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Crack the employee engagement code and unveil the roots of workplace apathy

Rebecca SchalmQuick, on a scale of one to five, how excited are you by your job, your boss, and the organization you work for? If the pollsters are right, chances are you answered a three or less. According to a swath of surveys, employee engagement is at an all-time low.

The culprits 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 workplaces. And yet our malaise is increasing. What is going on, and how do we fix it?

There are some very compelling reasons to explain why we are disengaged at work:

Recession fatigue: The fragility and inconsistency of any 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 pretty hard to get excited about pinching pennies over many years in a row. The human spirit needs a more meaningful purpose.

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Technology fatigue: Whatever lines used to exist between work and life have been erased by the phone-sized computer we all carry – and are expected to carry – in our back pockets. Other than the few hours spent in bed, comatose, chances are we are constantly multi-tasking job and life responsibilities. Although humans invented computers (and I have some vague notion they were meant to enhance our existence), we are not computers and we do not function well when we are all-systems-go, 24/7. Human physiology needs a different, more complex 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 that the world, including the workplace, was fair and just. 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. It is not our imagination. Average CEO pay has risen 22 percent since 2010, while average wages have declined or barely kept pace with inflation (Mishel & Davis, Economic Policy Institute, June 12, 2014). We show up at work because we have to make a living, but you’ll have to forgive us if we aren’t all that happy about it.

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 (A Players). The remaining time is spent managing the performance and exit of under-performers (C Players). The B Players – those of us who make up 85 percent of the workforce – have been left on the sidelines. Discretionary effort and emotional engagement are hard to muster when no one is paying attention.

Engagement fatigue: It is possible we are all tired of being surveyed, surveyed and then surveyed again, only to be told that we have to work on our attitude on top of everything we are expected to do. There is absolutely no evidence correlating employee satisfaction surveys with employee satisfaction. It is probably more likely that workplaces humming with engaged employees would never even think of measuring it.

So rather than focus on measuring engagement and fretting over the results and implications it has on customers, bottom-line results and shareholder value, here are five practical sure-fire ways to instantly improve the engagement of employees:

  • Give people something to believe in and strive for that ignites their imagination and spirit. Say it like you really mean it.
  • 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 arise and no matter what is happening at the office.
  • Share the wealth. Maybe one year, skip giving the executive team a retention bonus and give it to the customer service reps or safety officers instead.
  • Treat everyone like they are important today and a critical part of the organization’s future.
  • Have teams vote for the person they want as their leader and appoint them. Repeat annually.

If you are really serious about having people show up at work excited, committed, and giving it all they’ve got, you are going to have to do something … well … really different.

Rebecca Schalm, PhD, is founder and CEO of Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., a consultancy that provides organizations with advice and talent management solutions.

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