Reversing the Great Resignation: Psychological factors that foster engagement

Since July 2021, when 4 million workers quit their jobs, the exodus of individuals from their employers has continued, especially among workers between the ages of 30-45.

As I’ve worked with leaders and their teams through this global pandemic and talent hemorrhage, I’ve observed a shift in employee expectations, an increasing need to strike more work-life balance and a desire to pursue personal plans that once seemed destined for the future.

Working remotely has also led to new insights about what is required to experience job satisfaction and life fulfillment. Spoiler alert: It’s not about more money. People are yearning to achieve a deeper level of meaning in their lives, some of which comes from doing work that’s inextricably linked to their sense of self.

With worker fatigue and restlessness rising, the conundrum of how to keep individuals engaged is likely plaguing you, as it is many leaders, but progress in the field of relationship psychology offers some valuable insights. Psychologists have created a self-expansion model that reveals the motivations and sources of engagement that can be leveraged to drive employee commitment and retention.

The self-expansion model is anchored by two important principles:

  1. We are motivated to acquire new knowledge, skills and resources to increase our ability to achieve goals. We expand our identity through personal growth that comes from successfully completing new tasks or gaining new perspectives. This contributes to engagement.
  2. Close relationships with others are a vehicle to self-expansion. As we learn about ourselves through sharing experiences with others and learning together, it contributes to our personal identity.

Understanding these principles highlights two important levers for strengthening employee engagement, especially during challenging times.

Providing your employees with opportunities to learn new skills or become exposed to new perspectives is one way to drive engagement. The other is to connect employees to colleagues with whom they can have meaningful experiences and shared opportunities to learn.

However, implementing either of these principles requires that you know the specific needs for self-expansion held by each member of your team.

To uncover each employee’s self-expansion preference, a tool developed by researchers, Erin Hughes, Erica Slotter and Gary Lewandowski is invaluable. The Self-Expansion Preference Scale asks individuals to respond to 24 questions and identify themselves as a “self-expander” or “self-conserver.”

From: Erin K. Hughes, Erica B. Slotter & Gary W. Lewandowski Jr. (2019): “Expanding Who I Am: Validating the Self-Expansion Preference Scale,” Journal of Personality Assessment, DOI: 10.1080/00223891.2019.1641109

Self-expanders tend to embrace and welcome new challenges, using them as a vehicle for learning and growth. Self-conservers want to retain their current sense of self, so they demonstrate a preference for routines and familiar experiences and are less enamored with the idea of changing the way they are.

As a result, assigning a self-conserver to a large-scale transformation project with fast-paced deadlines and high degrees of uncertainty would likely erode their engagement and position them outside of their comfort zone. Yet, the reverse would be true for an employee who identifies as a self-expander. They would likely find such assignments exciting.

We are still living in challenging times, and employees have already weathered a variety of challenges over the last 18 months. Therefore, giving assignments to foster self-expansion must be aligned with your employee’s desire for such experiences. Otherwise, you will erode engagement rather than promote it.

The beauty of knowing where the members of your team reside relative to self-expansion needs is that it allows you to tailor engagement approaches to meet the preferences of each employee. As you strive to retain your best people, creating opportunities for them to experience fulfillment through their work assignments is essential, but it must be done in a way that aligns with who they are.

Relationship psychology has shown us that people differ in their desire for novelty, challenge, predictability and face-to-face interactions that lead to shared learning experiences.

If you want to take one step this week to improve engagement and retention on your team, start by inviting your employees to tell you what they need. Ask them to complete the self-expansion questionnaire. Then commit to a deeper conversation about how their work role can be structured to support their success and drive fulfillment.

You, and they, have everything to gain.

This article was first published in SmartBrief on Leadership, September 2021.

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