By John Baldoni
You can sense the problem almost the moment you walk in the door. The receptionist, if there is one, nods and points rather than saying anything. People you pass in the hallway avoid eye contact. Even people you are scheduled to meet seem distracted. They show up late for meetings, avoid small talk and get straight to the point, or think they do.
The issue may be poor communication, disaffected culture or declining performance; the root cause, however, is obvious, at least to an outsider: lack of engagement. The energy level in the organization rivals that in a 1950s horror movie about zombies, creatures who had the life spirit sucked from them and were doomed to walk the Earth like automatons—unthinking, uncaring, unfeeling. On second thought, maybe the celluloid zombies had it better; they felt no pain. Today’s workplace zombies do think and care, and are in pain. Why? Because they are working in an environment that has sucked away any initiative or spirit for work they might have. In consultant terms, we call this the disengaged workplace.
Engagement a Common Concern
Engagement is a top-of-mind topic in management today. Engagement implies connection between worker and work. In the simplest terms it means that people feel a part of what’s going on; they know their roles and pursue them with purpose. More especially, engagement has come to refer to a “switched on” workforce where people cannot wait to come to work because they feel a part of something bigger than themselves. To borrow a concept from Peter Drucker in reference to knowledge workers, engaged workers have the mindset of volunteers; that is, they love what they do because they know they are making a positive difference.
According to a recent study by Towers Perrin, a leading human resource consultancy, many workers feel estranged from their senior managers; they simply do not trust them. This is particularly galling to employees when they have stuck with a company in tough times. According to one Towers Perrin consultant, “[Workers] don’t feel they see enough in terms of pay raises, incentives or other rewards for their contributions—despite hearing lots of talk about ‘pay for performance.’ ”1 All too often, those at the very top get plenty of rewards for their performance while employees remain mired in the same pay grades. Such inequity does breed disengagement.
The responsibility for creating engagement is the responsibility of senior management, but in reality those managers are often so engaged in their own work that they really are unaware of what’s happening on floors below them, metaphorically speaking. They may wonder why workers seem disinterested, but that thought is fleeting. Therefore, creating engagement falls to the manager; it is her responsibility to connect the work to meaning. How managers do this distinguishes the good ones from those going through the motions.
Communicate the difference. So often people feel lost and bewildered at work because no one has taken the time to talk about the nature of the work. For example, it’s the manager’s job to talk to the IT team and point out that what it does is vital to the entire enterprise. It is not simply a matter of keeping a system running, but pointing how the system contributes to specific functions, enabling people to do their jobs better and more efficiently. And when people are in the know, they may take it one step further and want to make improvements so the entire system gets improved. Such will happen only if the manager takes time to talk the big picture.
Reinvent the job. One reason folks feel disenfranchised is that their job skills have atrophied. They are like weekend bodybuilders who exercise only their upper bodies and develop good pectoral muscles, but their legs look withered by comparison. So it is with an employee in purchasing or finance who does the same thing over and over again. The part of his brain that does cost comparisons is vital; the part of the brain that calls for creative thinking is shrunken. The challenge for the manager is to keep the employee’s mind in the game, and to do that, he should engineer job rotations and challenge people to upgrade their skills. In fact, in today’s economic climate, if you are not upgrading, you are falling behind; status quo is another word for stagnation. Allowing people to have a say in the destiny of their own job is liberating. It unleashes creativity that not only benefits the individual, but also inspires the team. And that can only be good for the entire organization; it may reap benefits in terms of streamlined processes as well as new and improved products and services.
Let them try their wings. “Young talent wants space to prove itself,” says Charles Handy, the philosopher-author of the modern workplace. “And giving command is a good way of testing [young talent] out. It makes life more exciting for them and creates more energy in the company.” Handy cautions that the picture of young folks at the helm may look “less efficient from the outside,” but arguably letting people grow and develop not only creates its own form of engagement, but it is also a way for the firm to decide whether the emerging leader is any kind of leader. And better to do that when the person is up and coming than stuck in the middle mucking up the works.2
Make it pay. As the Towers Perrin study pointed out, employees feel underappreciated. Therefore, it is up to senior managers to loosen the purse strings, especially if employees have persevered during the down times. When fortunes improve, so too should the fortunes of everyone in the company. This is not a pipe dream; companies large and small reward their employees for gutting it out. Sadly, such companies may be the exception rather than the rule. But certainly engagement levels would increase as pay improved. That said, more and more compensation alone is not the solution to engagement. People also desire recognition for a job well done and the satisfaction of contributing to a good cause. Those forms of “psychic pay” matter too, and lead to higher levels of engagement.
Proof that Engagement Matters
So does engagement really matter? Well, if management literature is any indicator, the need for engagement has never been higher, perhaps because the demands of the global economy keep all of us working at capacity in ways that demand full attention. Research data supports the need for engagement, too. Again according to Towers Perrin, engagement is a crucial differentiator in performance. For example, eight in 10 workers feel “they can positively impact the quality of their company’s products.” Nearly 75 percent sense “they can positively impact customer service.” And six in 10 plan to remain with their current employer. Clearly, engagement pays in terms of quality, service and retention—all critical differentiators of a successful enterprise.3
Bottom line: Engagement is not about numbers; it is about performance. More especially, it is about creating an environment where people want to come to work. For those who experience this kind of purposeful workplace, it seems normal—in fact, the only kind of place to work. For those who have never experienced an engaged workplace, work is drudgery. It is up to managers to assume the role of leaders and do what they can to make the positive difference.
John Baldoni is a leadership communications consultant who works with Fortune 500 companies as well as nonprofits including the University of Michigan. He is a frequent keynote and workshop speaker as well as the author of six books on leadership; the latest is How Great Leaders Get Great Results. He invites readers to visit his leadership resource website at www.johnbaldoni.com.
1. “Employee disengagement a global epidemic.” Management Issues News, 11/16/05 [citing Towers Perrin study 2005].
2. “The tomorrow man.” Carol Kennedy [interview with Charles Handy]. Director Magazine, June 2006 (U.K.).
3. “Employee disengagement a global epidemic.” Management Issues News, 11/16/05 [citing Towers Perrin study 2005].