Becoming a More Engaged HR Professional

Becoming a More Engaged HR Professional

Leaders look to HR for solutions to employee engagement problems, but what happens when HR professionals are the ones who are disengaged?

By Jack Groppel, Ph.D., and Arlene S. Hirsch, M.A., LCPC July 13, 2017

Early in her career, Jessica Jenkinson took several administrative positions because she needed a paycheck. But she was resourceful enough to figure out ways to use those jobs to gain marketable skills and valuable self-knowledge. As a self-described "file freak," she is hyper-organized and delights in finding creative solutions to administrative inefficiencies. She rebuilt an office supply room, created electronic filing systems and developed more-efficient workflow procedures.

With each new position, she routinely asked for more responsibility. Her mantra became: "I know I can do more. Use me."

Jenkinson landed her "dream job" as an office manager at employee benefits communication software company The Jellyvision Lab Inc. in Chicago in 2008, when it was a 26-person operation. Though the role was only tangentially associated with HR, it became a launching pad for her HR career. In her current role as Jellyvision's people operations manager, her responsibilities cover the gamut, including recruiting, benefits, onboarding and, of course, administration.

The company now has 300-plus employees and plans to add 100 more in the next year. Jenkinson takes great pride in helping to create a culture where everyone can flourish and have fun. But what she loves about HR (in general) and Jellyvision (in particular) is the people side of the business.

"It's in my DNA," she said. "I love being helpful."

Finding your North Star (or purpose) that helps you become fully engaged in your career is a process, not a project. It involves a dynamic, continually evolving interplay between you and your environment.

Engaged employees are defined as those who are involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace. Unfortunately, only 32.5 percent of the U.S. workforce is engaged, according to the Gallup U.S. Employee Engagement Survey published in 2016. When people are disengaged, they become emotionally detached from their work, and disengagement can infect every part of an organization—from entry level to senior leadership.

As HR strives to create cultures of high engagement, individual accountability becomes increasingly salient. Of course, the quality and level of your engagement is your personal responsibility. But this needn't be a burden; it can be an act of self-empowerment.

To become more fully engaged, look to those experiences when you felt most energized and deeply involved. Intrinsically motivated people are incentivized "from the inside out" by a desire to grow, learn and contribute.

This process began for Jill Pollack with an epiphany that happened while she was writing a book and working as a writing instructor. Instead of writing in isolation and teaching one-off courses, she envisioned creating a community where aspiring writers could hone their craft, express their creativity and develop their unique voices. In 2003, she founded StoryStudio Chicago.

Pollack expanded the scope of her business to capitalize on the workplace demand for better business writers and corporate storytellers. After joining the Society for Human Resource Management and building relationships with HR professionals, she realized that communication is connected to nearly every HR challenge and opportunity. And while she enjoys teaching storytelling and persuasive writing in her work, she found unexpected fulfillment in partnering with her HR colleagues.

"Our real joy comes from working closely with HR teams to solve their deeper communications challenges and [from] seizing opportunities to help them move their companies forward," said Pollack.

To be sure, while meaningful work is uniformly desirable, it can be elusive.

Steve Van Valin, co-founder and CEO of Culturology, a culture consulting company in Chester Springs, Pa., uses the term "meaning amplification" to articulate an expansive vision of what it means to have meaningful work.

At the individual level, work is meaningful when it meets your core needs and you feel as if you're making progress. That spirals outward when you become part of a team and you feel like your work has a positive impact on the people whom you work with. Work gains an added layer of meaning when it contributes to society.

Start with a personal mission statement. For example, in The Corporate Athlete Performance Program (TCAP) of Johnson & Johnson's Human Performance Institute (HPI), participants create personal mission statements by answering these questions:

  • How do you want to be remembered?
  • How do you want people to describe you?
  • Who do you want to be?
  • Who or what matters most to you?
  • What are your deepest values?
  • How would you define success in your life?
  • What makes your life really worth living?

The answers can become guiding principles that can be used to establish priorities, set limits and make good decisions.

Manage Your Energy

Technology has erased the boundary between work and personal life and created a need for people to learn how to establish priorities, set limits and know when to ask for help. HPI recommends a holistic approach to energy management that integrates physical, emotional, mental and spiritual energy needs. 

TCAP uses interval training strategies (borrowed from the world of physical fitness) to create harmonious, rhythmic movement throughout the day. By balancing high-intensity moments with restorative downtime, people can recapture energy through such activities as meditation, deep breathing, prayer and emotional connection, or climbing a few flights of stairs.

High-energy emotions can be positive or negative. When people are angry, frustrated or anxious, they move into survival mode, becoming negative and defensive. Positive, high-energy feelings such as enthusiasm, hopefulness and connectedness present more opportunities for productive engagement.

Conversely, low-energy negative emotions like hopelessness, exhaustion and burnout lead to disengagement, while positive low-energy states like calmness, relaxation and peacefulness are restorative. When taking short breaks, creative activities such as journal writing or drawing can elicit positive, low-energy emotions.

The Singletasking Solution

Faced with a tsunami of information and demands, people literally try to do two (or more) things at once. Unlike computers (which can process multiple tasks simultaneously), the human brain is incapable of performing two higher-level cognitive tasks at once.

Research conducted by the late Clifford Nass and his colleagues at Stanford University in 2009 demonstrated that multitaskers are less productive than people who focus on one thing a time. Those who attempt two or more tasks at once have considerably more difficulty paying attention, recalling information and switching from one task to another. Relationships can deteriorate because people don't make time to listen and empathize.  

Devora Zack, CEO of Only Connect Consulting Inc., a leadership development company in the Washington, D.C. metro area, sees "singletasking" as a credible and superior alternative.

"The only way to do anything particularly well is through full task engagement," said Zack, author of Singletasking: Get More Done—One Thing at a Time (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015). "It is not a luxury; it is a necessity. You can accomplish far more doing one thing at a time."

Weaning yourself—and others—from an obsessive preoccupation with technology is a prerequisite for full engagement. Of course, this can be a tough sell in a culture where employees are inundated with e-mails and texts, making full engagement a challenge.

Pollack said she sees this condition often in her workshops, where students are constantly checking their smartphones.

"Tearing students away from their devices is the first step to getting their full attention," she said. "Separating people from their phones isn't so easy and, in fact, sometimes this can make a student more nervous."

When she convinces students to turn off their devices and give her their undivided attention, the quality of their interactions change. They are more attentive and engaged and gain more from the experience. 

As a solution to e-mail overload, Zack recommends "clustertasking." This involves identifying and grouping similar tasks into a few combined segments and then performing them at regular intervals throughout the day. 

Disengaged HR professionals signal to others that they are distracted, overwhelmed, uninterested or uninvolved. Disengagement can stunt personal and professional development and undermine credibility—and potentially reverberate throughout the organization.

You have a continuum of choices: You can "sit on the bench" and turn in a halfhearted performance. Or you can decide to take incremental steps to become more fully engaged.


Jack Groppel, Ph.D., is co-founder of Johnson & Johnson's Human Performance Institute. 

Arlene S. Hirsch, M.A., LCPC, is a noted career counselor and author with a private practice in Chicago. Her books include How to Be Happy at Work (Jist Publishing, 2003), Love Your Work and Success Will Follow (Wiley, 1995), and The Wall Street Journal Premier Guide to Interviewing (Wiley, 1999). Her website is

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