Getting people off their phones and engaged in their work!

By Daniel B. Sundberg, PhD

bSci21 Contributing Writer

Have you ever been in a meeting and noticed that nearly everyone there was on their cell phones? Or perhaps you have been shopping and felt that mix of frustration and anger on seeing several staff members socializing off in a corner, while you languish in a long line with a lone cashier?

What you have witnessed is sometimes referred to as low engagement, or disengagement. A recent survey by Gallup estimates that low levels of on on-the-job engagement costs American organizations roughly $450 BILLION a year in lost productivity. They also reported that an astounding 68.5% of employees are either not engaged, or actively disengaged in their work.

The flip side of this – engagement – is often thought of as a psychological or emotional commitment to an organization, and a willingness to engage in discretionary effort for the organization. Those organizations that reported the highest levels of employee engagement outperformed their peers by as much as 147% according to Gallup. With data such as these, it is no wonder that many in the business community have begun looking to engagement as a path to superior organizational performance.

So what causes employees to feel and act engaged, and help create a high performance organization, or feel and act disengaged and spend meetings on their cell phones, or hide in the back while a line of customers builds at the register? There are many approaches to creating engagement (many of which are very important, such as compensation and benefits), however here we will talk about a behavioral approach to engagement.

At its core engagement is all about behaviors – the things that people do and say – that demonstrate engagement or disengagement. While changing feelings of engagement is important, behavioral research has demonstrated that very often changing behaviors is sufficient to change feelings (Spates, Pagoto, Kalata, 2006). So while a meeting full of people on their cell phones may be a symptom of a larger issue, we can still focus on getting people off their phones and into their work, as well as other behaviors that we would point to when we think “engagement”.

Focusing on Behavioral Engagement can help us to pinpoint what it really means to be engaged. Behavioral engagement is the person who volunteers for a special work project (and follows through with it!), takes on a mentee, spends her free time researching new lesson plans for her clients, or furiously takes notes during a meeting. It is these behaviors that make real contributions to the mission of an organization. Behavioral engagement may look different from organization to organization, which is why it is so important to define what engagement looks like in your own situation.

So let me tell you a story of a manager of an appliance repair department who was grappling with an engagement issue.

This manager received word from his boss that his department had scored poorly on a recent engagement survey, and that he needed to improve the engagement of his people. He decided that he would lean on his behavioral background to try and tackle this issue. He started out by trying to get specific about what engagement and disengagement looked like. He talked with his boss to get some more information, then talked with his people too. From all of this he gathered that the most common behavior people associated with engagement was technicians showing up on time for their repair appointments (an issue that many of us have found ourselves on the other side of).

Now he had behavioral pinpoint that he could focus on, but before he moved forward he asked himself a very important question: why? Why is it important to change this behavior? Why does this matter? Well, he found out after some more research that a large number of customer complaints were related to late repairmen, and those customers were very unlikely to be repeat customers. So he had a good justification for focusing on this – it was not a nuisance behavior but a critical business issue.

Finally, he started thinking about what he could do to get people to show up on time for their appointments more often. He ran some performance diagnostics that he had learned in his behavioral training and found some pretty good fixes. He started by setting clear expectations and goals for his people around timeliness for appointments, as this had never really been clearly stated before. Then he decided to measure timeliness, give regular feedback, and allow everyone who met their goal the opportunity to pick from an array of reinforcers each week. Most importantly, he followed through on all of this, making sure that people got their feedback every week, and every single person who earned reinforcement actually got it.

So what can we learn from this story about creating behavioral engagement? How can you use this to get people off their phones and engaged in their work?

At the most basic level, there are three steps to creating behavioral engagement:

  1. The What: Start with pinpointing! Before we can talk about creating engagement we must first figure out what engagement looks like. Identify the behaviors that you consider “engagement” and “disengagement”. For example, disengagement may mean people on their phones during meetings, but that doesn’t mean engagement is “people off their phones”. It should instead be something like “people taking notes, asking question, or making eye contact.”
  2. The Why: This is an important step and that is sometimes missed. Ask yourself and your organization “why is this engagement behavior important? What does high levels of behavioral engagement mean for our company?” We may find that when people are behaviorally engaged during meetings (rather than spending time on their phones) more things get done, which produces important outcomes for the company. That puts a real tangible value on behavioral engagement.
  3. The How: It can be really helpful to create a work environment that is generally reinforcing to be in. While great pay and perks can get people to show up for work, and can generate goodwill, it is usually not enough to ensure specific behavioral engagement. What creates behavioral engagement is an environment in which there is more reinforcement for people working than there is for being on their cell phones. Ludwig and Frazier suggest that creating engagement “may simply be a matter of managing contingencies” (2012, p. 75). They suggest looking to modify the natural reinforcement that comes from the work, ensuring there are resources to do the job, and that management behavior supports behavioral engagement. In an earlier bSci21 article Joshua Lipschultz and Manny Rodriguez outlined a “cheat sheet” for improving performance, and a very similar approach can be used here.

So the next time you are in a meeting with everyone glued to their cell phones, think about how you can change the environment to support them becoming behaviorally engaged in their work.  Let us know your thoughts in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Ludwig, T. D., & Frazier, C. B. (2012). Employee engagement and organizational behavior management. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 32(1), 75–82.

Spates, C.R.; Pagoto, S. & Kalata, A. (2006). A qualitative and quantitative review of behavioral activation treatment of major depressive disorder. The Behavior Analyst Today, 7(4), 508–518

Dan SundbergDaniel B. Sundberg, PhD, is a behavior analyst dedicated to creating meaningful change for individuals and organizations using the science of human behavior. Dan has worked in a variety of organizations, including non-profits. Additionally, Dan spent two years as a university lecturer, teaching undergraduate students how to improve the workplace with behavior analysis

Dan earned his B.A. in Psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, M.S. in Organizational Behavior Management from Florida Institute of Technology, and Ph. D. in Industrial/ Organizational Behavior Management from Western Michigan University. During this time, some of the best thinkers in behavior analysis and OBM mentored Dr. Sundberg as an academician and business professional.

Dan is currently Regional Manager of Consulting Services at ABA Technologies, where he helps to develop and deliver OBM consulting services. Dan is also a guest reviewer for the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and in his spare time he creates behavior-based products that allow people to manage their time and accomplish their goals. He also has a special interest in building effective work practices and cultures for start-up companies, and increasing the positive effects of organizations working towards an environmentally sustainable future.  You can contact him at


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