Pretty much any article you read about employee engagement is going to trot out the Gallup statistic showing a disheartening 70% of American employees report being either not engaged or actively disengaged at work. Worldwide the statistics are worse – only 13% of global employees are engaged in their work. People ask, why are so many employees not engaged? But maybe we should be asking, why aren’t those 13-30% disengaged? What do those lucky few have going for them? Why is work so miserable for the rest of us?
Is it because we’re lonely? As Adam Grant discusses in this article, these days people aren’t as friendly with coworkers as they once were. Why bother, when you’re next job is already on the horizon? When you can text, or FaceTime, or fly to connect with family and friends in faraway places, you don’t actually have to form new friendships where you stand. But perhaps the bigger factor is that, culturally, we see hard work as a virtue and socializing at work as a distraction. Yet, there is ample evidence suggesting groups of friends working together produce better outcomes compared to groups of acquaintances. Friendships yield trust and commitment, which grease the wheels of the organizational machine. And, in fact, Gallup’s research also shows that people who report having at least one best friend at work are more engaged than those who do not.
Or maybe it’s because our work is designed to be empty and meaningless. In this piece, Barry Schwarz links the dismal state of work today to another cultural underpinning, a basic belief concerning humans and work that spawned the industrial management approach emphasizing control, efficiency, and monetary incentives. The perspective is that most people will avoid working hard unless their work is closely controlled by a combination of carrots and sticks. And like the situation with social connectedness, we insist on clinging to this belief even when there is ample evidence to the contrary. Extrinsic motivation (in the form of pay, or fear) doesn’t hold a candle to intrinsic motivation. When we work to fulfill a personal desire or aim, we feel better about our work and we do better. People crave challenge, autonomy, purpose, and connection and given the opportunity to pursue them, will outperform people who are incentivized but deprived of the chance to make their own meaning in their work.
So if connection and meaning are so much better, why do we structure our work and environments to quash them? I don’t think it’s entirely fair to hang all the blame on Adam Smith and the Protestant Reformation. There is something fundamental about human nature that makes us so eager to accept these false notions despite ourselves. The reason we command and control is because we are afraid. We are afraid that if we don’t tightly manage people or make work as work-ish as possible, that people will take advantage of us, that we will lose our edge, that the energy and power we want directed at building success will gradually dissipate and we will fail. So we choose efficiency over synergy, productivity over performance, and in so doing, we survive but fail to thrive. Fear and mistrust shackle performance and potential.
What, then, is the antidote to this unfortunate situation we have created for ourselves? Trust! We need to overcome our fears and our mistrust – of ourselves, of each other, and of the unknown. We need to trust people to be fully human at work, because that is the only way to leverage the power and energy people bring to their work when they are connected to it in a meaningful way. But as we have seen, we are operating on some implicit and damaging beliefs that create barriers to this. Our first goal needs to be to rigorously question our unconscious assumptions about why and how people work best, then apply that rigor to removing impediments and creating channels that allow people to find meaning in their work. People make meaning in different ways, and you can’t do it for them. But you can build a culture in which people feel trusted and feel safe trusting others by cultivating openness and transparency. You can remove obstacles to social cohesion and even create ways for people to develop deeper connections. You can give people opportunities to challenge themselves and feel in control of their work. It is entirely possible to make your organization both successful and sustainable and an enjoyable place to work. If you trust people to be human at work, they will love to work for you.
“The opposite of fear is love – love of the challenge, love of the work, the pure joyous passion to take a shot at our dream and see if we can pull it off.”–Steven Pressfield
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