The industrial revolution has a lot to answer for. Before the advent of factories, most human beings were directly responsible for their own survival; people grew things (plants and/or animals for food), and made things (pots, swords, cloth, houses) that allowed them and their families to live. And even though everyone was far more at the effect of natural forces (a couple of dry years, or a run of the black death, and it was all over), there was still a fairly direct correlation between working hard and doing well. Those farmers who planted carefully, kept pests away, weeded and watered, harvested at the right time and kept aside seed for next year were most likely to have enough to feed their families, and maybe even some left over to sell at market. And if someone worked especially hard and planned really well, he or she might eventually be able to acquire more land and make a more prosperous life for his or her children.

With the advent of the machine age, and the influx of workers into cities to work in factories, people gradually lost control over their own destinies. A person could work 14 hours a day, seven days a week in a factory and never make enough money to do anything other than that. And the work was mindless, as well: do what you’re told, over and over, and don’t stop. Crimp that widget, sew that shirt, coil that wire.

And here we are, 150 years later, still struggling with that legacy: way too many businesses still operate like civilized, air-conditioned versions of the 19th century sweatshop. Show up, do what you’re told, and go home.

But human beings are evolved to do so much more than that: from the first guy (probably) who figured out he could kill an animal with a thrown rock, to the first woman (probably) who made the connection between seeds and plants, to the folks who invented the plow or the candle, figured out how to thatch a roof or weave cloth…we human beings have a deep urge toward improvement, invention, mastery.

That’s why I enjoyed this article by Corey Michael Blake, and this one by Adriana Gardella, both about the benefits of engaging your employees. Both articles focus on the power of inviting employees into the real conversation about the business. Blake and Gardella recount experiences they or others have had of explaining a business challenge or goal to employees and asking them for ideas about how to address the challenge or achieve the goal–and seeing the employees’ relationship with the business change as a result. They noticed that, when employees are encouraged to think like owners, they quite often begin to act like owners. And they bring a whole new level of insight, inspiration and productivity to their work. They start to care.

I’ve noticed this, too, and I believe it’s a result of our centuries-old wiring. When we’re called upon to figure out how to make something work better, and we believe we’ll benefit from that improvement, our smarts and creativity kick in, and we start to have a personal investment in what happens to the enterprise. In other words: treat me like a robot; I’ll act like a robot. Treat me like a participant in success; I’ll act like one.

It seems simple enough...and there’s lots of research now that supports the validity of this: when employees are engaged, companies grow better and are more profitable. As Blake says in his article “Staff who feel ownership treat work differently.”

What’s been your experience in this realm? Have you seen the power of employee engagement—and, if so, how have you made it happen?