Recently an article in Forbes about the dismal state of employee engagement in the United States caught my eye. According to a recent Gallup poll, an astonishing seven out of 10 workers in America are either “actively disengaged” or simply “not engaged” in their work.
Seven out of 10! That means that out of every 10 people you trust to repair your car, prepare your taxes, teach your children, or treat your heart condition, seven of them are less than totally engaged in what they’re doing.
Does that puzzle you as much as it does me?
What I like about Joseph Folkman’s article is that he poses the exact question that popped into my own mind:
It’s so easy to blame the troops for this epidemic of disengagement… but what about the generals?
In other words, what about the leaders of the organizations to which these disengaged employees report every day? Are they sitting back in their leather wingback chairs, shaking their heads and bemoaning the plethora of “complacent,” “apathetic,” or downright “lazy” individuals among their rank and file?
Or are they rolling up their sleeves and tackling the question “What do I need to do differently?”
Sadly, further information from the report would indicate that the former response is much more likely:
Managers, executives and officials in these firms had an engagement level of (a drum roll please) 36%. Thirty-six percent! Hmmm… maybe a clue here… the leaders are slightly more engaged than the workforces that report to them.
So what we have in many organizations is a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle, where disengagement is so rampant from top to bottom that only one thing can change it: purpose… in other words, a cause that gives work meaning.
Here’s what Daniel Pink says in his book Drive: “Autonomous people working toward mastery perform a very high levels. But those who do so in the service of some greater objective can achieve even more. The most deeply motivated people… not to mention those who are most productive and satisfied… hitch their desires to a cause greater than themselves”.
And that purpose… that cause… has got to come from the very top — from that person in that corner office on the 24th floor.
Yes, it is possible to turn a disengaged organization around. All it takes a leader with (1) a clear vision of his or her own TRUE North and (2) the drive to make sure that every single employee — from the mailroom to the boardroom — understands that purpose and lives it every single day.
With this person holding the reins, people at all levels will begin to see the why behind the what. They’ll start to ask questions, to request additional training, to put forth ideas, to support and mentor their teammates. And before you know it, the dismal culture of disengagement will fade and a vibrant new workplace will emerge.
Will it happen overnight? Of course not.
But it will happen. Trust me — I’ve seen it.