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Get Engaged

Engagement is about creating an environment where people want to come to work. It is up to managers to do what they can to make a positive difference

You can sense the problem almost the moment you walk in the door. The receptionist, if there is one, nods and points rather than saying anything. People you pass in the hallway avoid eye contact. Even people you are scheduled to meet seem distracted. They show up late for meetings, avoid small talk and get straight to the point, or think they do.

The issue may be poor communication, disaffected culture or declining performance; the root cause, however, is obvious, at least to an outsider: lack of engagement. The energy level in the organization rivals that in a 1950s horror movie about zombies, creatures who had the life spirit sucked from them and were doomed to walk the Earth like automatons - unthinking, uncaring, unfeeling. On second thought, maybe the celluloid zombies had it better; they felt no pain. Today's workplace zombies do think and care, and are in pain. Why? Because they are working in an environment that has sucked away any initiative or spirit for work they might have. In consultant terms, we call this the disengaged workplace.

Engagement a Common Concern

Engagement is a top-of-mind topic in management today. Engagement implies connection between worker and work. In the simplest terms it means that people feel a part of what's going on; they know their roles and pursue them with purpose. More especially, engagement has come to refer to a "switched on" workforce where people cannot wait to come to work because they feel a part of something bigger than themselves. To borrow a concept from Peter Drucker in reference to knowledge workers, engaged workers have the mindset of volunteers; that is, they love what they do because they know they are making a positive difference.

According to a recent study by Towers Perrin, a leading human resource consultancy, many workers feel estranged from their senior managers; they simply do not trust them. This is particularly galling to employees when they have stuck with a company in tough times. According to one Towers Perrin consultant, "[Workers] don't feel they see enough in terms of pay raises, incentives or other rewards for their contributions - despite hearing lots of talk about 'pay for performance'." All too often, those at the very top get plenty of rewards for their performance while employees remain mired in the same pay grades. Such inequity does breed disengagement.

The responsibility for creating engagement is the responsibility of senior management, but in reality those managers are often so engaged in their own work that they really are unaware of what's happening on floors below them, metaphorically speaking. They may wonder why workers seem disinterested, but that thought is fleeting. Therefore, creating engagement falls to the manager; it is her responsibility to connect the work to meaning. How managers do this distinguishes the good ones from those going through the motions.

Communicate the difference. So often people feel lost and bewildered at work because no one has taken the time to talk about the nature of the work. For example, it's the manager's job to talk to the IT team and point out that what it does is vital to the entire enterprise. It is not simply a matter of keeping a system running, but pointing how the system contributes to specific functions, enabling people to do their jobs better and more efficiently. And when people are in the know, they may take it one step further and want to make improvements so the entire system gets improved. Such will happen only if the manager takes time to talk the big picture.

Reinvent the job. One reason folks feel disenfranchised is that their job skills have atrophied. They are like weekend bodybuilders who exercise only their upper bodies and develop good pectoral muscles, but their legs look withered by comparison. So it is with an employee in purchasing or finance who does the same thing over and over again. The part of his brain that does cost comparisons is vital; the part of the brain that calls for creative thinking is shrunken. The challenge for the manager is to keep the employee's mind in the game, and to do that, he should engineer job rotations and challenge people to upgrade their skills. In fact, in today's economic climate, if you are not upgrading, you are falling behind; status quo is another word for stagnation. Allowing people to have a say in the destiny of their own job is liberating. It unleashes creativity that not only benefits the individual, but also inspires the team. And that can only be good for the entire organization; it may reap benefits in terms of streamlined processes as well as new and improved products and services.

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