Be Engaged, Damn It!

There is a huge revolution occurring around the role that HR plays in an organization. The role used to be about the Resource part of HR, but more and more it is becoming about the Human side. This revolution started broadly around company culture and is focusing in on employee engagement.1 This has had a profound impact not only on HR but also on what is expected from employees. People are now constantly asked “Are you engaged yet?” instead of “Is it done yet?” 

So what exactly does it mean to be engaged? I thought engagement would happen automatically if I followed the saying, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Sadly, that seemingly straightforward logic is just plain wrong.

Part of the 70% Who Are NOT Engaged

I have experienced firsthand what it feels like to hate doing what you love. The first time it happened, I convinced myself it was because of the pay and the outdated technology. Surely if I found a job with better pay and newer technologies, I would love it…and therefore be engaged.

The second time it happened, it left me frustrated and made me question whether I truly loved programming. How is it possible to be not engaged with two different jobs that paid me to do what I thought I loved? I talked to some of my friends and realized I wasn’t alone. In fact, according to Gallup, “70% of American workers are ‘not engaged’ or ‘actively disengaged’.”2 Why are 7 out of 10 Americans not engaged? More importantly, how could I become part of the other 30%?

Not Even the Zappos Culture Could Save Me

I decided to apply for a job at Zappos because of their culture. I believed that if I couldn’t be engaged there, I probably didn’t truly love software engineering. I was pretty excited to get an offer from them to work on their Enterprise Data Warehouse team. I learned quite a bit on that team and worked with some really smart people, but still, I was NOT engaged with what I was doing.

Serendipity and Quantifying Culture

I wasn’t actively disengaged working at Zappos, but I wasn’t exactly engaged either. I found that I enjoyed collaborating with the team and also liked the culture, but the work didn’t speak to me. So I kept working on various projects until one day something just clicked. Serendipitously, I ended up working on a project that was trying to quantify “culture” at Zappos; but how the heck do you measure culture?

Relationships, Relationships, Relationships

The question really piqued my interest. I started working with a small group of people who asked themselves the same question. Going into it, we had no idea how we would measure culture, so we began with questions. One question we asked Zappos employees was, “Why do you like working at Zappos?” The overwhelming response was “other Zapponians”—more specifically, the relationships that they had within Zappos. So we dug a little deeper, did some research, and found that there are actually three types of relationships that people have at work:

  1. The relationship with other people in the company
  2. The relationship with the company and its higher purpose
  3. The relationship with one’s self

You might be thinking “that’s great, but what do relationships and culture have to do with being engaged?”

Stumbling Into Engagement

While trying to quantify culture, I really started enjoying my job. In fact, I came to love my job and became completely engaged. Amazingly, it wasn’t just the coding that I enjoyed; I began to like doing things I normally dreaded. Things like reading lengthy research papers, giving presentations, sifting through spreadsheets—I was engaged with all of it! Looking back, I realized the problem was that I spent way too much time looking for a job based on “what” I would be doing when I should have been thinking about how I would be expected to relate to others and approach my work.

The Expectations Leading to Disengagement

It turned out what I needed from my job to be engaged was the right set of expectations. The wrong set of expectations boiled down to “just do what we tell you and keeping doing it quicker.” This meant what was the norm looked something like…

  • Don’t do it too quickly, you will make us look bad.
  • You are getting paid, so suck it up.
  • That’s not our problem, the other team messed up.
  • Take that 20% time to learn, but do it on your own time.
  • Just say everything is great and put on a happy face.
  • Don’t rock the boat, just do what they want.
  • Dilbert cartoons are a staple source of humor.

People may not explicitly say things like this, but that is the general tone from management. I hope none of these defensive norms describe your workplace, but chances are you have experienced something similar, maybe to a lesser degree. All the while leadership is scratching their heads asking, “Why aren’t you engaged!?”

The Expectations Leading to Engagement

The expectations that led to me becoming engaged looked drastically different. It could be boiled down to, “How can we help each other grow and contribute in our own ways to the collective greater purpose?” That’s a mouthful, but the types of norms that result correspond to the Constructive expectations measured by the Organizational Culture Inventory®3 and look like…

  • You are great at that, can you share your secrets?
  • If something doesn’t feel right, let’s experiment with alternatives so we can make it better for everyone.
  • Shoot, I know I owe you that, I will try to get it to you ASAP.
  • How can I help remove that road block?
  • Check out this TED talk, it has some great insights.

Too Good To Be True?

These may sound too good to be true, but these were exactly the things that I experienced at Zappos, which led to me becoming engaged. It may seem magical and that it would just apply to anyone. However, there is an underlying norm that sometimes gets lost: a focus on service in everything you do and a willingness to learn from failure. That means the magic only happens if the people within this type of organization are willing to put others first and take risks. I had to take the risk of jumping on a project that didn’t have any real funding at the time and put the needs of an entirely different team before my own needs.

Without getting too preachy, here is how I would summarize what I learned about being engaged with my work. This is NOT the definitive guide to engagement, but it certainly would have helped me get there sooner.

  1. People: Does the company create a trust-building environment? Do people point fingers or try to move forward together?
  2. Purpose: What is the company’s higher purpose? Is there clarity on the vision and does everyone’s voice matter?
  3. Passion: Does the company’s purpose speak to you? Does the company help you understand yourself by creating a space for you to explore and get meaningful feedback?
  4. Power: Does the company allow you to contribute in your own way? Do managers refrain from micro-managing?

Still Learning and Growing

I am not writing this because we have it all figured out. Quite the opposite—it has been years and I think we have just barely scratched the surface. Most recently, we have been experimenting with organization structure using Holacracy and, more broadly, self-organization. We have tried a bunch of things—succeeded at some, failed at many—and learned a whole lot. But we’ll save that for the next conversation.

I invite your thoughts and look forward to your comments via the social channels below.


1 Google Trends,,%20employee%20engagement

2 Blacksmith, N., and Harter, J. (2011, October 28). Majority of American Workers Not Engaged in Their Jobs. Retrieved from

3 Though identified independently, the norms leading to disengagement and engagement parallel those measured by the Organizational Culture Inventory® (Cooke, R. and Lafferty, J. 1987); research with this survey has demonstrated the same impact of these norms on engagement as discussed here.  See Cooke, R. (2015, August 19). An Updated Perspective on Engagement and Performance: Culture as the Centerpiece. Retrieved from