Why it’s so hard to improve work engagement

Why it’s so hard to improve work engagement

Work engagement numbers haven’t changed much since 2011. Gallup’s State of the American workplace update has the percentage of disengaged workers in 2015 as 68% down from 71% in 2011. Not stellar progress given the focus Gallup and others have given the problem. More importantly though, I think the idea that 68% of the American workforce is disengaged is hogwash.  These people are most certainly engaged at work, just not with work.

These supposedly disengaged workers are fully engaged updating FB profiles, updating newsfeeds, checking Twitter trends, spreading Vines, looking at YouTube videos etc.; and thanks to the wily innovations of smart phone manufacturers and social media giants to capture and hold eyeballs, they’re doing it right under their bosses’ noses; even in meetings. Oh, and let’s not forget that good old-fashioned office gossip and politics are still alive and well.

Alas my cheeky twist doesn’t overturn Gallup’s point that millions of people are checked out—for a large part of their working day—from the work they’re paid to do.

So why is that?

Are companies doing something wrong?

Gallup thinks it largely due to bad managers.

If it was as simple as bad managers we should be able to make significant engagement improvements with better manager selection and training; yet despite tremendous spending on training and development, Gallup’s latest numbers demonstrate we aren’t.

Jacob Shriar of Office Vibe thinks the needle hasn’t much moved because most companies approach employee engagement as a one-off; something to check off as done, versus the culture change initiative that it is. If he’s right, and I think he is, then the more interesting question becomes this:

Why doesn’t the default culture at most companies promote work engagement?

That’s because there are more fundamental and structural issues to account for why millions of people find work boring, or even hate their jobs.

The first is

Boring work

Industrial revolution factory type work which still dominates most of the work people do today is boring. Breaking work up into small micro-tasks was a brilliant idea—thank you Mr. Smith—and together with machines, it allowed companies to exponentially increase standardized output and profits. As great ideas go, Division of Labor (DOL) ranks right up there with motor cars and the horse-drawn carriages before them; but just as those great ideas came with heat-trapping noxious gases and manure-strewn city streets respectively, DOL came with something even more unpleasant than wading through horse shit on the way to the office—soul-killing, meaningless, boring work.

DOL took meaning out of work, because it took thinking and creativity away from the masses on the shop floor and concentrated it higher and higher up the management chain. The effect on not just low-level workers, but on attitudes to work itself has been profound and we’re only now starting to measure it with work engagement studies that show what disengaged workers cost —upwards of $350 billion usd annually

It’s not simply a matter of poorly trained and poorly educated people with bad attitudes making things difficult for the rest of us good worker bees. It has to do with the nature of the work we’ re asking millions of people to do every day and the reasons we’re asking them to do it.

Think of it. People who have end-to-end responsibility for outcomes don’t typically have work engagement problems. The butcher, baker and farmer of old never had work engagement problems. Similarly mid-level managers and company executives who have end-to-end responsibility, with the necessary resources and autonomy to get it done, don’t typically have work engagement issues— stress yes—but they are giving their all to get their job done. It’s the people doing task focussed jobs who get bored and look for diversion.

Is that really surprising?

Newsflash: Human beings get bored and check out from boring work— mentally and physically— every chance they get. You would too.

Most managers and business owners lament how hard it is to get good workers but the fact is we are asking them to do work we wouldn’t want to do ourselves.

Work structures designed for profit not people

Then there’s another interesting thing about human beings: we like to feel that we matter to other human beings; especially the ones we spend +8 hours with every day. And the interesting thing is that corporations—ironically considered persons in the eyes of the law— are designed to maximise profit not the happiness and fulfillment of its workers.

Our education system, training, conversations, policies, rewards etc., are all designed to produce money for the person and profit for the companies.

It’s a relatively recent phenomenon that people associate their career choice with their future happiness. The pursuit of happiness didn’t automatically mean while on the job, and many people still view work as something you have to do so you can enjoy the rest of your life.

Also, companies have historically behaved so badly that brave men had to fight against employers who felt it was Ok to have people—children even—work sixteen hour days six days a week for barely enough to live.

Workers had to fight, and fight hard, for almost every comfort they now enjoy and the legacy of those battles are imprinted on the collective labour psyche. It’s no surprise then, that workers are not engaged at work. For many it’s a form of payback.

As a consequence, employer led efforts to improve work engagement may be seen as just another tactic to get more output per man or woman hour.

Workers fundamentally distrust management

Workers are still affected by the historical narrative of work as being fundamentally exploitive, and they distrust every effort by management, the system, or big brother to make things better for them. Surveys concluding that most workers are not engaged or not fully engaged seem a polite way of saying that management thinks they’re not getting their money’s worth from the people they hired.

It sounds like another management effort to get all they can out of them; to get their money’s worth, not because anyone really cares; and since the average worker experiences hypocritical managers every day, they’re not swayed by efforts they fundamentally see as designed to get more out of them.

Fundamental attitudes to work must change

For work engagement to dramatically improve, for people to be as passionate about what’s going on at work as they are about their Facebook feeds, society’s fundamental conversations about the nature of work needs to change. We must change our beliefs about work as the opposite of play, something we have to do to live, only about money and status, and only benefitting those at the top.

Our education system and our day-to-day conversations must reflect our value of meaning, fulfillment and happiness above money, and connect work as the way to pursue those values.

Photo by diametrik

Any thoughts? Contributions/acknowledgments welcome.