DESPITE the fact that “employee engagement” has been a buzzword in human resource (HR) circles for many years now, a fairly recent Gallup poll found that Singapore has one of the world’s highest proportions of employees described as “not engaged”.

Why are so many workers in Singapore emotionally disconnected from their work even with the increased focus on talent engagement strategies these days?

What are HR professionals doing wrong and, more importantly, what else can be done?

Unhappiness in the workplace

People spend a good majority of their waking hours at work, so it is easy to understand how being disengaged at work can create an unhappy person — and vice versa. 

If an individual’s main motivation to show up at work is driven by a need to hit his Key Performance Indicators (KPI), then it becomes a task-driven job and he will not check-in psychologically at work, let alone connect emotionally with his job.
This employee will only put in what it takes to achieve those KPIs and prevent himself from getting fired.

He will not be in the right headspace — and “heartspace” — for creativity to flourish and, therefore, is unlikely to propose new ideas and suggest improvements in the workplace.

The main culprit behind a disengaged employee is thus a lack of meaning at work.

The negativity bias

It is important for leaders and human resource professionals to understand a key evolutionary principle:

Human beings are wired for negativity to increase their chances of survival.

So we are more likely to pay attention to negative events and expend our energy on them.

This basic survival skill creates workers who are more reactive than proactive, and fuels the same “complain culture” in the workplace that is so characteristic of Singapore society.

As an HR leader, you need to recognise that you are actually working against the grain of human nature. You have the gargantuan task of undoing this law of nature and spinning it into something positive.

Creating meaning at work

As an HR professional, your top priority should be to help your organisation’s employees create meaning in their work.

Focus on enhancing their well-being at work, and this will go a long way towards creating a greater sense of team spirit, teamwork and a strong corporate culture.

There is no quick-fix method, and you cannot achieve true engagement by simply packing your workers off for a team-building event or sending them to a one-off stress or conflict-management workshop.

You have probably already spent significant sums of money on such training and if you have not seen real results among your workforce, there is a missing link you need to uncover.

To bring about real change requires a concerted effort and it is a step-by-step process that begins with you.

You may need to break away from the traditional way of thinking that focuses on problem-solving methods, and equip yourself with a full understanding of how the notion of “well-being” can be harnessed as a science through the implementation of positive psychology in your workforce.

Positive psychology is not just feel-good motivational fluff. It is a methodological, science-based study of the factors and conditions that enable human beings to flourish.

Working on an emotional level, positive psychology elicits mindfulness and is more impactful as it seeks to improve a person’s intrapersonal and interpersonal skills, leading to a greater sense of harmony and well-being among co-workers. 

Applying positive psychology principles in the hiring process

You can even use the principles of psychology in recruitment — so that you select and hire the right candidates from the get-go, rather than employing the wrong ones and then spending resources to find ways to engage disengaged workers.

With a strong foundation in positive psychology, you will be able to recruit employees based on the psychology of strengths (and also identify unrealised strengths) and not just because they have the right qualifications or years of relevant experience.

First, identify the top qualities that your organisation requires so that you have these clearly in mind when assessing candidates to ensure alignment of their strengths with the values that your organisation upholds.

Then ask questions during the interview that will help elicit a candid response from the individual to reveal his strong suits.

For example, you could ask the candidate the following question to test his reaction and creative thinking abilities: “Would you be willing to work in this job for free?”

You could also ask him to write his own job description for the role he is interviewing for — this will give you an insight into what he feels he has to offer.

With an understanding of the positive psychology framework, you won’t need elaborate and expensive assessment tools to effectively delve into the psyche of candidates and filter the high-potential candidates from the rest.

This will save you time and resources on employee engagement and talent retention programmes by hiring the right individual from the start.

Article by Stephen Lew, the founder and director of the School of Positive Psychology, which provides higher education academic and professional positive psychology and psychotherapy courses, training programmes and seminar workshops at undergraduate, post-graduate and executive levels. For details, call 6884-5161 or visit This article was first published in Singapore Business Review.