In 1963 President John F. Kennedy visited Cape Canaveral and asked employees there what their job was. Given the nature of much of the work done there (rocket science) he got a lot of technical replies. When he encountered a janitor and posed the question, the janitor replied, “Well Mr. President, I am helping to send a man to the moon and bringing him safely back to earth.” Just imagine if you and everyone you are responsible for in the workplace were similarly engaged.
I define engagement as giving fully, emotionally and actively to whatever you do and whatever you agree to do. Engagement is an essential ingredient for individual and group performance, the development of positive relationships, fulfillment and the ability to have critical discussions. For individuals, reputations are made or lost based on the level of engagement.
Engagement is perhaps the most misunderstood characteristic. I believe that engagement is driven by emotions, which in turn drive decisions that determine how engaged we become.
Lack of engagement is an ongoing problem in American business. Polling done by Gallop indicates that more than 70 percent of North American workers are not engaged and their most recent poll showed that 23 percent of the 70 percent are actively not engaged. Gallop has been conducting studies on this for a few decades and the numbers have not shifted.
My research shows that most employees either do not trust the confidentiality of surveys nor do they feel that surveys can properly convey how they feel about their job. Before engagement surveys became the vogue, attitude surveys were conducted and some human resource geniuses shifted the term from “attitude” to “engagement.” What engagement surveys have failed to do is determine how employees feel about the work they do, the relationships they have at work, and how they feel about the organization they work for. More importantly, they do not determine why employees feel the way they do and as a result employers are not hearing what they need to hear, and employees are left feeling frustrated, angry, abused and/or powerless. All of this has a direct effect on engagement—how employees feel is usually reflected in their attitude and their attitude reflects on how engaged they are.
I attribute my success, and that of the organizations I was responsible for, to employees working to their full potential, including creativity and innovation. I also know that the employees I was responsible for attribute their success to our mutual ability to leverage the power of emotional intelligence. Understanding how people feel and factoring this in all human interactions was the cornerstone of the value exchanges we developed with all of our stakeholders. Key to our success was regular and ongoing critical discussions to ensure expectations we had of each other were being met, and if not, being able to positively address any barriers. This model reduced ambiguity and subjectivity in setting expectations, reduced excuses and surprises on achievement, and increased individual and organizational performance and fulfillment for all. This value-exchange model eliminated the need for engagement surveys because we knew, in real time, how people felt and as a result how engaged they were.
Given that the development and training on diversity, harassment, discrimination, performance management and motivation has become a multibillion-dollar industry, why are the levels of employee engagement so low?
In interviewing more than 500 people and working with numerous organizations for my book on creating psychologically healthy, safe and fair workplaces, From Bully to Bull’s Eye: Move Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire, here is what I heard, and can now assert are the six primary reasons employees are disengaged:
- Trust and Respect: For a variety of reasons employees do not fully trust their boss and by extension the organization.
- Performance Management: Employees feel that expectations and assessments are ambiguous, subjective and unfair.
- Culture: Abuse, bigotry, coercion, discrimination, discrediting, exportation, extortion, harassment, intimidation and threats are applied.
- Loyalty: While employers expect employees to be loyal to them and the organization, employees don’t feel loyalty is reciprocated.
- Relevancy and Alignment: Employees are unable to define the overriding purpose of the organization and how they contribute to this. (See the janitor’s reply to President Kennedy).
- Boredom: A high proportion of time is spent on non-value added activities where process is a substitute for purpose. Also many feel they are overqualified for the work they do.
Employers should take note of these reasons, and assess whether their employees have similar feelings. Employees must also play a role in reducing, and ideally eliminating, the reasons they are not engaged. I offer the following advice:
- Don’t fall into the victim trap. This happens when employees feel that what they experience is just the way it is and there is nothing that they can do to change it. When this happens apathy sets in and becomes resentment, which leads to disengagement and almost always negatively impacts performance. You must realize when you fall into this trap you can legitimately be assessed as having a bad attitude or being a disgruntled employee. This is perhaps the most career-limiting move you will make and it will follow you wherever life takes you.
- Become a change agent. Understand the core reasons for your discontent and look for ways to influence a change. I have found the best way to get at this is to engage coworkers to validate your concerns and then to strategize on what changes need to be made and how to make them.
- Become a revolutionist. Where the core reason for your discontent is behavior or requests that are unethical and/or illegal in nature, become and agent and right what is wrong. This also applies if you find yourself in a toxic environment. As a change agent, engage others. I have found that there is nothing more powerful than when employees become resisters, defenders and protectors in a positive way for the right reasons.
- Focus on the positives. Even in the worst environments there are usually some positives such as the people you work with, your customers and/or aspects of the job you like. Focusing on the positive will help you cope with what causes your discontent and will put you in a more objective place when you become a revolutionist.
While I have put engagement in the context of the workplace, it also applies to most of the aspects of life, your family, friends and other affiliations such as clubs and associations.