Work is Broken

on October 3, 2018

“Employee engagement.” The phrase first hit the scene in 1990, when William A. Kahn used it in an article he wrote for the Academy of Management Journal. Since then, the business world has become more than a little obsessed with these two little words.  CEOs, human resources executives, managers, and thousands of others have spent hours upon hours contemplating just how their organization can make a dent in the country’s dismal 30% employee engagement rate.

Yet, despite the fact that many organizations now have “Chief Engagement Officers” tasked with the job of inspiring and motivating people, Gallup tracks every move we make at work to help us analyze and improve, and consultancies like Great Places to Work set benchmarks to aspire to, the needle hasn’t moved in the past several years. That’s not a good thing.

The 173 Billion Hour Problem

The amount of hours wasted by employee disengagement is massive. According to recent Labor Market Information data, there are more than 149 million people in the workforce1. Unfortunately, Gallup reports that a whopping 68.5% of these people are disengaged2. What does this mean? Well, when the engagement stats are applied to the workforce number, we’re left with approximately 102 million people – or two times the total population of the 50 largest cities in the country combined3 – who are probably not contributing effectively at work. All of this translates to 173 billion hours or more than $350 billion of lost productivity every year!

While this is certainly significant on its own, employee disengagement is more than a productivity issue. The fact that so many people are spending so much time at a place where they really don’t want to be is a human tragedy. To put it bluntly, work is broken. The engagement programs, solutions, and tactics currently being employed aren’t effective. But I’m not content to just accept the mediocre state we see day-in and day-out.

Root’s Co-founder Jim Haudan and I set out on a journey to help organizations rectify this very tragic problem. What we found is that the organizational beliefs leaders are leading with today are no longer relevant. We believe if we are able to establish some new ways of thinking, we can make engagement a realistic part of our workday.

Setting Aside Trusted Work Practices and Removing Our Blinders

Remember when society believed that seat belts were not just uncool, but completely unnecessary and potentially dangerous? When we believed that covering ourselves in oil was mandatory before hitting the beach? Or when doctors endorsed cigarettes as safe digestive aids and stress relievers?

If you’re of the age to remember the lack of seat belts, the popularity of cigarettes, and the love of SPF 0, then you can likely also attest that our country not only adopted these behaviors, we trusted them – almost blindly.

Jim and I want to help organizations identify where they are blindly following tradition without reason. We believe there are a core set of workplace values and practices that are outdated. They fundamentally don’t work in today’s workplace – and they’re causing major problems. In fact, we boiled it down and isolated five specific leadership beliefs that most of us have been blindly following for decades. It’s time to make a change. So let’s start by believe there are five of them. Yes, five leadership blind spots that are the core to the world’s engagement dilemma.

The 5 Leadership Blind Spots Holding Us Back

Blind Spot #1: PURPOSE

What we’ve been taught to believe: Purpose Matters, but it doesn’t drive our numbers.

But here’s the reality, people today don’t want to just go through the motions, pay their dues, or work for someone else to just help them get what they want. Joy, meaning, and purpose is a pre-requisite for work and when it is present financial performance sky rockets. It turns out that purpose is a growth strategy.

Blind Spot #2: STORY

What we’ve been taught to believe: We have a compelling story to tell that our people care about.

Let’s be honest; today’s workplace is made up of busy, multi-tasking individuals who are most likely being pulled in multiple directions at once. They are probably being asked to do increasingly more in less time or with less support. We need to accept the fact phrases like EBITDA, ROIC, and CAGR don’t cut it – they don’t grab anyone’s attention, let alone motivate anyone to give their best despite the array of challenges we might be facing. It’s time to ask yourself, “What is the adventure that captures what we what to create and build that matters?” It’s time to identify your story!

Blind Spot #3: ENGAGEMENT

What we’ve been taught to believe: Rationale and logical presentations engage the hearts and minds of our people.

It is simply not possible for words from a leader’s lips to ignite passion in the hearts and minds of their people. Inspiration percolates from thoughtful conversations and not scripted presentations. Conversations where as leaders we believe our people have better answers that we do when we invite them in to co-think the most critic questions facing our future success. Leaders, it’s time to dig deep and start telling a real story that is honest … that’s raw and real. Sounds compelling right? That’s how you’ll ignite engagement.

Blind Spot #4: TRUST.

What we’ve been taught to believe: People will not do the right thing unless you tell them what to do and hold them accountable to do it.

Sadly, leaders have had it wrong. For decades. The key to extraordinary performance is not to eliminate human variability—but to encourage it! Think about it in these three categories:

  • Hardlines—There’s only one way with no exceptions
  • Guidelines—When you set clear boundaries and guardrails
  • No Lines—You’re asked to use your own special judgment and talents

Imagine if you started leading by offering your people a strategic mix of hardlines, guidelines, and no lines. The end result would be the creation of a human operating system where people support common standards AND contribute the best they have to offer at the same time.

Blind Spot #5: TRUTH

What we’ve been taught to believe: My people feel safe telling me what they really think and feel.

I have a news flash for you. They don’t. You have to make it safe. Neuro-research shows that as you become more accomplished as a leader, a chemical change occurs in your brain that diminishes empathy. It makes it harder and harder to understand what your people think and feel. It’s chemical. The only way to be in touch with the feelings of your people is to create practices of safe truth telling that close that gap of what you as a leader understand about your people, what they care about, and where they think we can take our collective game to the next level.

Work is Broken—But We Can Fix It

Just because the business world has always operated one way doesn’t mean it should keep operating that way. And this is why leaders owe it to their people to eradiate the blind spots that are most certainly holding back their people, their business, and their cumulative success.

Jim and I hope the concept of “Leadership Blind Spots” helps inspire you to start conversations that bring new and risky thinking to life so together we can end our country’s tragic pattern of disengagement.

For more tactics to help remove today’s most detrimental leadership blind spots, check out What Are Your Blind Spots?: Conquering the 5 Misconceptions that Hold Leaders Back, available in October  via Amazon here.

  1. http://www.dlt.ri.gov/lmi/laus/us/usadj.htm
  2. http://www.gallup.com/poll/183545/employee-engagement-flat-may.aspx
  3. http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/a0763098.html

[This blog was first posted in April 2018 but has been updated to reflect final content from Rich and Jim’s forthcoming book.]

Comments

  • This could be a minor quibble or something significant. Kahn never used the term employee engagement, he used the word personal engagement. I think his distinction is an important one, but that is one man’s opinion. He also talked about psychological safety for engagement and it seems we are just catching up to that in the past few years.

  • Michelle Walker

    I’m excited to see the research and read the forthcoming book! And I wonder if the system is truly broken, or whether it was simply constructed this way (that is, it was never meant to work in the way that we expect it to today). I haven’t been in Corporate America for all that long, so I can’t speak to the original validity of these antiquated processes.

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