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What can anthropology teach us about employee engagement?

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What can anthropology teach us about employee engagement?

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Last year Pew released some data showing just how awful employee engagement levels were in most of the western world.  The findings prompted a huge number of articles exploring how the situation could be improved.

One person who may be able to give us some clues is Ted Fischer.  Fischer is an anthropologist at Vanderbilt University and a wellbeing advisor to the World Health Organization.

He’s also the author of The Good Life: Aspiration, Dignity and the Anthropology of Wellbeing, and through his studies he believes he has found four things that contribute to a happy life, regardless of the culture he studied.

“It’s not just money, and I think we’re realizing that more and more,” he says. “But that’s a big realization because for a long time we’ve thought that money is the answer.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Fischer describes a great life as one that focuses not so much on the goal you hope to achieve, but how you plan on getting there.

He identifies four principles that were common regardless of the culture studied, whether it was middle-class Germany or the poor in Guatemala.

  1. The desire to accumulate – I should be clear here that Fischer isn’t talking in a financial or indeed a material sense, but we all seem to want to improve our lot and for our children to have a better life than we did.
  2. We want an opportunity – Of course, alongside this desire to improve is the craving for the opportunity or chance to do so.  Fischer says how aspiration without opportunity tends to lead to intense frustration.
  3. A level of dignity - Another universal requirement was to be treated fairly and with respect.  Fairness was something I touched on in a blog last year after studies highlighted its importance to things such as collaboration.
  4. A purpose in life – The final component of a good life is the ability to live according to a greater purpose.  We crave something we can devote our lives to.“It could be big things like religion; it could be small things like our trade or craft–but we want to be committed to something bigger than ourselves,” Fischer says.

These findings have been replicated in various studies into motivation at work.  For instance, I wrote a blog at the end of last year highlighting a number of studies into the motivations of high performing employees.  The studies focused in on things such as work with a purpose, the freedom to pursue that goal, and the support required to do so.

It sounds so simple, yet so few organizations have really delivered such an environment for their employees.  What a waste.

If you’d like to hear more from Fischer, check out the video below, where he talks more about his book.

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