When I first started conducting research on employee engagement I had a conversation with my mother about engagement and rewards. I told mom that my own engagement did not depend on the opinions of others – it depended, instead, on my how committed I was to my mission, how passionate I felt about what I did. In other words: Engagement is about me and about what I was born to do for a living.
Mom then reminded me of an old and favorite poem called “The Man in the Glass.” She found it for me on the Internet. The first part of the poem goes like this:
When you get what you want in your struggle for self
And the world makes you king for a day,
Just go to the mirror and look at yourself
And see what that man has to say.
For it isn’t your father or mother or wife
Whose judgment upon you must pass.
The fellow whose verdict counts most in you life
Is the one staring back from the glass.
My mother is right. The Man in the Glass has everything to do with engagement. Those who are engaged do not excel in their work because of external rewards – bonuses, gift cards, or “employee of the month” certificates. They do not go above and beyond because someone out there will give them a medal. Instead, they do it because of their own sense of purpose.
Don’t get me wrong – recognition is likely to help. Recognition gives us a sense of being valued and valuable. Recognition calms fear and uncertainty. Recognition tells us there is someone who cares that we worked so hard or for so long. In order to improve engagement, however, recognition has to mean care. It has to involve true appreciation. Otherwise it’s not recognition – it’s just compensation.
Even the best kind of recognition, however, will not be as strong or as powerful as our own recognition. That person in the glass does more for our engagement than anyone else.
And perhaps… that is the message we need to send our colleagues. Stop expecting others to engage you. Stop waiting for others to cheer you up.
Instead, start focusing on that person in the glass.
About the Author
Dr. Cris Wildermuth is an Assistant Professor at Drake University, where she coordinates and teaches at the Master of Science in Leadership Development.