A Holistic Approach for Heightened Engagement

Wednesday, September 21, 2022
By Vikas Rai Bhatnagar
Photo by iStock/Drazen Zigic
As business educators, we can help organizations build an active and engaged workforce by first fostering greater engagement in our classrooms.
  • Although academic and business organizations understand the importance of strong student and employee engagement, they often do not know the mechanisms that make it happen. 
  • Students are most immersed in their educations when instructors address their spiritual, cultural, social, cognitive, emotional, and physical wellness, and when they are offered time to reflect on the concepts they learn. 
  • By integrating the arts such as music and theater in our teaching, we can create stimulating learning environments where students are energized and feel inspired to contribute. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has not just disrupted business models and supply chains, but has also left firms struggling to address employees’ safety and well-being—all while many employees are working in different spaces and time zones. In what some researchers are calling “a humanizing strategy,” many leaders are rethinking how to engage employees in meaningful ways.  

But that might be easier said than done. According to Gallup’s 2022 State of the Workplace report, only 21 percent of employees say they feel a personal connection to their work. Low employee engagement costs the global economy 7.8 trillion USD annually, accounting for 11 percent of global GDP. 

As educators, we can help companies address this problem in our classes. How? By using what I call a “systemic thriving framework of employee engagement” (STFEE). This framework can help us teach in ways that develop students in six key areas of human wellness: spiritual, cultural, social, cognitive, emotional, and physical. Together, these factors form the essence of being human. 

By addressing these areas in our teaching, we can help our students become more attentive, energetic, interactive, and involved in the learning process. As a result, we not only enable effective experiential learning, but also create social impact when our graduates use the same frameworks to bring a similar sense of excitement and interest to their workplaces.  

Supporting All Aspects of Wellness 

Experts equate strong engagement with a wide range of factors. Nancy Rothbard, deputy dean of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, defines the term as the psychological presence characterized by attention and absorption. William A. Kahn defines it as a state of psychological meaningfulness, psychological safety, and psychological availability. In the academic context, Adam Fletcher describes student engagement as “any sustained connection a learner has towards any aspect of learning, schools or education.”  

These definitions are helpful, but unfortunately, they do not shed light on how engagement is brought about. Without an understanding of the causal mechanisms for engagement, business leaders and professors are likely to see their efforts to achieve it fail.  

In our classrooms, we often pay most attention to our students’ rational or cognitive motivations to learn. But the STFEE also requires instructors to consider spiritual, cultural, social, emotional, and physical factors. Using this framework, they must design activities that allow students to exercise and express all their faculties as they learn. I’ve chosen to use the word “systemic” in the STFEE framework to recognize that all a person’s faculties are in dynamic interactions with each other. For instance, if a person is physically not well, it will inhibit his or her ability to carry out higher cognitive tasks or harbor positive emotions for others. Both outcomes hinder the learning process. 


Below, I suggest ways that business schools and their faculty can deploy each attribute of STFEE.

Spiritual Wellness 

This attribute encompasses higher levels of compassion, love, and interconnectedness with others regardless of geography, nationality, or culture. The higher our students’ spiritual wellness, the more they will find finding deeper meaning and a compelling purpose in their activities.  

Business schools can support spiritual wellness by creating organizational identities and cultures that are socially sensitive and that accommodate diverse perspectives. Their cultures should inspire faculty and students to be their best selves, identify with their schools, and find meaning in their activities.  

Faculty can support this dimension by respecting students’ individuality, building social connections, and promoting meaningful discussions. For instance, I often highlight the social implications of concepts I teach in class so that students feel connected to others beyond their own cultures and geographies.  

Cultural Wellness

When students cultivate this attribute, they refine their tastes and manners and position themselves to achieve excellence in arts, science, and scholarly pursuits. Business schools can provide voluntary opportunities for students to engage in diverse forms of art. (A sure path to disengagement is to make students’ attendance at art-focused events compulsory, or worse, subject student attendance to grading.)  

For example, schools could encourage the formation of student clubs dedicated to subjects such as music, dance, theater, painting, sculpting, and poetry. Schools also could invite students to create and exhibit art around current socially sensitive issues or invite artists to share their work. I have found that students can learn more about socially sensitive leadership from artists whose work touches on social and ecological issues than from practitioners who speak on the same subjects.  

I often play music in class to help students develop higher receptivity and concentration or to enhance their focus and attention.

For 15 minutes before my classes begin, I often play music by different composers to help students develop higher receptivity and concentration. In the past, I have played the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Concert, which includes a performance by Indian film composer A.R. Rahman, and a performance by the Berklee Indian Ensemble from the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Or, before I present an important theory, I play a 30-second clip of this marvelous violin performance by Samvel Yervinian. This short exposure energizes students and enhances their focus and attention.  

Social Wellness 

This area involves having healthy relationships with others, as well as respect for national, regional, religious, ethnic, and demographic diversity. Business schools foster social wellness when they help students develop a deep appreciation of “what is” through vibrant discussions and debates about social causes. They also can ask students to deliberate on “what should be,” by providing forums where students can visualize an ideal state for the world and discuss plans for achieving it.  

In my classroom, I use two pedagogical models: the Hegalian model of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, in which students build upon conflicting ideas, and Nonaka and Takeuchi’s SECI framework, which encourages students to combine their existing knowledge to generate new knowledge. Both models leverage the social process in learning, broaden students’ awareness of differing perspectives, and develop their cognitive collaboration skills.  

Cognitive Wellness 

This attribute involves the expansion of the intellect through abstract, systemic, and analytical thought. To expand this attribute, business schools should avoid overloading their curricula with coursework and extracurricular activities and instead build in time for reflection. By learning to think carefully before they act, students will be better able to address the complex business realities they will face in their professional lives.

To compel students to build knowledge and challenge their existing assumptions, I incorporate reflective activities in my courses. For example, I ask students to complete an online assignment where they explore how the concepts they learn link with their own experiences. They also associate the concepts with social concerns, and visualize how they might apply those concepts in the future. In the class discussions that follow, they can share their reflections with each other and learn from each other’s experiences. 

Emotional Wellness 

To achieve this attribute, individuals must know their values and have positive emotions, attitudes, and energy for themselves and others. If schools merely display values without living them, or if they provide little room to receive feedback from students and faculty, they create cultures that breed incivility and disengagement. 

Instead, to create emotionally vibrant academic environments, business schools must “walk the talk” of their values and create humanized cultures. Schools can prevent faculty disengagement by, for example, offering equitable compensation. They can promote engagement by inviting faculty and learners to ask questions, raise concerns regarding the school’s overall mission, and inspire positive change. 

In the classroom, students often enhance their learning when they are willing to be vulnerable, whether by sharing a personal experience or by exposing their ignorance on a topic despite concerns about how others might perceive them. To make this process easier, I readily admit what I do not know. Doing so creates a climate of psychological safety that supports students’ dignity and heightens instructor-student engagement. 

Physical Wellness

Not surprisingly, this attribute pertains to ensuring that the body is healthy, fit, and well taken care of. It also might be one that institutions are most likely to overlook. Business schools can support this attribute by organizing or providing access to sports events, as well as offering gym memberships to faculty. They also can facilitate medical checkups for faculty, staff, and students and provide easy access to specialists such as cardiologists and nutritionists.  

In my classes, I look for opportunities to get students out of their chairs and allow them to be active. For example, I design breakout rooms where students can physically move into groups for discussion, and I organize impromptu debates where small student teams stand in front of the class to discuss an issue that surfaces in class discussion. Physical movement in class breaks increases attention.  

Engagement in Four Theatrical Acts

One way I engage my students’ cognitive, emotional, and cultural wellness is by presenting a business case study in the form of theater. This is not the first time I have used theater as a means of instruction. As an officer in the Indian Army, for example, I exposed soldiers to theatrical performances to help them develop greater social sensitivity, so that they would use minimal force and demonstrate compassion (a paradoxical requirement!) when called to restore law and order in the community.  

As a senior vice president for Shree Cement, a cement manufacturing company in India, I launched a new performance management system that used theater, instead of the usual PowerPoint presentation, to engage employees. I was further inspired to use theater as a pedagogy after watching the play Massage, in which actor Rakesh Bedi plays all 24 characters.  

Students often enhance their learning when they are willing to be vulnerable, whether by sharing a personal experience or by exposing their ignorance on a topic.

How do I use a theater-based case study? I wrote the case based on how GE Lighting, then a subsidiary of General Electric, demonstrated its organizational values after discovering that its tube lights were leaking mercury vapors during the manufacturing process, posing a risk to the health of workers. I perform all the roles in the four-act play. At the end of each act, I pose a few questions to the class; at the end of all four acts, I give a detailed debriefing of the relevant theories. The performance leads to a spirited discussion among my students.  

I have invited other faculty to observe the theater-based case study so that they could provide me feedback on its effectiveness. The outcome? They, too, became immersed in the class discussion—so much so that we all got into a flow and lost track of time. Afterward, instead of providing feedback on the pedagogy, they continued to discuss the questions I had posed during the case! I took that as evidence that the pedagogy was an effective way to engage participants in the lesson.  

Marrying theater with education offers four benefits for learning. First, it demands that students pay close attention as they make sense of the different characters I portray. Second, the format richly portrays the emotions of each character, which allows students to better appreciate the business reality featured in the case. Third, it helps students glean richer insights and see nuances in the case. Finally, it breaks up pedagogical monotony by bringing novelty and excitement to the class.  

The Case for Engagement 

For businesses to continue to innovate and thrive, they will require a deeply engaged workforce. As educators, we can “set the stage,” if you will, for that workforce by fostering higher instructor-learner engagement. 

The examples I share above for simultaneously tapping into multiple dimensions of human wellness are only the start. The STFEE framework can inspire many other strategies for engagement within and beyond our classrooms—we need only to use our imaginations.

Vikas Rai Bhatnagar
CEO, Hyperspace Action Research Services, and Former Professor of General Management and Chairperson of the Doctoral Program, Lal Bahadur Shastri Institute of Management
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
Subscribe to LINK, AACSB's weekly newsletter!
AACSB LINK—Leading Insights, News, and Knowledge—is an email newsletter that brings members and subscribers the newest, most relevant information in global business education.
Sign up for AACSB's LINK email newsletter.
Our members and subscribers receive Leading Insights, News, and Knowledge in global business education.
Thank you for subscribing to AACSB LINK! We look forward to keeping you up to date on global business education.
Weekly, no spam ever, unsubscribe when you want.