Employees are Disengaged: What Should be Done?

Gallup Business Journal has announced that there is a worldwide employee engagement crisis that may have serious repercussion for the global economy.

Gallup has been tracking employee engagement in the US since 2000, and while there have been some slight ups and downs, less than one-third of US employees have been engaged over this period. According to Gallup Daily Tracking, only 32% of the employees in the US are engaged, while worldwide the number is less, sitting at 13%.

Why is this a crisis?

An engaged employee is one who is enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace. In the modern workplace, one which requires ever-increasing initiative and creative problem solving, an unengaged workforce has major consequences. Not only does it result in significantly lower levels of productivity, but it also results in an inability to quickly and smoothly adapt to a changing world and changing markets.

We should all be aware that we are living in times of drastic change. Change brings opportunity, so long as we are able to grab it. In times such as these, it is essential that businesses are able to adapt quickly to changes, thereby turning adversity into opportunity. This requires an engaged workforce though, as a business with a disengaged work force is cumbersome and struggles to quickly adapt.

There is also a more global concern which is raised by the lack of employee engagement. We are becoming increasingly aware as a species that our previous ways of doing things are not sustainable. We are going into a new world with new rules. In order for us to make this new world a prosperous one, we need innovation. Not only do we need technological innovation, but we also need innovative new strategies regarding how to structure the means of production, distribute wealth, and empower people. These sorts of innovations will be highly accelerated by a highly engaged global workforce, and will stagnate under the weight of a disengaged workforce.

What can be done?

Gallup tells us that they see a stark divide emerging within the engagement industry. On one end of the spectrum are experientially validated approaches that lead to “changes in individual and business performance, supported by strategic and tactical development and performance solutions that transform organisational cultures. Though these approaches require more intentionality and investment, companies that use them are more likely to see increases in employee engagement.”

On the other end of the spectrum are invalidated and unfocused annual surveys. Very often such surveys measure variables which are disconnected from other business objectives and are not aligned with any concrete and focused strategy to change the organisational culture towards one that fosters greater employee engagement.

What is needed then is a focused strategy that aims at transforming the organisational culture to one of a commitment to excellence, which consequently fosters increased individual and business performance.

The Care & Growth Model

The Care & Growth model is an example of a highly validated strategic model, with a proven track record, designed to achieve concrete shifts in organisational culture and employee engagement. I will outline the key intervention stages suggested by the Care & Growth model. If you are interested in a fuller description of the Care & Growth model and how it relates to employee commitment, please follow the link.

1. Frame the benevolent intent of the business:

Any enterprise or business exist solely because it makes some contribution to society, they provide some service. The first step in changing an organisations culture is to help the organisation understand the service it provides. This is known as framing the organisations benevolent intent. This can also be referred to as “developing a brand promise.”

This is an area in which creative thinking is a must. The brand promise must seek to fill a societal need in innovative and progressive ways. Most importantly however, it must be benevolent. The brand promise of an organisation must be framed in such a way that it becomes clear that the company is really making a meaningful contribution. So if it is, for example, a pharmaceutical company, the benevolent intent (the brand promise) could be framed as “developing and providing innovative and accessible medical solutions to those who need them.” If it is a gas company, it could perhaps be framed as “providing safe, affordable, and sustainable alternate energy solutions.”

As I said, the point of helping an enterprise frame its brand promise is that they come to an understanding of the contribution they  make. This phase of an organisational intervention is crucial. This is because of one simple truth about human motivation: human beings only go the extra mile for something bigger than themselves. In order to get employees engaged, you need to give them a purpose, something worthwhile to devote their efforts to. If this does not happen then they will seek to get as much as they can for giving as little as possible.

2. Establish a clear line of sight between each function in the enterprise and the brand promise:

There is no point having a well-formulated brand promise if employees do not see a clear connection between the job that they do and the benevolent intent of the enterprise. Whatever function is in question, there should be a deliberate line draw between the function and the benevolent intent. This should be done even with support functions like HR and finance, as well as basic functions like cleaning and maintenance.

Put simply, make sure all employees understand how their work contributes to the service provided by the enterprise as a whole. This will ensure that people can actually perceive their work as part of a greater contribution.

3. Do an organisational diagnostic:

Once the benevolent intent has been formulated, it is necessary to determine where the enterprise is at. Ultimately what is sought is a culture of living the brand promise. The culture of an enterprise is a product of the sum of all the interactions between people in the enterprise. A healthy enterprise with an engaged work force is one in which people are genuinely cooperative in working together to accomplish strategic ends, and interact with the spirit of cooperation, to set each other up to succeed in the pursuit of bringing the brand promise to the world.

People do not go the extra mile for enterprises, they go the extra mile for people. It is only in enterprises with a culture of cooperation that you will find employees that are genuinely engaged in the pursuit of  the strategic goals of the company. The brand promise provides the worthwhile goal. It is the cohesiveness between people that propels the enterprise towards that goal, the enterprise must become a group of individuals cooperatively committed to something bigger than themselves, the brand promise. A group of individuals who are all setting each other up for success in the pursuit of a goal they deem to be worthy and good will all be engaged in what they are doing. They will believe in what they are doing and they will believe in the people they are doing it with.

With this criterion of health, it is necessary to determine how the organisation stacks up against it. How cooperative are interactions between people in the enterprise? Are people really setting each other up to succeed. The organisation diagnostic must test both the health of the hierarchical/leadership relationships and the health of peer relationships within the enterprise. What one will often find is that there are both leadership issues, and peer relationship issues that hamper the true cooperative pursuit of the brand promise. The point of the organisational diagnostic however is to determine precisely where these barriers lie.

3. Training interventions:

Once the benevolent intent of the organisation has been agreed, a clear line of sight between all functions and the brand promise has been established, and the key barriers to cooperative pursuit have been identified, the next step is to address these barriers. There are broadly speaking 2 main sorts of interventions. The first is a leadership intervention and the second is a peer relationship intervention. Practically speaking, both of these will need to be done in the organisation as one will almost always find leadership issues as well as peer relationship issues. The key deliverable of these interventions is to cultivate healthy hierarchical relations and healthy peer relations, it is essentially a matter of the removal of office politics and maneuvering.

The role of leadership in employee commitment cannot be underestimated. People go the extra mile in for people, not for companies, and a leader is the go to person when it comes to unlocking this willingness of his/her people. The point of a leadership intervention is to empower leaders to get the best out of their employees. This is a matter of teaching the leaders how to care for and grow their subordinates. In other words empowering leaders is a matter of helping them cultivate a genuine concern for the interests of their subordinates, whilst providing the framework in which the subordinates get a real sense that they are developing and progressing as individuals.

A leader that does this cultivates a sense in his/her employees that they are valuable to the organisation and the leader, and ensures that the employees experience the work they do as deeply rewarding. This enables the employees to become deeply committed to living the brand promise because they are getting something meaningful out of it, something much more than a mere pay check. They get the sense that they are developing and attaining an increased level of mastery, whilst making a meaningful contribution to the world.

Peer interventions for their part must take the form of team building exercises. A bit of competition might be healthy, but if competition forms the very fabric of peer relationships then this will ultimately be detrimental to team performance as it will impede cooperation. The peer intervention should be undertaken along with the team leader and it should aim to cultivate cooperative peer relationships instead of adversarial ones.

If all of the above has been achieved there will almost certainly be a noticeable shift in employee engagement. Work will take on a new meaning. It will not be merely about the pay. It will be about making a meaningful contribution, truly being part of a team, and attaining to greater levels of mastery in a worthwhile endeavour.

For more on Care & Growth interventions, including leadership and peer interventions, please email us at info@schuitema.co.za


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