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The One Surefire Way To Better Engage Your Employees

There’s a better way to boost engagement than trying to convince unhappy employees that their jobs don’t suck.

The One Surefire Way To Better Engage Your Employees
[Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty Images]

In a classic standup routine, comedian Chris Rock recounts how in 1989 he toiled away at a minimum-wage job as a dishwasher at the Red Lobster on Queens Boulevard in New York City, scraping shrimp off plates—an experience he uses to parse the differences between a job and a career.

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Rock advises those with careers to shut up around those with jobs. “Don’t let your happiness make someone sad,” he instructs, because “when you got a career, there ain’t enough time in the day. When you got a career, you look at your watch, time just flies. Like, ‘Goddamn, whoa! It’s 5:35. Damn, I gotta come in early tomorrow and work on my project.’ Cause there ain’t enough time when you got a career. When you got a job, there’s too much time.”

The Engagement Gap

Anyone who’s held a stultifying job can attest to how slowly time passes in it. Workdays can feel like a slow, agonizing death–the near-exact opposite to the way those with careers view their days. This dichotomy isn’t even an industry-specific thing; it can exist within companies. A manager may be on a career track; her employees may not be.

That can yield a yawning enthusiasm gap, but how do you bridge it? Well, let’s ask the Interwebs.

Search for “how to make employees more engaged,” and you’ll encounter an avalanche of blog posts and articles with headlines like these:

There’s no shortage of studies purporting to show that a majority of employees–up to 70% by some accounts and particularly those at the bottom rungs of the ladder–are either miserable or completely uninterested in their jobs. To address this, dozens of writers sprinkle bromides into their posts like:

  • “Make [employees’] first days and birthdays special.”
  • “Detect the most positive capabilities in people.”
  • “Let go of any negative opinions you may have about your employees.”
  • “Get everyone engaged.”
  • “Provide a strong vision.”
  • “Have a best friend at work.”

As the author of a book on gamification, I could also toss atop the digital pile my own numbered list, like: 5, 6, 9, 10, 12, whatever, “Ways Gamification Can Engage Your Workforce!” Indeed, I can assure you that under the right circumstances, gamifying work tasks can help make employees more engaged and thus lead to better outcomes.

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But before you gamify anything, you should know one thing: You can’t gamify your way out of a crappy job.

The Cold, Hard Truth About Crappy Jobs

After all, not everything in life is fun, nor should it be. Some jobs will always be soul-sucking, mind-numbing pursuits. A crappy job is a crappy job, and no amount of gussying up–whatever paltry method you choose–can alter that.

Somebody has to staff the customer service hotlines and load up the social media feeds and weather a storm of invective while attempting to mollify irate customers. Somebody has to crunch numbers and input data into corporate spreadsheets. Somebody has to work department-store checkout lines, scanning item after item after item after godforsaken item.

Somebody has to work in IT or technical support, asking computer phobes for the 70th time that day, “Have you tried rebooting?”

Somebody has got to clean the bathrooms, and somebody has to scrape the shrimp off the plates at the Red Lobster on Queens Boulevard.

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Instead of trying to trick unhappy employees into thinking their jobs aren’t as bad as they are, you need to get to the root of their lack of motivation. More often than not, that springs from their belief that management views them as interchangeable cogs in the corporate machinery–that they aren’t special and they aren’t prized by their employers, that they don’t bring anything unique to the table, and therefore have no future worth investing in.

If you felt this way, would you give your best effort? Or would you tune out and do the bare minimum, or worse, actually sabotage the people who were treating you with such contempt?

Hope Starts At The Bottom

I have one surefire way managers can motivate, engage, light a fire under—whatever you want to call it—those employees at the very bottom rungs of their companies: Give them hope that their dead-end jobs aren’t dead ends.

Since you probably can’t offer lower-rung workers a stake in your business (equity in a startup; corporate bonuses tied to performance), give them a stake in their outcomes. Transform these crappy jobs into potential careers, a way for workers to pay their dues while offering a path up the corporate ladder.

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Educate, train, and promise employees in the most fundamentally unengaging jobs that there’s a strong chance that, if they do well, they’ll have a better, more rewarding future at the company. That way, that slow-ticking clock Chris Rock refers to doesn’t start over with each eight-hour workday. It becomes a clock whose time stretches over days, weeks, and months until employees can transition into new and better jobs with new and bigger responsibilities.

There is no free lunch. This is no giveaway. It isn’t charity. Each worker earns the privilege of escape, and to do that they have to perform at a high level, no matter their role.

Of course, that shifts some of the onus of being engaged in a job that’s completely unengaging back onto employees themselves. In order to make it work, that guy toiling away in the back of the restaurant kitchen needs to know what he needs to do right now in order to find himself in a better role before long–and the responsibility for that still rests squarely with companies.

That way, every scraped shrimp becomes an opportunity for advancement, a legitimate chance for training and education, and not just another smelly encounter with a deceased decapod crustacean, leading nowhere but the trash bin.

Adam Penenberg is the author of Play at Work: How Games Inspire Breakthrough Thinking. Follow him on Twitter at @Penenberg.

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