes a sense of ownership and engagement. Even physical space matters. Let people bring small things they like from home into the office. A generic cubicle won’t promote any sense of ownership at all. Small changes can bring bigger results here.

Your research shows that too much workplace conformity can be a negative factor for employee engagement. Why?

Gino: The data I collected on 2,000 employees showed that a majority of them work in organizations where they experience pressure to conform. It’s a problem for engagement because if employees conform too much, they won’t bring their full selves into work, won’t use their strengths, and will just follow the rules and norms of the organization. This has costs for middle market organizations when employees suggest fewer ideas, don’t work harder than “average,” and are generally less innovative in their thinking at work.

There’s a balance between conformity and nonconformity. The best organizations, in terms of productivity and innovation, have thought hard about striking the right balance. A California-based agro-business company called Morningstar, for example, asks employees to write personal mission statement when they’re hired, but these personal mission statements must be aligned with the organizational mission. These personal mission statements are negotiated with Morningstar colleagues, but the employee decides what their job will be about. However, there are limits, guardrails. You’ll be accountable for what you set out to do in your personal mission statement, and your colleagues will hold you accountable and ensure it aligns with the organizational mission. Morningstar has a great balance here.

You’ve used the phrase “constructive nonconformity” in your writing to express this ideal balance. What does the phrase mean, and how can middle market companies promote it?

Gino: It refers to the fact that we typically think of nonconformity as detrimental, when in truth nonconforming behaviors can be quite constructive for both employee engagement and overall organizational performance.

The first step for middle market leaders who want to promote constructive nonconformity is to model that behavior themselves, to question the status quo at the right times. For example, there’s a restaurant in Italy that I studied which was named the “best restaurant in the world” in 2016. And each day before this incredibly successful restaurant opens, the owner can be seen outside with a broom cleaning the street in front of the restaurant. Obviously, the owner doesn’t need to do this, but it shows the entire staff a model of being constructively nonconforming -- demonstrating to them that they should be doing whatever it takes to help the business in many different ways.

Another method of promoting constructive nonconformity is to hire people not just for their skills but for their attitudes. Middle market leaders should hire for diversity in thinking. Ask candidates questions, and see if they reason through them differently than you do. Differences in thinking can foster workplace engagement and innovation.

What else would you say to middle market leaders who are looking to improve employee engagement?

Gino: Allow employees to have more flexibility in the way they do their jobs. Letting people move around a bit can help. Pal’s Sudden Service, a fast food chain, rotates employees to different areas of the business so they develop multiple skills and can fill in wherever and whenever needed. These rotations also engage employees. Novelty is great for fighting boredom.

More companies should also be giving employees more of a voice over the work they do. The best companies don’t just tolerate different perspectives, but actively invite them. I can’t say this approach is common in middle market companies, so I think there’s room to do more of it.