Choose to engage with your work, no matter the job

By Mike Cook
For The Bellingham Business Journal

Love what you do, do what you love, blah, blah, blah. We all know there is an issue with employee engagement here in the United States, and my guess is we’d find the same factual information around the world if we looked.

The truth is, engagement is not in the work itself; it is in the eye of the beholder.

I can think back in my life to the many instances of working in situations where I was there purely for the money. Golf caddy, delivering free samples door to door, night janitor in an elementary school, fast food preparation and customer service.

None of these were especially on my career path while I was performing them. All of them were legitimate work, providing services that were in demand and satisfied someone’s need.

For a long time now, I have watched the literature on employee engagement encourage mainly employers to take on any number of initiatives in an attempt to improve the level of employee engagement, mostly without great return on the investment being made.

But it looks good for the employer to be giving it a shot. And to be honest sometimes the real goal of an employer, especially the larger public companies, is simply that — to look good.

In my view, and this is purely based on my own experience, the single best way to improve engagement is for the employee to make it his or her responsibility to be engaged, to the degree that being engaged is important to any one individual.

If I am asked, as I am from time to time by my MBA students, for a definition of employee engagement I offer them this. Engagement is a function of choice. When an individual recognizes that no matter what they are doing they are making a choice on how to spend the one non-renewable resource that is truly theirs to spend, the time of their life, they become author of their own engagement, their own satisfaction, their own sense of accomplishment.

That is why I say, whatever you are doing, throw yourself into it, or not. It is your choice and the return on investment will be not simply measured in dollars but also, and maybe more so, in the sense of accomplishment.

Most of us have a very limited sense of what it means to accomplish something. We measure the results achieved and leave it at that. From what I have learned over the years, accomplishment consists of three elements: results, learning and what future is being created.

When I was working as night janitor while studying full time at college I was not simply earning money, though I did that too. I was also learning what it was like to be responsible for keeping myself engaged in what was essentially a repetitive function night after night. It never became anything more than sweeping the rooms, emptying the trash and cleaning the bathroom. It didn’t take long to figure out that there was nobody to talk to, no change in the physical surroundings and not a whole lot of challenge. So the results part was simple.

What about learning? If you simply considered the job, not much going on there either. Pretty low tech, and mostly figuring out what was the best route to take to complete the job in the most efficient way possible.

However, I learned that if I completed the work quickly there was time left over at the end of every evening, time that then could be used to devote to my studies. So, in addition to my earnings, a surprise benefit appeared in terms of available time. As a full-time student, it was difficult to determine what the actual worth of that time was, but I can tell you in retrospect it was considerable.

Lastly, the future. What future was being created? That future had nothing to do with the work itself. While providing a service to the school system, I was positioning myself for something else entirely, something that took time to get ready for. That job, those hours spent mopping, etc. gave me both the time and enough money to realize a future of my own creation. In the end I had given myself new choice, so there was never an option to become a victim.

Whether I realized it or not, the future is always there for the creating. So rather than wait to be engaged or have your employer have you love your job, throw yourself into what you are doing and see what you can create for yourself.

Mike Cook ‘s columns appear on every other Tuesday. He facilitates a CEO peer advisory group in the Whatcom/Skagit area. He can be reached at He recently published ‘Thriving in the Middle: Why Managers Need to Be Coaching Each Other.”


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