A Guest Post from Employee Engagement Expert Timothy Clark:

Employees can be schizophrenic about what they want. The British philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, observed that humans tend to seek “a state of well-ordered, painless, contented, self-perpetuating equilibrium.” True, but we also want to be anxiously engaged in our organizations. We want to make a difference. We have to choose.

Here’s the question: Does it do any good to idly yearn to be engaged–to wait expectantly for the organization to engage you? Sure. Just expect to wait a long time and keep your expectations low. And meanwhile, you’ll find yourself in a state of learned helplessness, feeding on extrinsic rewards, suffering from low productivity. Engagement and equilibrium are contrary states. You have to choose one or the other.

A second question: Who owns your engagement? Many organizations have become contaminated with a patently false concept of engagement that puts the primary burden on the organization. In the 1830s, French nobleman Alexis de Toqueville observed, “The manufacturer asks nothing of the workman but his labor; the workman expects nothing from him but his wages. The one contracts no obligation to protect, nor the other to defend; and they are not permanently connected either by habit or by duty.”

How depressing! Today, great organizations want your full-tilt participation. Amazingly, that’s exactly what most people want to give. But they don’t. Why? Much of the problem lies with an old mindset based on we call the “benevolent organization.”

Here’s what I mean: Imagine that you work for the most benevolent organization on earth—an organization that believes in and practices fanatical employee support. The organization has anointed you with a big title, a big office, and a big salary. It assigns people to clean your house, do your laundry, and file your tax returns. There are piano lessons for your kids, personal trainers and home decorators, a pet photo contest every year, unlimited spa treatments, extended family cruises, and ice cream socials. Not least, you have a great boss. In the history of the world, there has never been a more successful organization, and you are exquisitely blessed to be right in the middle of it.

Are you engaged? The organization may lavish you with perks, but those perks don’t hold the key to engagement. Feeding the pleasure center of the brain through extrinsic rewards doesn’t engage a person and bring real, lasting fulfillment. At best, it creates security and short term pleasure or hedonic well-being. So what do you do? 

As a starting point, release your discretionary effort now. Don’t turn life into a miserly exchange in which there’s a quid pro quo for everything you do. Invest ahead of the organization. The organization may reward you tenfold. It may not. Even if the organization does not fully appreciate your contribution, do your best. You will take your experience with you. No one can strip you of the hard-won lessons you learn and the experience you gain. They are yours forever.

For more about Timothy Clark, author of The Employee Engagement Mindset visit his website (trclark.net) and don’t forget to follow him on twitter (@timothyrclark).