Upon first impression, the term "preferred self" might sound like something your therapist discusses with you. The context, however, I'm referring to is not rooted in your childhood. Instead, your preferred self is a work construct. And leaders who understand it are better positioned to achieve results by helping employees be their best self.

The Origins of Preferred Self

Dr. William Kahn uses the term preferred self as an outcome linked to engagement at work. In 1990, Dr. Kahn published his research on what allows employees to express their talents at work. His work is where we get the much-misunderstood organizational concept--employee engagement.

Dr. Kahn's initial research wanted to understand what influences people to apply themselves in their work. What Kahn learned is invaluable to anyone who wants to find joy in their work or help others experience it.

The three sources that help people bring their preferred self to their work and find engagement are meaningfulness, psychological safety, and energy.

The Three Sources Explained

So, let's put the good doctor's findings in context. Let's say you have a team that is good, but you need them to be great. Perhaps a few people on your team "phone in" their work. You believe there is greater potential in each person, but you're not sure how to bring it out of each person.

The three sources--meaningfulness, psychological safety, and energy--serve as guides to help you put together a leadership recipe. This recipe is made up of various actions and choices you make to coax out each person's preferred self. Let's look at each one.

  1. Meaningfulness is when employees find significance in and from their work.  The work is meaningful because their time investment is rewarded physically, cognitively, and emotionally. In other words, employees believe their hard work means something and is valued.
  2. Psychological safety is when employees feel that it is safe to share their ideas, express their creativity without fear of being ostracized, ridiculed, demeaned, or worse, ignored. In this positive work climate, employees don't worry about looking silly, or losing credibility, or wondering if they committed career suicide.
  3. Energy is when employees feel that they have the cognitive, physical, and emotional capacity to engage in their work.

Tapping into the Sources for High Engagement at Work

Now for the good stuff. Here are some tactics you can apply to shape the experience of work and encourage employees' preferred selves.

  • In a recent report from The Conference Board, their research revealed that employees across all generations are most attracted to "the job itself/the work I do." So, if you're looking for top talent, promote meaning in the work. If you want to keep your top talent, hold one-on-ones and ask questions to help you learn what is meaningful to your employee.
  • High-quality relationships are central to helping employees bring their preferred self to work. The more employees know about their peers beyond work roles, the closer they become. This closeness helps create a psychologically safe work environment. Plan events that bring your team together. Have them work together to solve a problem. An experience is far more influential on team cohesion than a potluck or gift exchange.
  • Finally, help your employees learn what work energizes them and what drains them. At my company, WorqIQ, we use StrengthScope to help employees gain this insight. Also, implement a set of practices that promote work recovery--the ability to detach from work when at home: no emails after 6 pm; work schedules that give employees downtime and rotating time off to enjoy weekends; implement mindfulness practices.

To encourage employees' preferred selves, it's key to understand that engagement is an experience--fleeting and momentary. The most important leadership recipe you can follow is to shape the work climate and experience. You can achieve this outcome, in part, through applying Dr. Kahn's three sources that help employees express their preferred self.

Published on: Apr 13, 2018