Why Employee Engagement Must Have a Democratic Solution
As many of my readers know, I have declared war on disengagement. My new book The Workplace Engagement Solution hit the market last month and has generated many new conversations about the world’s biggest productivity problem. According to Gallup, the trance of disengagement impacts 87% of the world’s workers. Disengagement also hurts families and undermines our children’s future. It is a trance that undermines profit and customer loyalty. Disengagement is the number one driver behind growing underemployment, which is the real scourge of our economy. This is because disengagement is directly linked to our ability to change.
Last year, organizations spent millions on employee engagement initiatives with surveys, management training, executive coaching, dining rooms, gyms, retreats, and beach parties. But, only a small percentage of these organizations have succeeded. In those winning environments, everyone is engaged. It is quite that simple and yet unusual. We can also project, quite simply, that if everyone is to be engaged, then everyone gets the same kind of developmental support in building an engaged culture. This approach runs counter to an entire consulting industry where high potentials are only too happy to sign off on development dollars that support them but leave out everyone else. This is one of the reasons that the consulting industry treats disengagement as a chronic disease. We treat bits and pieces of disengagement, forever. Business leaders are told, “You have to become a better business leader. We will train you, make you more competitive, and help you become stronger.” Sounds good, but the mid-managers and the frontline workers get left behind. They are the people that touch the nation’s customers. But, we leave them out of it. The high potentials get sent to retreat centers, they come back excited and everyone else responds, “So what.”
Engagement only works as a democratic commitment, policy, and practice. In a democracy, everyone is responsible for the results. In a democracy, we don’t treat elite members of the population and leave everyone else with the same old outlook. In a democracy, we don’t have CEOs turning the culture and employee engagement over to other people. In a democracy, the CEO is just as responsible for personal engagement as the new college grad who just hired got hired in the marketing department.
It is futile to expect an awakening when we use the old hierarchical model of pushing leaders to become skilled at drawing engagement out of talent. Impolitely, let’s call that manipulation. Most workers need and crave personal involvement and individual transformation. But, in a caste system, the belief is bolstered that executives are more engaged than the rest of us. I have met line workers who are more engaged than some of the leaders in charge of engagement programs. When we allow entire categories of workers to disengage while admonishing the rest to “wake-up,” nothing will change. Because, becoming fully engaged can be a personally challenging and frightening process. Getting people to care more about their work requires shifting them out of a trance and into the light. One of the most important reasons we have so much disengagement is because workers are being asked to change and they don’t know how or don’t believe they can or are hostile to the entire idea. This is because personal change requires honesty, transparency, and self-inquiry. Plus, sustained engagement requires the skills of connection, which, for many, requires a bit of courage to develop.
Organizations have typically failed in defining what it is that we need to do in order to thrive within the rapid, disruptive and transformative change we find ourselves in. By extension, much of today’s talent has obsolete work skills and few new life skills. They become overwhelmed in simply trying to keep up with incremental change. We need to help them close these gaps. The CEO can no longer expect positive change by ordering up engagement and than routinely doing the same old thing. Employees can smell it. The trance, the going through the motions of work, is contagious.
It is time to dismantle the elitist approach, the machine we have built, in leadership development. Pouring funds into senior executives helps them grow but it will not produce engagement. Ordering people to wake-up has proven fruitless. People are moved when they see everyone walking the same walk. Trader Joe’s is famous for its deeply engaged culture. The first person to arrive at a store is typically the one who cleans the bathroom. Many employees see their general manager scrubbing floors and cleaning toilets. Everyone pitches in. Yep, cleaning toilets together is an example of democracy. More pointedly, the manager doesn’t sit in an office waiting for someone to do the work.
I am suggesting a change of heart. Years ago, The University of Southern California called us in for a meeting. They had heard about our leadership development programs. But, the first words out of their mouths were, “We don’t want another leadership program where we send the executives to a program and leave everyone else behind.” I laughed and responded, “Well, you are talking about employee engagement. Let’s give everyone the same process. Let’s treat everyone as equals.” Up until that point, most organizations were afraid to give everyone our processes where people define their truth, their relationship towards work, and how they are going to get the lives they want to lead. But, the numbers and results speak for themselves. Immediate breakthroughs in engagement were not only produced because of a sound curriculum, the team members did it together.
Somehow, when we treat everyone the same way, when we expect engagement from every single person and when we create a fully level playing field, the whole game changes.
No one is left out. Everyone gets the tools to engage. Everyone learns the skills of self-change. Everyone shows up together. Everyone is responsible.
(C) Copyright, 2017, Inspired Work, Inc. – (All Rights Reserved)
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