Recently I read a piece in the e-version of a major business publication which, by title and implication suggested that seventy percent of Americans hate their work. The piece used as its factual anchor the oft-quoted “State of the American Workplace Report” by Gallup, which suggests that only about 30% of American workers are truly “engaged” in their jobs, leaving 70% or so in one level or another of disengagement.
Without doing too much ballet on the head of a pin, let’s make a distinction, an important one. My strong belief, after a couple decades of effort in this arena, is that by and large, people don’t hate their work at all. In fact, most of us rather like our work. Some of us even love it. What we dislike, and what we have difficulty ‘engaging’ with is our jobs, that broader context within which our work resides, and does or does not get done. The “job” encompasses a lot more than the task(s) that we get paid to do. It includes the terms of the deal, the people we interact with and answer to, the support that we get (or lack), the culture that permeates and defines the workspace, et. al.
Indeed, satisfaction and engagement surveys, which our firm has done for longer than I care to admit, suggest that quite often the greatest source of disengagement stems from people and processes that keep us from doing our very best work. In other words, that utterly stupid purchasing policy, or clueless manager who frustrate, rather than enable our best effort are among the primary culprits causing us to disengage. If we didn’t like our work, or want to go home at the end of each day feeling that we made progress, that stuff wouldn’t bother us. But we do, and people and things that block our work progress do more than cause disengagement – they make us crazy! Following are three things that most leaders can do (or refrain from doing) to improve employee engagement levels:
1. Become More Intentional and Selective in Hiring: By most measures, the burner underneath hiring in this country has been turned from “Off” to “Low”, and recently to “Medium” heat. In parts of the energy and tech landscape, it remains on “High.” Ergo, it’s more important than ever that, beginning right now, we use methods and processes that yield more talented, more compatible people. Put plainly but crudely, our staffers (particularly the better ones) don’t want to work with turkeys. Few things are more disengaging than working alongside people who can’t do the work, choose not to, or just plain don’t fit in.
So, as we go about the process of adding staff, it is imperative that we find people who have a penchant for doing terrific work, and whom others want to work with. If they don’t fit the culture, do NOT hire them, regardless of how talented they may be. And, it is also important that we move more quickly to identify and de-select those folks, including managers, who fail to measure up. Doing otherwise is unkind and a disservice to all involved.
2. Get Serious About Learning and Development: Every dentist office is equipped with a sign that says something to the effect of: “Do I have to brush and floss my teeth? Only the ones you want to keep.” The same thing could be said for training and developing our workforce. Engagement surveys consistently tell us that one of THE most important engagement drivers is the opportunity to learn, grow, and yes, build your resume. Yet, owing perhaps to a formerly soft job market, the response from most quarters has been a big, collective yawn.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the realm of so called “soft skills” training, especially leadership development, which for too long now has been a DIY proposition. And it shows. We are now seeing people move into every level of management, including the C-suite, without the benefit of even a shred of training. Consistent with the recent shared ownership of the healthcare equation in the U.S., we would do well to engage our staff members in earnest discussion about their professional development, and work with them toward a more jointly owned development process that is uniquely tailored to them. Beyond getting a more engaged workforce, we’ll also benefit from much better execution.
3. Don’t Fool* With the Gravy: Legend has it that not long after he sold the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain to Heublein Inc., Col. Harland Sanders began taking issue with some of the changes imposed by the firm’s new owners. Upon reaching a point of exasperation, the Colonel invited himself to a Heublein management meeting. When asked the purpose of his visit, he allowed that, for the $285 million purchase price, the new owners probably had the right to exercise bad judgment in changing store layouts and the menu, but, he nonetheless had five words of advice for them… “Don’t fool* with the gravy.” (*Legend also has it that the Colonel’s choice of verbiage was, like his chicken, a little spicier than mine.)
The lesson for us is that, as we continue to innovate, streamline, and economize, we must be mindful not to callously ignore the hard earned knowledge and opinions of those who are, and have been doing the work and who might, just might be able to prevent us from making big, expensive mistakes. Doing a better job on the listening front isn’t just a tool for avoiding mistakes though. Anyone with as few as five gray hairs in their head can affirm that one of the quickest ways to disenfranchise a workforce is to ignore (disrespect) them.
Better listening is a product of hard work as well as technique. A tip given to me not long ago is to try to “read” the words as they come off of someone’s lips. It’s akin perhaps to the advantage that great baseball hitters get by seeing the ball come out of the pitcher’s hand and then tracking it all the way to the plate. Try it, I think you’ll like it.