Last weekend I found myself sitting around a table with a group of friends. The conversation eventually turned to work, as it does, and there was a depressingly clear theme. Three out of four were grumbling and groaning about their jobs (the fourth was guiltily quiet). Sadly, this parallels current statistics about the state of engagement today – a mere 30% of employees are engaged at work.
I was struck, too, by the commonalities in their experiences – what they needed to feel positive about their work but weren’t getting: the chance to do quality and challenging work and the freedom and autonomy to do it their way; feeling valued and respected by their bosses; knowing what’s expected of them and how it’s aligned with the organization’s goals and supporting that direction. Unsurprisingly, these trends parallel recent research showing that the three factors most related to engagement are pride in the organization, relationship with one’s immediate supervisor, and trust in senior leadership.
But above all, to a person the unhappy campers pointed fingers at the same ultimate cause: a lack of leadership. When people felt devalued and disrespected, it was because those above them seemed to prioritize making a buck over treating employees fairly. When they felt confused or pulled in competing directions, it was because leaders weren’t setting a clear and consistent direction, even among themselves. When they felt frustrated at being hamstrung from doing high-quality work, they felt it was because leaders were short-sighted about the impact on customers.
We talk a good game about employee engagement, but we are still falling short. Why? Partly it’s because it is confusing – there is no one recipe for creating an engaged workforce. Also, I have previously argued that employees have a responsibility here as well. But my gut feeling is that leaders who are struggling with engagement are putting the cart before the horse. Strong leaders naturally create workplaces where engagement flourishes. They themselves want to be engaged – they aren’t just focused on making money, but making something more. They themselves are driven by values and a guiding purpose. They want to do good work with good people. In short – they’re engaged themselves.
So if we really want an engaged work force, we have to look hard at ourselves as individual leaders. Are we engaged? Do we know our purpose, live our values, feel proud of our work, feel connected with others? If not, it’s highly unlikely we are going to ignite the same in others.