Is your biggest problem a failure to address problems? | Mike Cook

By Mike Cook
Contributing writer 

Think for a moment about your working environment. Do you think your organization addresses all serious problems in a timely manner? Rhetorical, right?

Webster offers this as one definition of the word “problem”: An unsettled matter demanding solution or decision and requiring usually considerable thought or skill for its proper solution or decision; an issue marked by usually considerable difficulty, uncertainty, or doubt with regard to its proper settlement; a perplexing or puzzling question.

By this definition doing business itself would be included among those things in life we consider problems. What to produce, how to price it, how to market what we produce, how to get it to market, etc., are all problems commonly accepted, studied and addressed in most businesses.

Notice in the definition offered above there is nothing said about problems being something we should not have. In fact, we seek out problems to be solved in order to create businesses. But these are most often problems we expect to have or ones we understand in business or that go with the territory being covered.

You would not expect to hear business leaders complain about the necessity of finding methods to sell products. We’ll call this problem-type “ours” or “challenges,” because they arise logically, at least to us, due to actions we take or circumstances we choose to be involved with.

Change of direction now—there are also problems that present themselves where we do not logically look, like something resulting from our actions (at least according to us). We’ll call this type “not mys,” as in not my problem.

One issue that has always been around in the category of “not mys,” but has only in recent years been defined as a problem, is employee engagement.

As a problem, it has begun to get a lot of attention, though not enough to make any difference. Recent statistics from credible sources tell us that employers are spending $720 million annually on employee engagement, and that represents only 50 percent of the companies who say they have an interest in addressing the issue.

And as we all know that even with this level of investment, according to other recent reports: “Almost two-thirds (63 percent) of U.S. workers are not fully engaged in their work and are struggling to cope with work situations that don’t provide sufficient support.”

Maybe when it comes to engagement, we are working on the wrong things.

How about this? Here’s a list of problems I see that I think managers put in the “not mys” category, which often do not get addressed and have a direct bearing on levels of employee engagement. These are problems for employees that they see as “not mys.” They believe them to be management’s responsibility.

For employees, they are incidents of cognitive dissonance and their persistence has a downgrading effect on employee engagement and actually works to counteract other attempts to elevate engagement.

1. Executive compensation way out of line with what employees in general are earning and attuned strictly to shareholder interests.

2. Incentive programs that favor the few (certain levels of management) over the many.

3. Ten-plus years of asking employees to do more with less.

4. Employees everywhere are working more hours for no more compensation, taking less time off and experiencing higher levels of stress.

5. Failure to address performance issues in a timely manner, allowing subpar performers to continue working because qualified candidates are hard to find.

6. When the going gets tough laying off employees, especially front-line rather than, or along with, cutting management compensation.

7. Technology is escalating the pace of change and altering the nature and structure of work itself, but the work environment and experience aren’t keeping pace.

8. Companies continue to shift costs and risk to employees, especially in developed countries with high labor-cost structures.

9. Employees, even at entry levels, are showing more interest in security and express doubts about their future in terms of retirement preparedness, career growth, and the rewards available to them for their efforts on behalf of their employers.

10. Management’s myopic focus on cost management, complaining about lack of innovation but unwilling to invest in the unproven.

Trust me, these are all problems as meaningful as anything else management has its attention on, and they are almost all on the back burner, if even acknowledged. They are all a drag on engagement, because despite the rhetoric, employees are continually reminded that they are disposable.

Is there any hope? There is always hope, but hope usually proves to be the least effective means of dealing with problems. But at least it is free.

Mike Cook is a management developer who lives in Anacortes, Wash. His columns appear on every other Tuesday. He also publishes a weekly blog at

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