According to recent surveys, employee engagement is at an all-time low. At the same time, the focus on engagement seems to be at all-time high. Even worse, organizations have handed off driving employee engagement to the human resources department when so clearly it is a leadership accountability. The culprits of low satisfaction scores of old - poor wages or working conditions, lack of training and tools, insufficient communication, no recognition, lack of empowerment - have largely been resolved in many of our work places. And yet malaise is increasing. What is going on and how do we fix it?
Why we are disengaged at work
Recession fatigue. The fragility and inconsistency of the economic recovery is wearing us down. For most organizations cost-management and ‘operational efficiency’ seem to have permanently replaced growth and innovation as a strategic vision. It is hard to get excited about pinching pennies 7 years in a row. The human spirit needs a more meaningful purpose.
Technology fatigue. Whatever lines used to exist between work and life have been erased by the phone-sized computer we carry in our back pocket. Other than the few hours when we are asleep, chances are we are constantly multi-tasking job and life responsibilities. Although humans invented computers, we are not computers and we do not function well when we are all-systems-go, 24/7. The human physiology needs a different set of rhythms and programs.
‘Just world’ hypothesis fatigue. There was a time when we believed in a just world - that commitment and hard work were rewarded and the world, including the workplace, was a fair and just place. Instead, we see a world that is not so fair. The rich and powerful get richer and more powerful while the rest sit on the sidelines waiting for a turn that never comes. Average CEO pay has risen 22% since 2010 while average wages have declined or barely kept pace with inflation (Mishel & Davis, 2014). It's no wonder employees are disgruntled.
Middle child fatigue. Drawn in by the now infamous War For Talent argument (McKinsey & Co., 1998), organizations have concentrated their recruitment, development and retention efforts on executives and future executives. The remaining time is spent trying to manage the performance and exit of under-performers. Meanwhile, 85% of the workforce - solid contributors who are critical to success - have been left on the sidelines. Discretionary effort and emotional engagement are hard to muster when no one seems to be paying attention.
Engagement fatigue. It is possible we are all tired of being surveyed and then told that on top of everything else we are expected to do, we have to work on our attitude. There is no evidence proving organizations that measure and manage engagement in the same way they tackle equipment maintenance have more engaged employees. Workplaces visibly humming with engaged employees are probably not worried about measuring it.
How to improve engagement
Rather than focus on measuring engagement and spending countless days in post-survey focus groups and action planning committees, I have some ideas about how to instantly improve the engagement of employees:
Vision. Give people something to believe in and strive for that ignites their imagination and spirit. Say it like you really mean it.
Balance. Take the IT system off-line for 12 hours each day and/or encourage people to deal with pressing personal issues during work hours, whenever they may arise and no matter what is going on at the office.
Equity. Share the wealth. Consider skipping the executive team retention bonus and distribute it to the customer service reps or safety officers instead.
Respect. Treat everyone like they are important today and a critical part of the organization’s future.
Leadership. Ask teams to vote for the person they want as their leader and appoint them. Repeat annually.
These may seem like radical ideas at first blush. But, frankly, if you are really serious about having people show up at work excited, committed, giving it all they’ve got you are going to have to do something really different.
A version of this article was first written for my column on Troy Media and is posted at http://marketplace.troymedia.com/2015/01/29/5-sure-fire-ways-to-improve-employee-engagement/
CEO Pay Continues to Rise as Typical Workers Are Paid Less. Mishel & Davis, Economic Policy Institute, June 12, 2014.
The War for Talent. The McKinsey Quarterly, 1998 Number 3.