3 Things Babies Can Teach Us About Employee Engagement

May 15, 2017 •  6 minute read • by Saeed

Yes, that’s me in the picture. Let’s move on.

Numerous studies have shown that successful employee engagement programs contribute to improved business outcomes. It ‘s common sense that engaged employees increase productivity, inspire innovation, and deliver better results to clients and customers.

The reality is most company engagement efforts are facile and feckless. That’s because they lack the fundamental framework upon which all successful engagement efforts are built: connection, feedback, and trust. The ‘Still Face’ experiment conducted with a mom and her baby in 1975 demonstrates the evolutionary importance of engagement to our growth and development.

But first…

What does employee engagement even mean?

To some, employee engagement is corporate band-wagon buzz phrase flavor of the week.

Merriam Webster’s online dictionary offers  banal definitions of engagement such as ‘the act of engaging’ and ‘the state of being engaged.’

But there it also offers two definitions I like for our purposes:

1.      Emotional involvement or commitment.

2.      The state of being in gear.

These two factors are essential in the conversation on engagement.

Engagement is when you’re hooked intellectually and emotionally in a subject. When you are, you feel enthusiastic, inspired and confident. You innovate. You inspire others towards innovation and towards greater engagement. You evangelize the goals and the mission of the company. You have a skip in your walk on your way to work. Your senses are locked and loaded.

Why does employee engagement even matter?

Gallup’s latest State of the American Workplace report released in February 2017, found that 70% of U.S. workers are Not engaged at work.


That’s a staggering number. Does it surprise you? Probably not. Chances are, you are not engaged either.

That means a lot of productivity loss and ultimately churn for companies. Engagement matters.

243633-percent-of-engaged-employees-D__1_What does employee engagement  even look like?

The ‘Still Face’ experiment is famous in child development circles. It was first conducted in 1975 and has been replicated many times over since. In it, Dr. Edward Tronick and colleagues showed how after three minutes of “interaction” with a non-responsive expressionless mother, an infant becomes rapidly distressed (the same experiment has been done with fathers with the same result).

The baby makes repeated unsuccessful attempts to get the interaction into its usual reciprocal pattern and withdraws hopelessly when he fails to do so.

In watching the video, you could argue that not only is the baby experiencing a loss of attachment, but he’s also experiencing a loss of agency. We’ll come back to this theme at the end.

It may be helpful to conjure up an image of what engagement looks like in adults. When you go to a movie and you’re at the edge of your seat, gripped by the story and what is about to happen next, that’s engagement.

When you can’t put a book down and when you can’t walk away from a conversation or a radio report, that’s engagement. When you’re intellectually and emotionally committed, when you seek feedback to improve your performance, when you are eager to collaborate with colleagues, that’s engagement.

You’re engaged when you feel like your work is meaningful, and that the organization is doing something significant.

What can babies teach us about employee engagement?

1.      Employee engagement is about connection. Connection is the key. If you’re a manager, elicit ideas from your employees. Improve communication. Facilitate change. Authentic employee engagement involves connection with the work and with the company, but also with others: our peers,  our leaders and ultimately ourselves. It involves a connection to the larger meaning of the work. When we disconnect we disengage. Watch the baby in the video for proof.

2.      Employee engagement is about feedback. Countless studies have found that the vast majority of employees who receive little or no feedback are actively disengaged. Engagement goes up dramatically when employees receive feedback (even when it’s negative!), and even more so when they receive feedback that acknowledges their strengths and supports their development. When you give employees ‘just in time’ feedback, engagement increases. Again, watch how the baby reacts when the feedback loop is cut off by the mother.

3.      Employee engagement is about trust. Trust is the cornerstone of employee engagement. Managers and leaders who consistently work to build trust do so by demonstrating reliability, integrity, loyalty, credibility, transparency and honesty with their staff. They encourage autonomy, buy-in and ownership of ideas, initiatives and decision-making responsibilities. Results-oriented leaders explain the reasons why a decision is not workable, thereby creating a learn­ing environment, which goes a long way to building trust. Trust is the binding agent between the mother and the baby in the video.

To conclude, the three essential and foundational elements above are key to framing any employee engagement program. But a note about the actual design of the program and the importance of employee centered approaches. Employee engagement programs are notoriously inadequate and while many companies have implemented such programs, participation rates are low. Engaging employees has to be done through a bottom-up principle that takes into account the people you are looking to help and tailors a solution accordingly. That is to say, employees must be engaged in their own engagement. In short, they need to be at the center of the design and given agency to drive their own learning and engagement.

©2017 – All Content by Saeed H. Mirfattah, M.A.

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I write personal and professional development articles to help readers be the most effective human being they can be; in short, to help you find your inner awesomeness. By liking, commenting, sharing, and following, you are encouraging me to keep going. It is my direct feedback loop that tells me that I am providing value to you.

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Last thing, if you liked this post, consider checking out my other most recent post on why you should work like a consultant.



2 Replies to “3 Things Babies Can Teach Us About Employee Engagement”

  1. Excellent article, Saeed. I love the connection you are making between child development and adult engagement. These are, after all, human needs which are simply easier to see in child studies such as the one you reference. I’ll be passing this article along to some managers I know. Keep up the thoughtful work!


    1. Jennifer. Thank you so much. Very encouraging comment and really appreciate that you appreciated the connection I was trying to make.


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