What we have here is a failure to communicate | Mike Cook

By Mike Cook
Contributing Writer 

Earlier this week, I was going over some verbatim comments from an employee engagement survey conducted by one of my clients—actually, I was looking at just one department. What I took particular notice of was the passion that came through, especially in the comments that were critical of my client’s company.

The history of “employee engagement” studies or surveys conducted on any large scale over the past 15 years have for the most part stated repeatedly that on the whole, our workforces are stuck in a pattern that looks something like:

-24-29 precent fully engaged with their work
-61-54 percent not engaged with their work
-15-17 percent actively disengaged with their work

And all the major studies I have reviewed in the past 15 years have reflected the same pattern.

Following my review of the comments from my client’s recent survey, I submit that 100 percent of the workforce, any workforce, is highly engaged. The question we have so far failed to ask is: What are they engaged with?

The definitions of engagement in common use have from the very beginning of our fascination been skewed toward the interest of the enterprise. This is not surprising, since the thesis originally put forth asserted that companies with higher levels of employee engagement were by and large more profitable, successful, sustainable, robust or whatever.

Definitions of what was meant by employee engagement usually reflected some version of the following:

“Employee engagement is a measurable degree of an employee’s positive or negative emotional attachment to their job, colleagues and organization which profoundly influences their willingness to learn and perform at work.”

Sometimes the definition might be stated in terms of a measure of an employee’s willingness to expend discretionary effort. But again, the definition is skewed toward the interest of the enterprise, which is to say that only engagement with the work qualifies as engagement.

I beg to differ.

What if we step back from this very binary perspective—engaged with our work is good, not engaged with our work is bad—and asked a different set of questions, something like these:

-Is our workforce able to deal with our working environment and arrive at a place of full engagement with our work?

-Is our workforce sufficiently literate, in terms of engaging, to advocate for their personal needs to sustain an engaged condition with what we want for any period of time?

-If our workforce is not engaged with our work, what are they engaged with? (Assuming that people are always 100 percent engaged.)

I am asking questions like these to get us looking in a different place than we might otherwise focus when it comes to attempts to improve levels of employee engagement.

To me, it makes sense to be committed to moving the workforce in the direction of higher levels of engagement with the work of the organization. Hypothetically, if engagement improves the welfare of everyone involved will improve.

What doesn’t make sense is to see non-engagement with the work of the organization as bad or wrong, when in fact it could be seen as an opportunity for
added organizational performance.

However, in order to take on the perspective I am proposing, it becomes necessary to abandon the historical power game that is played in most working environments. That power game is based on the belief that opportunity rests in the hands of the employer and is granted to the employee, or not.

In my proposition, there is opportunity on both sides of a relationship that is entirely interdependent—neither party thrives or survives without the other. This relationship is based on mutuality of need, as well as opportunity. The challenge is to establish conditions where all parties see that their needs can and will be met by having their partners be successful.

Now, you may think this sounds esoteric. I would understand if you did. However, going back to where I began reading those verbatim comments from employees, it was clear to me that in many cases the employees saw themselves as victims or helpless. I am betting a manager in the department involved might be reading those comments and asking why their employees were such whiners.

So, there is the impasse in bright lights.

“I am helpless, you are a villain.” Or “You are a whiner, why should I want to do anything for you?”

I don’t think I am that far off.

Can you say for certain that you know what it would take to have each of your reports fully engaged, including having them understand what they want and where they feel they are are not getting their needs met?

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

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