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A Failure to Engage: Evolution and Revolution at Work

A Better Work Series (part 1/3)

Human history is one of evolution and revolution of all kinds: culture, conquest, change. Given our technological progress, our daily tasks and jobs have naturally changed. What’s striking is how our attitude about work has evolved — and why.

The Employee Engagement Epidemic

I heard a story about an employee who scripted his own piece of software that made it appear on his computer as though he was working when in fact he was busy exchanging hot tamale recipes (or something equally absurd). He’s certainly not alone — many of us would rather do something other than our jobs. Small wonder that productivity (measured as global GDP per capita) has been in decline for several decades. The majority of the world’s 1 billion full-time employees — about 87% — are not engaged in their work. That’s nearly 9 out of every 10 workers.

Engagement and the Global Workplace Report

The Effects Beyond the Office

At last count, of the 7.5 billion people on the planet, 5.3 billion were classified by Pew Research Centre as poor or low income. How does poverty correlate with the engagement epidemic? Engaged workers are more productive, thereby improving their country’s economic health. To put it into context: 45 million Americans live below the poverty line. Employee disengagement and the resulting loss in productivity costs the American economy $350 billion per year. This works out to $1,000 for every U.S citizen — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Changing Times, Changing Mindsets

For some reason, we’re still operating on the assumption that people are only willing to work in exchange for pay. Okay, it probably has a lot to do with the economics of free market capitalism, but it’s no longer true.

Poised for Growth

Psychologist Barry Schwartz aptly sums it up: “We want work that is challenging and engaging, that enables us to exercise some discretion and control over what we do, and that provides us opportunities to learn and grow. We want to work with colleagues we respect and with supervisors who respect us. Most of all, we want work that is meaningful — that makes a difference to other people and thus ennobles us in at least some small way.”

Finding — or Creating — Meaning

For some, a lack of engagement must be addressed by changing jobs or even careers. For others, it can involve something much more subtle to transform their existing job into one they love. Professor Wrzesniewski, together with University of Michigan professor Jane E. Dutton and Wharton doctoral student Justin M. Berg, say that job crafting may just do the trick. Simply put, you take the various building blocks within your job and recombine them to better align with your talent and interests. As an example, in their study, a hospital cleaner took it upon herself to perform many activities outside of her job specifications. She would regularly dust the ceilings so patients didn’t have to stare at them or bring water to thirsty patients between nursing shift changes. She saw herself not just as a cleaner but as a caretaker. Expanding her job (within reason) allowed her to derive more meaning from her work.

The Destroyers of Meaningfulness

Sound all too easy? And what about those with positional authority, who can’t so easily adapt —like the bosses? Take Japan, where it’s sacrilegious to go home before your superior does, even if you have no work to do. In today’s economy, theory Y-styled managers are winning over theory X ones. If you’re an enabling leader then you won’t hinder your team’s effective job crafting.

A New Necessity

The strongest indicator of your engagement is whether you believe you’re making progress towards meaningful work, a concept known as the progress principle. Of course, redesigning your job to become fully engaged doesn’t happen overnight. It happens via small wins and baby steps towards finding meaning.

Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3 in the Better Work Series 👊

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Founder, Coach & Author of the bestseller SHAPERS →