Dear Chief Talent Officer / HR Head,

The Holy Grail for modern businesses isn’t money or monopoly anymore. It is the engaged employee. How exactly do you engage one, though?

Most of us are familiar with the standard HR theories and recruiter case studies, so we thought we’d try a different angle this time. How about looking at employee engagement from an outsider’s lens – someone not connected with the industry or space (not directly, at any rate)? Sounded like a plan. It didn’t take long to spot the perfect outsider, either. Motivational speaker and author Simon Sinek’s* works and talks provided plenty of grist. Simon’s runaway best-seller (and, indeed, premise) START WITH WHY tries to deals with the issue in its own way, and lands some powerful learnings. Let’s begin at the beginning, shall we?

According to Sinek, successful people and organizations share something common between them : The manner in which they approach their work. This manner or technique, Sinek says, is the exact opposite of how the majority of us go about our life. So what is it, exactly?

In his TED talk (watch it here), Simon draws three concentric circles, calls the structure the ‘Golden Circle’, and then writes WHY, HOW and WHAT starting from the innermost circle out. This is, WHY in the centre, and WHAT in the outermost ring. Simon’s explanation is this: Most people in most organizations start from the outer-most ring. They know WHAT they are doing – such as say testing a code or ticking off sales target – perfectly well. Some (not too many) out of them also know HOW they are doing it, in other words, what their differentiated value proposition or USP is. However, very few people in an organization know WHY they do what they do.

Simon is quick to distinguish that WHY from the normal ‘Why’ that we tend to reel off in our PPT presentations, such as profits and growth (from organisational pov) or salaries and bonuses (from the employee pov). Sinek’s WHY is, simply, PURPOSE. The big reason any organization or team lives. Their over-arching raison d’etre, or reason for existence. It is, interestingly, also why the world cares – or doesn’t care - about them. As humans, we are most comfortable starting with the clearest (easiest to comprehend) and only tentatively inch towards the fuzzy frontier. As humans, we are naturally drawn to ‘the line of least resistance’, so to speak. The core of Simon’s circle, not surprisingly, remains fuzzy to most workers.

Inspired leaders and organizations (Simon gives the example of Apple, Martin Luther King and the Wright Brothers in his inspiring talk), however, take the reverse route. They always start with the WHY. Apple, for example, will not say that they make great computers, which, just to take a random example, some other manufacturer like Hewlett Packard might. Apple will tell you that what they really do is ‘Think Different’ – that nothing makes them happier than making technology simple and joyous to experience. They just happen to make computers which, as a result of the nature of their WHY, automatically translates into awesomeness. And that is what actually excites a customer, who is frankly tired of the WHATs and the HOWs given that all brands roughly sport the same core technology, give or take some customizations.

Simon draws a parallel with biology at this point, comparing his Golden Circle with the human brain which displays a similar concentric ring-like structure when its cross-section is viewed from the top. While the outermost circle (the WHAT) corresponds with the rational side of our personality, the innermost circle (the WHY) matches with our emotional side. The part that controls feelings. The part we are usually hard put to explain rationally, but are most likely to follow when it comes to making decisions that really matter to us. Apple’s customers, for instance, often find it difficult to explain their obsession with the brand to someone who isn’t an Apple loyal. They are happy to simply mumble, “Oh I don’t know, it just felt right.” There’s no greater example of successful passion transfer than that. Apple has been able to make people buy into their ‘belief’. The moment that happens, buying into the product turns into a formality.

To understand this from the organizational perspective, let’s place the leadership or founder in the role of the computer maker, and let’s make the employee the customer. According to Sinek’s theory, the former must start with the WHY, or the purpose. Remember the goal is to sell people what you believe – not your product (the latter in this case being the company). The goal is not to hire people who are looking for a salary, but who raise a thumbs-up sign when you are reading out your vision statement.

Of course, the assumption here is that the leadership has a strong conviction in its big business objective to start with. After all, it’s only when you believe in something, will you be able to attract a worker who believes in the same thing. When that does happen though, It’ll be easy to spot him or her. When a worker works from the heart – and not just for the paycheck – it always is. Magic is unmissable.

As for the company,  it will have finally laid its hands on the holy grail of the business world: The engaged employee.

One more thing. It is important for organizations to understand that this engaged worker isn’t doing all this for the leader or founder, even if their purposes match. Not really. Evolutionary history of prioritizing self-preservation has made living beings self-servient at a visceral level. At the end of the day, an engaged employee is engaged for one simple reason: Because their sense of who they are, and what they stand for, has finally found a vent. It has finally found the validation they have been seeking desperately. That they will now go on to make great products and services in collusion with the leadership as a synergized outfit is merely a corollary.

So while building a culture of trust & positivity, ensuring work-life balance and syncing role with talent all play critical roles in their own way, the key step to engagement at the workplace - as we can see - is to make people FEEL, not just analyse - your grand journey.

It is to make them push the coffee away and lean forward a little more, everytime you talk about your big dream.

*START WITH WHY: Idea credited to Simon Sinek.