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How Can We Solve The Employee Disengagement Problem?

It's time to look at the causes, not the symptoms. Here's why 1890s business culture is a good place to start.

Recently, Mark Crowley reported on the results of the Gallup organization’s annual employee engagement survey. He painted a humorous, but compelling picture of the results, "… imagine a crew team out on the Potomac River where three people are rowing their hearts out, five are taking in the scenery, and two are trying to sink the boat."

Gallup interviewed 150,000 workers and found that only 30% would describe themselves as being engaged at work, while 52% say they’re disengaged, and the final 18% call themselves actively disengaged. When there was little data connecting employee engagement with business performance, these results might have been interesting only to HR. However, numerous studies have shown now that higher levels of engagement correlate with stronger business performance through greater productivity, lower turnover, and better work quality. If business today is the tough competitive race we keep saying it is, the lack of commitment of our "crew" doesn’t bode well for our success, and it’s probably not something we should ignore.

So what can we do about it?

Crowley went to Jim Harder looking for answers. Harder’s been administering the Gallup survey since 1997. Harder’s observation is that to improve employee engagement organizations need managers with the interpersonal skills to care about and connect with employees. They have to mainly deliver "the basics"; helping employees to find the right job, setting clear performance expectations for them, making sure they have what they need to do their jobs, and being generous with praise and recognition. His recommendations make sense, given what we know about the influence managers have on their workers and the actions that build worker commitment. In fact, many engagement experts, with minor differences, would say the same thing. It’s also advice in keeping with much management guidance that suggests, as Harder himself says, "doing what’s right for people proves to be right for the organization."

However, while Harder’s recommendations make sense as far as they go, they don’t really go very far.

As in most discussions of engagement, they don’t consider what forces may be creating our high level of disengagement in the first place. Aren’t people curious about how you manage to create tens of millions of disaffected employees? That’s not a trivial accomplishment. The closest Harder comes is: "Most people come to work well intentioned and only turn sour when their basic needs aren’t being met." Unless there’s a conspiracy of leaders and managers across every business to not meet the basic needs of their employees, we need a more systemic explanation than that if we’re going to understand our current scale of employee disengagement and address root causes rather than symptoms.

Where I would look for a plausible culprit, of the right scale, is our culture of business. While every company has its own particular culture, they ride atop a larger shared culture of business that we practice every day without recognizing how its norms impact our organizations. One of the hallmarks of that culture is our assumption that employees, when they come to work, will leave their personal baggage behind, just bringing along what they need to play their assigned roles. Without recognizing it as such, we operate at work on the assumption that who people are personally only matters to the extent it influences their job performance. We maintain a belief in a division between what is personal and what is business. The irony is that we ask people to be role players during their work day and not who they fully are as human beings, but then we’re perplexed and concerned when most of them feel disengaged from their organizations. Our belief system seems not to recognize that what we call engagement is a very personal state that depends on people’s willingness to bring who they are more fully into their workplace.

While we hold leaders accountable for whatever happens in their organizations, employee disengagement is probably not something we can lay at their feet. It’s a condition that long preceded every leader alive today. Furthermore, there’s no reason to assume that leaders and managers who themselves grew up in our organizations are any more engaged, or able to resist disengagement than the employees who commonly get our attention. If there’s employee disengagement, why not employer disengagement? If, as seems likely, there are systemic reasons for the widespread nature of disengagement, there’s no logical reason to believe that any levels or segments of an organization are somehow exempt from its effects. In a system that, by default, makes engagement more difficult by discouraging full human beings from showing up at work, both the front-line supervisor and the CEO face similar challenges.

It seems unfair to suggest a cultural explanation, without speculating on its origin. I would look back to the 1890s, to the changes wrought by Frederick Taylor, the father of scientific management. Taylor, looking at work processes with scientific rigor, devised methods of standardization that dramatically improved industrial productivity. His methods were widely adopted, to the extent that they probably contributed to the U.S. becoming a great industrial power during the 20th century. However, there was a dark side to Taylor’s methods in his unequivocal beliefs about how they had to be implemented.

He was emphatic that workers lacked the capacity to comprehend his methodology and therefore to control their own work. The mental work of planning and control was something only a manager had the ability for, while the worker was just responsible for executing the work plan as given to him. In the new Taylor-created status quo, workers no longer had the same autonomy or personal attachment to their work, but in return, they profited from the new methods, achieving levels of affluence that earlier generations of workers had never seen. Lost in most discussions of Taylor is recognition of how his methods institutionalized a new role and status differentiation between the management-thinkers and the worker-doers. The managers became the "adults," planning for and directing the more "child-like" workers, who lacked the capacity to manage their own work lives. The resulting culture of business promoted high productivity, but at the expense of workers who became little more than "cogs in the system."

Taylor’s philosophy made the manager responsible for all problem-solving. It sounds very much like our contemporary mindset, where for every organizational problem the answer is generally a new management task. With the best of intentions, solutions offered for employee disengagement depend on the manager "doing" for the employee. Without intending to, we may keep reinforcing a system that deprives employees of proper credit for their own capacity for self-management and independent problem-solving. Equally, we make unfair demands on managers who have been, more than likely, trained to play leadership roles, but were not developed to be leaders. The better model would be one in which the responsibility for making work feel vital, motivating, and personally important is a task equally shared by everyone no matter what their title.

When so much management advice seems to come down to "treat employees like adult human beings" you have to wonder. Why do people need to be told that? If they’re not doing that, what are they doing? The fact that managers even need that advice and advice-givers seem to think it’s necessary to give may provide us with some additional insight into the origins of disengagement.

The most substantial solution to employee disengagement (and many other organizational challenges) would be an organization completely populated with three-dimensional human beings and not avatars and role players. It might seem that such an organization would present a difficult management challenge. On the contrary, it would be self-managing and the Golden Rule would provide the necessary guidance 98% of the time.

Michael M. Chayes is managing principal of Sustained Leadership LLC, a firm focusing on executive leadership coaching and change management support. He is a formed partner at and president and CEO of Stromberg Consulting Group.

[Image: Flickr user Andrew Turner]

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