THE BLOG
05/20/2014 12:26 pm ET Updated Jul 20, 2014

Why You Should Hire for Zest

The verdict is in. Americans are bored with their jobs.

The numbers are staggering.

Seventy percent of employees report being not engaged or actively disengaged from their work and it's costing U.S. companies $550 billion each year in lost productivity.

That's a lot of people. That's a lot of money.

Companies are scrambling to reverse this trend by devising new ways to boost engagement, as well as ramping up the use of existing incentives, such as flextime, financial bonuses, recognition, telecommuting and the like.

But it doesn't seem to be working.

Disengagement remains high and by some estimates, it is only going up.

Clearly, we need a new approach to employee engagement that addresses the cause rather than the symptoms of disengagement.

Let me suggest it starts with the antithesis (and antidote) of boredom - zest.

Life on the leading edge
Here's what we know about zest. It is a learned disposition that is one of the key drivers of life satisfaction and well-being.

Psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman describe zest as "a “habitual approach to life with anticipation, energy and excitement.”" Others define it as energy, liveliness, vitality, exuberance, or wholeheartedness.

People who practice zest embrace life as an adventure and push the envelope of what is possible. They live on the leading edge. They see possibility where others only see problems; and their joie de vivre is contagious. They do big things and bring other people along on their journey.

Zest is transformative because it's not a fixed trait but a cultivated mindset. We can all experience a life of energy and enthusiasm.

Zest is both an objective and an outcome. We yearn to experience it and when we do, our effectiveness improves dramatically.

This is especially true in the workplace.

In an extensive study of over 9,800 full time employees, Christopher Peterson and his colleagues found that personal zest predicted a person's belief in their work as a calling, improved work satisfaction, and general life satisfaction. In another study, Peterson and colleagues found that zest is the strongest predictor of engagement and overall life satisfaction.

And there’s more.

Zestful people have better physical health, take fewer sick days, and when they are ill, bounce back from it more quickly. All this leads to lower absenteeism, and reduced turnover.

So what are the take-aways?

First, enthusiasm drives engagement. People who approach life with excitement, curiosity, and anticipation are much more likely to be enthusiastic about their jobs. This holds true across job types.

Second, zest is good for business; it's good for your people and it’s good for the bottom line. You simply can't afford to not have a workforce with this essential quality.

And the place to start is by hiring people who possess it.

Finding zest
Measuring zest with scientific precision is difficult; we generally know it when we see it. Still, there are a number of direct and indirect ways to gauge a candidate’'s zest with a high level of accuracy.

Use the seven points below to develop a composite picture of a person'’s level of zest. You can use these for hiring or promotion.

1. Do coworkers, bosses, and/or direct reports say the candidate has a positive influence on those around them? Does the candidate energize the workplace; do they motivate others through either word or action? How do people describe the candidate? Words like "enthusiastic," "positive," "high energy," and "creative," indicates the candidate possesses zest.

Keep in mind, people evidence zest differently. Extraverts show it by actively engaging others, while less-verbal introverts often demonstrate zest by the dedication to which they engage a task.

2. Enthusiasm is the engine that drives excellence. Zestful people have a history of performing at the highest levels. They are excited about what they do and it translates into superior performance.

Zest isn't the only driver of high performance, but without it, consistently exceptional results aren’t possible. Does your candidate have a history of regularly exceeding expectations and delivering results at the highest levels? Does the person approach tasks wholeheartedly or begrudgingly?

Have them describe a time when they experienced “flow” (total immersion) while working. What did it feel like to them? Try to assess if they are motivated by the task or the outcome. Zestful people focus on the process and let the results speak for themselves.

3. How does the candidate talk about success in their life?

Zestful people create meaning in what they do. If a candidate talks about success primarily in terms of self-interest - what they received from an experience - it may mean they lack the meaning component of zest. Conversely, if your candidate talks about the impact of their involvement and how it benefited others, this is an indication that they understand their work is about something greater than themselves.

Ultimately, zest is not about us, but rather our contribution to others. Zestful people see a larger purpose in what they do. They are motivated by meaning.

4. Do your candidates demonstrate creativity in their work, be it producing new products or processes, making decisions, and so forth? Zestful people are intrinsically motivated and innovative. They revel in the creative process and look beyond convention when choosing a course of action.

5. During the interview process, schedule time away from the office. Walk around the workspace with your candidates and observe how they engage the environment. Are they open and engaged with people and curious about the work they do? Do they ask questions? These are all hallmarks of a truly zestful person.

6. Ask candidates to describe their approach to life using five or six words. Do they use terms that convey energy, curiosity (e.g., “I love to learn”), courage, and creativity? This will give insight as to what motivates them and what they find energizing, and whether they are truly zestful.

Related, ask interviewees to describe a setback in their life. How did they bounce back from it? What did they learn? Do they view setbacks as opportunities or problems? Do they blame others for setbacks or see them as an opportunity to grow or move in a new direction. Have them describe a challenge they faced and explain how they overcame it or learned from it.

7. The Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS) assessment measures zest, along with other character strengths. You can use the VIA-IS to create a quantitative baseline of zest. You can also identify other signature strengths of your candidate.

Leaders set the tone in a company. If you make it a priority to hire for zest, and model it too, you’ll reduce boredom, boost engagement, and drive bottom line results.

Now that's something to get excited about.

Dr. Frank Niles is a social and behavioral scientist, adventure athlete, coach, and speaker. Learn more about Frank at frankniles.com and scholarexecutive.com. Contact Frank at frank@frankniles.com.

A previous version of this post appeared at scholarexecutive.com.