Actively Disengaged?

Over half of employees in America are disengaged from their jobs – 85%, according to a recent Gallup poll. About 15% are actively disengaged – so miserable that they seek to undermine the productivity of everyone else. Gallup, ADP and Towers Watson have been reporting similar numbers for two decades now. It’s an astounding claim that signals a crisis in management and the employee experience. Astounding. And it simply cannot be true.

Think about it. When you shop, eat out, sit in a classroom, meet with an accountant, hire an electrician, negotiate contracts, and talk to tech support, do you get a sense that they truly hate their jobs? They might begrudge their boss. They might be peeved about their pay. But those problems clearly haven’t lead to enough employment angst and career choice regret that they are truly disengaged. If they were, they couldn’t hide it. Most workers I encounter at all levels reveal some level of pride in their performance.

According to Bersin and Associates, we spend about a billion dollars per year to cure employee disengagement. And apparently to little effect given the persistence of disengagement reported in these surveys. The disengagement numbers don’t reconcile with our experience in the world. We’ve all seen organizational dysfunction and toxic cultures, but they are easy to recognize; i.e., they stand out from the norm. From a Bayesian logic perspective, we have rich priors about employee sentiments and attitudes, because we see them everywhere every day.

How do research firms reach such wrong conclusions about the state of engagement? That’s not entirely clear, but it probably goes beyond the fact that most of those firms offer consulting services to cure the disengagement problem. Survey researchers have long known that small variations in question wording and order profoundly affect responses (e.g. Hadley Cantril, 1944). In engagement surveys, context and priming likely play a large part.

I’m not saying that companies do a good job of promoting the right people into management; and I’m not denying that Dilbert is alive and well. I’m saying that the evidence suggests that despite these issues, most employees seek mastery of vocation; and they somehow find some degree of purpose in their work.

Successful firms realize that people will achieve mastery on their own if you get out of their way. They’re organized for learning and sensible risk-taking, not for process compliance. They’ve also found ways to align employees’ goals with corporate mission, fostering employees’ sense of purpose in their work.

Mastery seems to emerge naturally, perhaps from intrinsic motivation, when people have a role in setting their goals. In contrast, purpose, most researchers find, requires some level of top-down communications and careful trust building. Management must walk the talk to bring a mission to life.

Long ago I worked on a top secret aircraft project. After waiting a year or so on an SBI clearance, I was surprised to find that despite the standard need-to-know conditions being stipulated, the agency provided a large amount of information about the operational profile and mission of the vehicle that didn’t seem relevant to my work. Sensing that I was baffled by this, the agency’s rep explained that they had found that people were better at keeping secrets when they knew they were trusted and knew that they were a serious part of a serious mission. Never before or since have I felt such a sense of professional purpose.

Being able to see what part you play in the big picture provides purpose. A small investment in the top-down communication of a sincere message regarding purpose and risk-taking can prevent a large investment in rehiring, retraining and searching for the sources of lost productivity.

  1. #1 by False Progress on January 29, 2020 - 12:11 am

    Are you sure a lot of those apparently-engaged people aren’t putting on a “game face” that they remove once the day’s over?

    Many seem to excel at boosting their mood to get through a slog. You have to catch them at quieter times for a true sense of attitude.

  2. #2 by Bill Storage on January 31, 2020 - 9:40 am

    To reconcile with experience, almost all apparently engaged workers would need to wear a game face almost all of the time. I am reasonably sure that not everyone eternally wears a mask at work.. People aren’t that skilled at game face display. It might work at the burger window, but it doesn’t work for daily nontrivial interactions in an office.

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