Why aren't more employees engaged at work?

By Mike Cook
For The Bellingham Business Journal

Cause and effect are tricky questions. When it comes to people and their behavior of one thing I am fairly certain, relying on strong feelings, emotions, for anything, is like laying a foundation in quick sand.

The divorce rate in our country may be more indicative of this belief than any piece of research I could site. Everyone gets married when they “feel” like they are in love. The eventual strength of a marriage comes from the way we behave when we no longer “feel” like we are in love.

Can we operate from the commitments we have made and have that be sufficient to sustain engagement? Can we “choose” what we agreed to? Here is an example from my own life of what I am pointing to here:

I don’t do yard work. It’s not that I am lazy, if the task is going to the grocery store, picking up the dry cleaning, taking out the trash, taking a truckload to the recycling center, just let me know it needs to be done and I am on it.

Loading the dishwasher and scrubbing pans after dinner are actually two things I find relaxing. I just don’t do yard work; not mowing the lawn yard work, that’s fun. No, I mean yard work, like planting flowers, spreading compost, pruning and worst of all, weeding!

But I do love my wife and she really enjoys having an attractive yard and works hard at it. As an expression of how much I respect her commitment to the yard we have created a game. She’ll want something done in the yard and I ask if what she wants is “yard work. She of course then says “no” and I say, “Well all right then, I’ll do it.” This works for us and especially because it gives us time together. Except for weeding! We have an unwritten rule that under no circumstances will I engage in weeding.

A week or so ago my wife set out to do some weeding in the rhododendron garden and her back cramped up. I knew she was counting on getting this bit of weeding done, so from that place where I am profoundly related to my wife I said, “You know I do not do weeding but I am going to make an exception this week because of your short term disability.”

I got down on my hands and knees and for two hours pulled weeds and did a presentable job. Did I have a strong feeling of connection to the task after all? Hardly! In fact, I have no more interest now or connection to weeding than I ever did. Yet, because of the commitments my wife and I share this was a satisfying experience. It just didn’t feel like it!

So what does all this have to do with being engaged at work?

Ever since the Gallup organization came up with their famous Q12 many professionals in the consulting world have become obsessed with further identifying and refining the “drivers” of engagement and practices focused on improving overall levels of engagement have become the rage in businesses across the country.

The Q12, as you may already know, asks 12 questions that purportedly measure strong feelings of employee engagement. There is reportedly a strong correlation between high scores on the Q12 and superior job performance, as well as better overall business metrics in general.

Based on their initial work in the area of employee engagement Gallup, using an extraordinary amount of data, determined that nationally, in 2005, engaged employees made up 28 percent of the work force globally, not-engaged employees made up 54 percent, and actively disengaged made up 17 percent.

I believe the Gallup organization through their research, and others like them, has done the world of business a tremendous favor by uncovering this provocative information.

What I am not as certain of is whether the conclusions they arrived at are equally valuable or valid.

My own suspicion is that what Gallup has determined is that only 28 percent of the players in our national workforce have found work and workplaces that are both truly satisfying for them. I suspect this may be as much a function of commitment as it is a response to external factors. This fraction of the workforce just keeps moving or communicating until it finds what is being sought, possibly following some vision in the manner expressed by George Bernard Shaw:

“Reasonable men adapt to the world. Unreasonable men adapt the world to themselves. That’s why all progress depends on unreasonable men.”

It just may be that the majority (54 percent) of our workforce is waiting to fall in love with their job before they give it their all. In a marriage that makes for a 50 percent failure rate.

Engagement, like a good marriage, is a matter of choice. Choose what you’ve got and throw yourself into it.

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on BBJToday.com every other Tuesday. He teaches in the MBA program at Western Washington University and also runs a CEO peer advisory group in the Bellingham area.

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