In this year’s State of the Global Workplace report, Gallup puts the price tag of unengaged workers at $8.8 trillion—9 percent of global GDP. After studying employee “involvement and enthusiasm” (their definition of engagement) for decades, Gallup concludes that engagement can make the difference between a company’s success and failure.
Engaged teams have less absenteeism and turnover, make fewer errors, increase productivity, improve customer loyalty, and drive profitability. Yet only 31 percent of North American workers report being engaged (with 52 percent rating themselves “not engaged” and the remaining 17 percent actively disengaged).
Low employee engagement has many causes—uninspiring leadership, few opportunities for personal or professional growth, and negative or absent interpersonal work relationships—but perhaps the most fundamental and easiest to solve is boredom.
According to one National Institute of Health study, boredom in the workplace leaves workers distracted, stressed, and disillusioned. Bored employees lack motivation to direct their diminished energy and interest into work activities and often report a somewhat contradictory sense of being overworked and under-utilized. They’re also likely to find the engagement they seek at work in social media, games, and other non–work related activities on company time.
On the surface, this is an obvious problem. On another level, it’s great news.
Human beings are innately social and curious. We all have built-in drives to learn and improve and to share our experiences with others. When those needs aren’t met, we feel lonely and bored. Savvy leaders leverage these tendencies to their benefit by modeling, supporting, and rewarding them.
Model Curiosity and CommunityGet curious about your team members. Salaries and wages for employees constitute the largest investment for many businesses. Take an active interest in your managers’ lives outside of work and encourage them to do the same with the people they lead. Feeling seen and known increases belonging and engagement. It also helps you better understand the needs and motivations of the people you need to motivate and, by example, creates a culture where middle managers do the same for their teams. If leaders demonstrate interest only in productivity and performance metrics, their team members may not feel valued as individuals. But employees who believe their managers sincerely want to get to know them and understand their nonwork life and challenges feel individually valued and invested in. This creates a better work atmosphere and often makes people willing to extend themselves on the company’s behalf in return.
Not only will staying curious about your people improve the work culture, but there’s also a strong business case for it. In July 2019, I sat down for a one-on-one with one of our newest hires. She was very early in her professional career, but her work ethic and learn-it-all attitude made her an ideal addition to our team. I was curious about her experience and gratified that she felt comfortable sharing her concerns with me. While she loved our company’s mission of helping companies reach their goals by developing their internal talent, she enjoyed outside sales less than she’d expected. In fact, she was starting to dread it.
I took this information in and didn’t become defensive. Instead, I got curious. I asked if there was a role that would be a better fit for her. She wasn’t sure. I asked what excited her. She answered instantly. She was passionate about building community and networking with like-minded individuals. She’d noticed a surge in the development of online communities and was excited by the trend. Slightly abashed, she confessed she’d been considering leaving the company to explore work as an online community manager.
She didn’t know I’d dreamed of building an online community for years. I believed it would add significant value to our offerings if clients had a place to meet informally, learn from one another, and interact with our expert instructors beyond the classroom. It would deepen their learning, promote retention, and build community within the client organizations. When I mentioned this to her, she lit up. I could feel the energy of her enthusiasm for the project like an electric current. I asked if it was something she’d like to tackle. "Absolutely," she said. "I would love to do that!" We decided she’d take two weeks to develop a high-level business plan and present it to the executive team.
She blew us away with that presentation; her vision for the platform, her forecasts, timelines, and suggested strategies were spot on. I was astonished by the sophistication of her strategic thinking, considering she was fewer than two years into her professional career. She was (and still is) a curious, community-creating rock star. She spearheaded OFFSITE (our thriving online platform), and although she has since moved on to follow her passions elsewhere, the legacy of her curiosity continues to serve us and our clients well.
Support a Culture of CuriosityCulture isn’t something leaders can create the way you build out a new office. It’s an organic outgrowth of lived (not merely posted) values. To build a culture that fosters and rewards curiosity, you must lead by example.
If you’re not continuously interested in your evolution, learning new skills, reading widely, and asking questions, you won’t reach your full potential. Dedicate time to staying abreast of current events, actively learning about your customers’ business needs, and researching industry trends. When your team sees you’re curious about the world and its intersections with your work, they will follow your lead.
In today’s climate of constant change and with generative AI tools like ChatGPT poised to radically alter the economic landscape, nearly continuous upskilling, reskilling, and development are becoming necessary to keep up with the pace of business. Investing in your team’s ongoing career development empowers them, and regular skill assessments help people feel seen. Well-designed courses are paced and engineered to stimulate and reward participants’ curiosity while increasing their performance. Group classes that deliberately create environments of psychological safety offer teams the opportunity to be vulnerable, which improves team trust and cohesion and creates a sense of belonging and, thus, engagement that extends well beyond the classroom.
Reward EngagementI recommend encouraging your team members to explore the books, magazines, and journals they prefer on company time and setting aside a budget to expense related costs. An LTO (learning time off) program sets aside dedicated time in the workday for people to focus on learning. I want everyone on our team to be interested in improving their business acumen, aware of the current business climate, and thinking about how they can positively influence and support our customers. I model the value I place on lifelong learning by explicitly setting aside time in company meetings for learning. Our sales manager asks each team member to come to their weekly sales meeting prepared with two insights from the past week that could advance the company’s or our customers’ goals. They then brainstorm ways to put those insights into action.
Soliciting ideas and seeking input from the people you lead helps you improve, increases engagement, and makes team members more likely to share potentially meaningful insights with you. The expectation shouldn’t be that every idea they share will automatically be implemented, but reward every contribution with your attention. Show your people that you value their input.
This lesson applies to every level of your organization. Of course, good ideas can come from your trusted senior leadership team. Still, everyone from the administrative support staff to your engineering folks will likely have thoughts and opinions that could contribute to a better team and organization. Proactively seek them out.
Knowing they aren’t just individual contributors with assigned tasks but affect their team and the overall organization is hugely motivating. People get more invested in programs and initiatives they feel they have a hand in creating. And just knowing they are heard will increase engagement. When one person’s idea is acted on and they get the credit and recognition they deserve, it supercharges everyone on the team, making them likely to generate even more and better ideas. It builds the virtuous cycle of learning, teamwork, and contribution, forming an engaged and curious culture.
Bored workers are unengaged workers. Stimulating and rewarding their curiosity will keep them interested, engaged, and improving. It fosters team cohesion and increases members’ value to the company.