Leadership Trends: Engagement, Big Data and the Human Organization

This past spring professionals from across Canada gathered at the Toronto Botanical Gardens for the 2016 Imagine Your Workplace Conference. A series of lectures immersed attendees in the latest leadership trends, from the highly scientific to the “massively human.” Here’s what we learned.


Brady Wilson, President and Co-Founder of Waterloo, Ontario-based consultancy Juice Inc., talked about a problem he calls the “engagement paradox.” Every HR professional understands this dilemma — the more leaders try to manage employee engagement, the more disengaged, exhausted and cynical people become. When an increasing number of obligations force managers and workers to take on a heavier load, they can end up feeling overwhelmed and the positive effects of engagement exercises begin to fade.

Wilson first noticed the engagement paradox in the early 2000s, when he began getting calls from employers struggling to maintain the effectiveness of engagement programs. “Twelve years ago senior leaders engaged in employee engagement found that the employees loved the programs. But a few years down the road those same employees were saying, ‘There is nothing new that can be delivered from these surveys.’ Atrophy set in. These programs were no longer working,” says Wilson.

To solve this problem, Wilson entered into an intensive period of research in the fields of psychology and neuroscience — it turns out understanding the physiology of the human brain can help HR professionals, and the basics of neuroscience can be harnessed to solve the engagement paradox.

The brain is the control centre for our behaviours, and understanding how the organ works is the key to unlocking employee potential. In researching the science of the brain, Wilson came to understand the relationship between social and rational functions in humans. According to Wilson, the social brain scans for cues and reads intentions, producing a hunch and releasing hormones. On the other hand, the rational brain focuses attention and regulates emotions. Energy allows both of these functions to occur. When energy is depleted the functions atrophy.

“The brain represents 2% of body mass, but it burns 20% of your daily energy. It is metabolically expensive. When you have low energy you lose social functioning. You will also lose your executive functions. Fix that and decision-making and social functioning are restored,” says Wilson.

Keeping employees engaged, then, is a matter of providing a workplace that stimulates the brain. Referencing the work of famous post-war psychiatrist, Victor Frankl, Wilson notes it is the search for meaning that lies at the heart of our human existence. When we feel there is a purpose and a greater good to what we do, dopamine is released. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres. The release of dopamine causes us to become more intuitive and drives us to seek the reward.

“When we feel connected and accepted, we are flooded with a sense of trust and rapport. More so, when employees are supplied with a sense of belonging, freedom and significance in their work, employees can instantiate solutions across silos. They create human magic and spark innovation,” says Wilson. He says when the social and rational brain work together, you can be a remarkable human being.

Working to optimize energy flow in organizations has become a mission for Wilson. “Every employee deserves to have energy left over at the end of the day — energy for their partners, for their kids, to volunteer in the community. We have learned that someone can be fully engaged and useful over the day and still have energy left over for the end of the day. We have a vision of helping people flourish,” says Wilson. “We want them to be able to look back at their employment and say, ‘Those were some of the best years of my life.’” Understanding the basics of brain function is the key to making this happen.


Mike Kennedy, Vice President and National Leader of Health Strategies and Wellness at Aon Hewitt, develops workplace health programs for clients across Canada and the globe. Specializing in the analytics of wellness programs, Kennedy was on hand to talk about how big data is re-orienting the practice of HR along more mathematical lines.

“We’re talking about using computers in creative ways to analyze data and solve problems. That’s what we’re doing today,” says Kennedy. He delivered a short history on the use of data in HR. “Before 1970 we were just trying to get computers to fit in one room. In the 1980s we saw checkpoint scanners. Organizations began to be flooded with the amount of data they were collecting. In the 1990s it was database marketing. We began hearing that question that is still asked today: ‘What’s your postal code?’ Today, organizations have great amounts of data on everything from customer likes to employee behaviour,” says Kennedy.

How organizations utilize these mountains of data is changing the way practitioners think and work. “I think of data as a stream always flowing by,” says Kennedy.

Data analysis is allowing new and deeper insights into the effectiveness of HR programs. In the past, organizations relied on benchmarking to evaluate programs, but the problem was that different organizations were made up of different types of people, for example some organizations had a higher percentage of older employees than others. Consider insurance claims.

“If you are a 20-year-old male you are going to claim differently than a 60-year-old man,” says Kennedy. The better option today is to dig deeper into the data and take context into consideration. “When we look at your organization and the claims you’re incurring we can ask, ‘How do those claims compare to what they should be’ based on the ages of those in the organization and the number of males or females,” says Kennedy.

Organizations can use big data to make more realistic “apples to apples” comparisons when evaluating the effectiveness of wellness programs. Big data also provides a clearer view of the impact programs are having. A major challenge for modern organizations is tracking the exact cost and effectiveness of a program. What are the real benefits and how do they affect the bottom line? Modern data analytics allow HR managers to gain a more accurate picture of impact.

Today a company can, “…calculate the cost of doing nothing,” says Kennedy. “Then we know if we engage in a program, if we put some money in, we know what kind of savings we are going to get. [This] …allows leadership to [more easily] buy into programs.

“It’s possible to say now that the rate of increase on some measure for one group was less than half the rate of those who did not participate in the program. And so you can say there was something in this program that was helping. For many organizations that’s the Holy Grail. That’s what they really want,” says Kennedy. “When we get this data over time we get some great insights. And this data can drive change. I think that’s what we’re starting to see in modern organizations…You can start to predict whether your investment is going to get the best results.”

Eventually, modern data analysis will allow employers to assess employees on an individual level. Kennedy says we should consider this to be the next step. “There is this ability to target programming and do segment messaging to those who are at high-risk. In Canada, this is where things are going. We have to get down to this individual level of data,” says Kennedy.

Clearly, some employees will be nervous about sharing data, and so there are procedures that have to be put in place. “…you need to get consent,” says Kennedy. Having programs operate at arm’s length from the employer is one way to allay concerns. But whatever the process, these are the methods cutting-edge organizations are using in the age of big data.

“This data is changing the way we think about our programs,” Kennedy says.


Dr. Hugh Drouin, Commissioner of the Social Services Department of the Regional Municipality of Durham, captured the essence of what it is to build strong, supportive relationships in the workplace. Drouin does not shy away from big ideas. “We are shifting from an age of materialism to an age of transcendence,” he says. “We’re moving from material want to meaningful want. People are asking for more passion, more meaning in their work. We are going to have to create organizations that are massively human.”

Drouin says that developing a strong, supportive and meaningful workplace is the path to efficiency, if not enlightenment. “Organizations that are on a journey to becoming massively human are about being versus doing. As we enter the age of transcendence we’re going to take organizations through this transformation. We’re going to have to develop workplaces…that can help employees find their voice.”

According to Drouin, there are three keys to achieving this:

  1. PROTECTION “We have to give protection in the workplace. We have to give the message that someone has your back,” says Drouin. At a time when so many are worried about the economy and job security, this message is perhaps more important than ever. To help generate a true sense of community at the municipality, a leadership group of eight to 10 people was created. The group has been meeting once a month for years. Over time they developed a sense of belonging. “There was a motivation to be engaged because they were treated as human begins,” says Drouin.In the past Drouin worked in jails. “The inmates used to tell me that the worst punishment was to put them on ‘the dummy,’ which is slang for ‘being ignored.’ How many of you put others on the dummy in the workplace?” asks Drouin. “In the age of transcendence we’re called on not to ignore but to be there. To have a voice in the workplace, this is something the millennials want, but it’s also effective. When we studied these leadership groups we found they were twice as engaged as the rest of the employees. And our organization has higher than average engagement. Why? Because they are treated as human beings. Their hopes are ignited.”
  2. PERMISSION — or, more accurately, the permission to fail. “If you want innovation, you’re going to fail. And so we created innovation labs to manage this. We looked at Harvard’s Innovation Lab. They helped us develop ours. We’re going to measure what innovation looks like in the workplace. It’s exciting. Our innovation labs are filled with people who come out of the leadership circles and provide community,” says Drouin.
  3. POTENCY Drouin says we should look for the best in everyone. “Everyone needs to have a voice. Encourage employees to find their voice. Everyone has strength, gifts, something to offer. It is like going on a mining expedition. You are mining for gold. Look for the gold in everybody. That’s what potency means…” says Drouin. “We have to believe that everyone who breathes in our organization is too precious. None of us can live without hope. We need it in our workplaces now more than ever.”

Whether it’s using neuroscience to look at engagement differently, using big data to analyze wellness programs, or learning how we can create “enlightened” organizations, the latest trends in leadership are all about embracing fresh perspectives.

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