In the last thirty years, Gallup has performed employee engagement studies to better understand how people really feel about their work, their company, their bosses, and their career.
Their survey in 2015 saw a statistic that only 32% of US employees consider themselves ‘engaged’ in the workplace. It was 31.5% in 2014. 29% in 2013.
Engaged is defined as wanting to be there, wanting to do the work, and feeling interested and optimistic about the future.
This means that the remaining 68% of the US working population identify as disengaged (“I don’t give a shit”) and actively disengaged (“hold my beer while I set fire to the boardroom”). Not only are they actively sabotaging themselves and their local community, but acting as a toxin for the few who are engaged.
It’s also not surprising that higher-engaged employees have less health problems, are happier, and tend to have more secure finances and relationships.
It would be easy to look at this statistic and be alarmed. It is alarming, but what is more concerning, is that it seems this statistic hasn’t changed in decades. It’s fluctuated depending on the economy at the time, yet the overall statistic hasn’t changed.
While we could easily blame millennials for their alleged self-indulgent lifestyles, why does this data show consistency in both genders, all age groups, and over a period including one where millennials weren’t even born let alone working?
I have to query:
- How and when are we measuring engagement? Based on what criteria?
- How well do we understand the complexity of each person’s character?
- Have we factored changing social attitudes and frameworks?
- What are education and social culture’s roles in the dissonance between people feeling satisfied vs dissatisfied?
- Are people just inherently dis-satisfied, or is that simply a belief?
It would seem that it’s little a bit of everything. There’s no simple or single answer, so why isn’t there a louder and more prominent dialogue about it?
Employers vs Employees
Historically, the satisfaction and contentment of workers has been the last priority for employers. In a working world of opposing sides (employers vs employees), we have created and reinforced a model of distrust, policing, and battle. Unions and laws were created in order to stabilize the imbalance. Now and then the power shifts too much in one direction, and the other side reacts.
The broad-stroke perspective of employers is that employees need jobs to survive, so they should be appreciative, grateful, and work hard to continue being valuable, lest they be replaced by someone who won’t cause trouble.
They also believe that they are more invested than employees for they have overhead, responsibilities, regulations, and large-scale problems to worry about.
Meanwhile, the broad-stroke perspective of employees is that a company is as only as effective as the people they hire, so with all the money in the world, no-one can succeed if the people needed to do the work can’t, won’t, or don’t.
They believe that they are also invested but in their time, energy, and potential, and that their responsibilities, while different, are no less valuable or important than those of their company.
As a result, conflict ensues.
Companies go back to their boardrooms and value people based on their definition of results using metrics of output, efficiency, and the sum of money and pain to get there. People retreat to their bars and barbecues to value companies based on their definition of integrity using metrics of stability, ethics, and amount of trust and support to feel that way.
The employee market
In recent times, the market has been employee-geared. The transparency of social media (Facebook, Glassdoor, Yelp, Twitter etc), has also created a new world order for companies who have never been under so much scrutiny.
From marketing campaigns, to workplace incidents and private communication, it seems as though nothing is safe from the judge, jury and executioner of the internet. It has caused companies an urgent need to modernize and humanize their brands, and to be more appealing and transparent across the board. They are quickly learning of the hard cost of disengaged people (customers and staff), high turnover, and the struggle of not having enough quality help. Alas, it’s not as fast as it could be, for deeply entrenched cultural habits are slow to change.
One only has to look at the messaging of banks, politicians, or retail brands like VW’s recent diesel-gate scandal to shine a big light on the fact that what’s inside the tin, often differs dramatically from what’s written on the label.
In an environment of intense scrutiny, there’s a lot of pressure to keep up appearances, and to constantly craft and curate an image that’s squeaky clean, aspirational, and inviting. In fact, it’s exhausting for the uninitiated and disingenuous but comes more easily for those who embrace the world in a real and authentic manner.
The misconception of corporate power
On paper, it would seem that companies have the upper hand. They have money, concentrated influence, legal frameworks, and huge resources to provide or withhold vital services. Ironically, many of these entities exist simply because of the power everyday individuals unwittingly gave them so they could enjoy leisure, convenience, and security. We are caught in a catch-22 of being complicit in monopolizing our own society, and being angry at the tyrants we appointed.
The fall of a corporation tends to have a wider reaching impact than the loss of an individual – but often only in the short term. The long term impact is directed by all of us as individuals and the culture we choose to maintain. Mind you, it can be hard to see that perspective when in the thick of it.
In order to survive (and ‘thrive’ – take that as you will), companies are geared to minimize risk and costs to maintain the only thing that economies, governments and shareholders care about – growth.
If you’re a shareholder, growth at any cost is all that matters, for it leads to a dividend. If you are an employee, growth at any cost may mean short-term success, but when playing the role of windshield, tires, and airbags, you’re highly valued, until you’re not.
In recent times however, predatory and reckless behavior is becoming less acceptable, and companies are under pressure to act with greater responsibility and conscience. Mind you, this can’t be solely attributed to new laws or changes in governance, but rather a shift in social culture and values.
Whether labelled purpose or passion, both people and companies are acutely aware that those who feel emotionally connected with their team and work, tend to work harder, be happier, and give more of themselves. They’re more invested.
The challenge is bridging the gap between what sounds good on paper, and doing what’s necessary to bring about that kind of workplace culture. After all, when all is said and done, companies are simply made up of people. Complex, flawed, and biased people, repeating what they believe and know in order to fit in and be safe.
It’s at this cultural intersection that both businesses and employees are faced with their greatest challenge of all. The decision to question and evolve one’s beliefs, particularly in the face of judgement and rejection.
A candidate turning down a job due to a lack of company purpose or integrity would have once been ostracized and labeled ‘unemployable.’ Today with increasing safety in numbers, we understand that the standard we walk past, is the standard we choose to accept. We may have appointed the monopoly or turned a blind eye to discrimination, but we can change that. Yet despite this underlying power, it seems that many of us are looking around, waiting for someone else to go first.
The industrial revolution of the 19th century introduced a dramatic shift in the individual’s relationship with work. Rather than being an independent master providing services on an individual basis, factories and production lines became a centralized model of work.
In order to function reliably and efficiently, educational models were developed to better prepare individuals for the demands of working together. This era fostered huge productivity and arguably moved humanity into a new dimension, not dissimilar to what the internet has done in recent years.
The emphasis at the time was placed on tying reward to one’s specialized competence at a single repetitive task. The better the competence, the higher the productivity, and the greater the value to the organization. Before long, this model of work began to permeate all of society. The definition of results shifted away from bespoke quality, and into mass produced volume.
Companies introduced training programs, the franchise was born, and it would provide the building blocks of the 20th century: an era of operational systems, performance tracking, and chain management.
For nearly the entire current population alive today (extending back to their great grandparents), the skills-based specialist in the framework of a measured system, is the only known model of work. We are so efficient at educating, preparing and managing people as specialized employees, to be anything different sees one labelled as a heretic rather than unconventional.
Ads, conversations, social values, schooling, news, pop culture and more, are centralized around perpetuating the narrative that nonstop productivity equals the best result, efficiency matters more than personality, and that specialization is greater than generalization. Subsequently, everyday people strive to become highly regimented and efficient technicians, in order to find a sliver of success in rigid and rules-based world.
It’s within this pursuit of ultra-efficiency and growth, that optimization and measurement is the backbone of the human resources industry. From software, to consultants, training courses and systems, the primary focus has been to help companies (who have money and will pay for such things), to get the most out of their resources – equipment, materials, suppliers, and of course, their people.
The emphasis on developing people however, hasn’t gone unattended. It’s not what I would consider developing people for their own activation, but rather for the usable value to someone else’s production line.
Training programs, career coaches, resume writers, educational institutions, and mentors have a thriving business model. Their jobs exist to prepare and program people for the system that will soon evaluate them and decide the outcome of their potential. They are scored accordingly, and are encouraged to compare themselves to someone else’s metrics as their measurement of worth.
The internet has given birth to a new mode of work. A new relationship to information, control, access, and influence. From online marketing, to ecommerce, and the emerging service economy, the definition of a job, work, and career have been significantly blurred in less than ten years.
Combined with a dramatic shift in consumer profiling, targeted marketing and machine learning, we have reached a new level of awareness whether we like it, or not.
This new era of work, job descriptions, creativity, and what it means to be human is being ushered in at great speed, with dramatic change occurring at a much faster rate than ever before. The question is, who can swallow fast enough, and who will choke?
In the future, companies will continue to exist and be driven by the need to make money in order to maintain and improve. People will continue to want to be part of a group, learn skills, and be remunerated for their time, abilities and effort. What will change is the relationship between employer and employee, and the manner in which their alliance is executed.
The way in which people contribute their skills will be elevated and reimagined instead of truncated and marginalized. The methods and models as to how contribution is understood and valued will become less binary and more personalized. While results will still matter, it won’t be at any cost. The polymath will make a comeback, and creating your own job description in order to play to your strengths will be an important part of the interview process.
In our lifetime, it’s not unreasonable to have mini-retirements, dramatic changes of industry, multiple part-time incomes, varying interests, and unconventional backgrounds. Companies themselves will be required to respond, reinvent, and refocus quickly, in order to foster a culture of growth rather than fixedness.
Educational institutions will embrace culture of lifelong learning (see Udacity’s nano-degrees) instead of a single dose of concentrated education at the beginning of our careers. While teaching, they will help people expand their relationship between themselves, the world, and their areas of strength, as opposed to drilling out syllabus in a template.
The very definitions of work, family, home, community, will continue to be challenged as well. Owning lots of expensive things, insurmountable student debt, and living to work is being de-escalated as the primary definition of success.
In our lifetime, the resume and the job description as we know it, will die. The system of training people to fit into a measurable mould will no longer work because the mould itself will be constantly evolving.
There will always be those slower to change, but as the priorities and preferences of society change, laggards often find themselves playing catch-up, or simply dying in obscurity.
You see, we are moving towards an activated society. A world where we can speak up, a place where we can find an audience for our ideas, and to contribute parts of ourselves that were once deemed unimportant or unnecessary. A world where being an individual doesn’t mean being alone, and being a community doesn’t mean being homogenous.
This period of change has growing pains and is evident in the boardrooms and dining rooms today. The human collective while finding its legs, is struggling to articulate this growing self-awareness, and is fighting deeply entrenched programming about what it means to be a valuable and worthy contributor to society. Although the rules run deep, our desire for activation runs deeper.
The employee engagement problem we read about is nothing to do with people being unmotivated, stupid, or lazy. Indoctrinated and afraid, yes, but not incapable or unwilling.
In fact, there’s countless books and studies on the subject of the flaws of incentives, motivation, and the chemistry of high performing teams. All of them point toward a culture of mutual trust and personal activation, and away from dogma and concession.
The engagement problem today is the manifestation of deep internal conflict coming to the surface and rearing its head. It’s all of us, watching our cultural heroes encouraging us to be bold and to stand up, while we are told to comply and sit down between nine and five.
Our lifestyles today constantly show us the difference between being alive and activated versus dead and buried. There’s now enough people who have proven that one can survive – and thrive – outside of the factory mindset, that we don’t need permission to change the narrative.
If individuals within companies don’t soon understand that the future of work is about activating themselves and the people around them, and not just about optimizing and organizing for efficiency, then death won’t be due to competitive disruption, but from the cancer within.