It’s sad that 87% of people aren’t engaged at work, because that's what we all want--meaningful work. Where we can add value, learn new things, make new relationships.
A 2017 study by The Engagement Institute found that disengaged employees cost companies up to $550 billion a year. Many of these costs come from higher absenteeism and turnover. According to Gallup’s employee engagement survey, business units with a high level of engagement see 41% less absenteeism and a 17% rise in productivity. Engaged employees are also much more likely to stay, with turnover decreasing up to 59% in highly engaged units.
These improvements sound promising, but how do you get there?
If you’re reading this article, then you’ve probably learned the hard way just how tough it is to engage your workforce. While engagement isn’t easy, it is absolutely achievable—if you make the right changes.
1. The Work Needs to Be Meaningful
People want to spend their time on something that will make a difference, something they think will make the world a better place, or something that will help their organization succeed in that world. If you don't think your workplace inspires this, consider the example of DTE Energy, a Detroit-based energy company. Employee surveys revealed a widespread lack of engagement, which led to a crisis during the 2008 recession. Inspired by a board member, the CEO decided to rally employees around the higher purpose of the organization, using a video that showed how each person supported the well-being of the local community. This purpose became a touchstone, integrated throughout the organization, from onboarding and training to meetings and culture-building activities. Engagement soared as employees recognized the purpose as authentic, and they became personally invested in carrying out this shared mission. Since 2013, DTE Energy has received a Gallup Great Workplace Award for seven consecutive years, and the company’s stock price more than tripled between 2008 and 2017.
In other words, people don't want to be treated as merely a cog in a wheel, so it's the leaders' job to define goals that are meaningful to people and help them understand the importance of their function to the overall goals of the organization.
Connect the goals back to your mission. Your mission spells out how you are going to change the world, what the purpose of the organization is. Every goal should somehow move that mission forward, and every piece is important in achieving that mission.
And please, forget about SMART goals. Focus instead on making goals meaningful. For example, improve the customer’s experience in completing your sales process. That’s something people can connect to, and they can feel good if they accomplish it because it makes someone else’s life better.
Take a look at the goals you set up:
- Are they motivating?
- Do they touch the heart as well as the mind?
- Do they connect to the mission?
2. Work Should Be Achievable
Don't get me started on "stretch goals" either. It's a bad idea.
People want to be successful, and your culture should support your employee's success because people get excited and motivated when they achieve something meaningful.
People don’t want to run around a hamster wheel–they want to cross the goal line (which is why sports are so popular). You expend some effort, you train, and maybe you can be successful.
You don’t have to be successful every single time, in fact, it’s important that there is some challenge in the work, but not so much that people feel hopeless before they even begin.
All too often the boss assigns something to a direct report that he or she knows is not achievable – the timeline is too short, the technical challenges are too big, the budget or resources allocated are too small, or the person already has more than they can get done on their plate and so there is no way they can take on another assignment.
Combine that with a culture in which the direct report is not allowed to say no or to negotiate the portfolio of work they have already been assigned or is being assigned and you have work that is not achievable and that is a heavy burden on anyone with a conscience.
They know from the start they are going to fail and setting someone up to fail is cruel. You’ve robbed that person of the fun they could have at work – of the satisfaction and engagement they could feel, and when someone is engaged and having fun doing the work, they do a better job.
There is an art to setting the right goals, with the right amount of complexity. But not too much otherwise it’s unmanageable. And not too little, otherwise it’s dull.
That’s how games are designed.
If you go to play a game that you know you will win every time without thinking, it quickly becomes boring. If you go to play a game that you know you will never win and not only will you lose, but you will be punished for losing, that sounds like self-inflicted torture to me.
3. Collaborative Leadership
Work isn’t fun when leaders spend too much time boosting their own egos, amassing power and stomping all over the people who are lower down in the food chain.
This creates a toxic environment for anyone trying to actually get something done. There are too many hoops to jump through, too many people to appease before that meaningful work can get done.
Leadership should be there to support the meaningful, doable work getting done, not get in the way of it.
Leaders need to leave their egos at the door and let go of using their position as a weapon to get what they want by imposing their will over others.
There is a better way and it’s a collaborative approach to working.
Most leaders lead directively – they tell others what to do. These others aren’t children, they are adults. They have supposedly been hired because they have some expertise. But instead of supporting and nurturing that expertise, they second-guess it; they micromanage. Or they bark out orders that the person doesn’t really understand and then leave them to flap in the wind.
There are more enlightened leaders – they think they are leading collaboratively. They asked for their direct reports’ opinions. They listened carefully. They considered all sides of the issue and then they made a decision. They explained the decision to their ‘subordinates’ and answered any and all questions.
It’s better than the other examples, but it’s still not collaboration.
Collaboration is when the team makes the decision together, not the leader. Collaboration is when the leader really lets go of the power and after proper training in the right tools and techniques, turns over his power to the team.
Scary thought, right?
Well, think about why you might think that.
Are you afraid to let go of control? Most leaders are.
They are actually addicted to control. Being controlled feels terrible and it sucks all the fun out of work. There is no engagement when one is being controlled – it’s the opposite of engagement.
But it doesn’t need to be that way.
- Stop focusing on profits and focus on purpose and how the organization is there to serve something or someone beyond itself.
- Set people up to succeed rather than to fail.
- Don’t over-allocate resources because that makes the goals unachievable – people have too much to do.
- And let go of control and learn to lead collaboratively.
Even though these things are difficult to achieve, it's not impossible--and it's definitely worth the commitment and effort – the effort to learn new skills, new tools, new approaches. That’s the new game of leadership, and it can change the world.
The question is – are you up to the challenge?