Choose Engagement

A recent USA Today article talks about employee engagement.  It cites a Gallup poll that claimed that 70% of American workers are either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” at work. That means 7 out of 10 people aren’t putting in more than they take out of their jobs.

The post goes on to suggest 3 remedies for the problem and I believe all of the remedies fall short of what is truly needed. Their suggestions revolve around what management can do to cause employees to engage. Each treats the symptoms rather than the disease.

By the very descriptions above, the choices are presented as mostly choices made by the employees.   But few employees take jobs they know they won’t like.  They don’t set out to be disengaged. Disengagement is a reaction - a result of the environment. But a disengaged employee population is part of the environment too.

The environment that produces employee dis-engagement must change.  Often that is the leadership’s responsibility. I believe there are two key ideas that set the foundation for an engaged workforce. Leaders must believe engagement will happen and employees must choose engagement.

As leaders, our goal should be to believe an engaged workforce is possible.  Regardless of the job (I grew up in the over-the-road trucking business), we must believe we can create the greatest workplace for the best people. We must actively find the best ways we can add value to the best workers.  When had my first management assignment in the trucking business, I decided I couldn’t please everyone. So I set out to please people who wanted to do a good job. I spent time with them; solicited ideas that would make their lives better; sought ways to make those people happy and more productive; and compensated them according to the profit they helped the company earn. I didn’t create an environment of my choosing and ask them to be engaged.  I treated them like customers and their “purchase” was engaged performance.  I believed engagement would happen.

As leaders, our goal should be to believe an engaged workforce is possible.

But I also created an environment where they were free to choose. We stated our policies up front. We did everything we could do to be transparent and treat employees with respect. We created standards and we operated according to those standards. We wanted our folks to know what they could expect of us and what we would expect of them. We gave them every opportunity to choose engagement. That relationship was based on respect. We respected their right to choose. We avoided the soft bigotry of low expectations. We expected the best and we got great performances from engaged employees.  But we also respected their decision. In a difficult job market, if people wouldn’t engage,we gave them the opportunity to find a place they would engage. In fact, we did everything we could to engage them, but in the end, if they wouldn’t engage, we would encourage them, and even release them, to look elsewhere.

We were both free to choose. As leaders, we chose to invest in engagement.  We chose to respect those who wouldn’t engage. We respected their decision.  Often, as employees, we compromise because we’re afraid we won’t make as much money or we’re too lazy to look for work. But we’re our most valuable when we’re most engaged. It’s a fact. Engaged people are more productive, happier and healthier both for themselves and their bottom line. Leaders shouldn’t tolerate disengaged employees. They should work to create jobs that are easy to engage. And employees shouldn’t stay in jobs they can’t wait to leave. By all means either engage or leave. In the end, we’re all free to choose and better off if we do.

Photo by little visuals

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