It’s Not Me, It’s You

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    Welcome to Edition 29 of the Humanity Working Newsletter! This edition, why we may need to rethink employee engagement, and why we are not being strategic enough about mental health in the workplace.

    Is Employee Engagement Too Much to Ask For?

    Are you engaged at work? If you are, according to Gallup, you are in the minority.

    In 2023, Gallup shared that only only 33% of employees are engaged, 50% are disengaged (quiet quitting) and 13% are actively disengaged (loud quitting).

    Given these numbers, it’s not surprising that employee engagement is a concern for many organizations, but given how much money organizations are spending on trying to improve employee engagement, I think it’s time to ask some really fundamental questions about it, like why employees are not engaged, whether investments in employee engagement make sense, and what the right response might be from employers.

    Why Don’t Employees Care About Work?

    In the book Drive, Dan Pink talks about 3 factors that are essential to be motivated, or engaged at work – autonomy, mastery and purpose. Is he right? After a few years of research into this, we believe that the answer is…partially.

    It turns out that autonomy, mastery and purpose all matter a great deal, but only AFTER other factors are taken care of, something I call the foundations of engagement.

    These are the foundations for engagement:

    • Safety: Work provides food and shelter for me and my family. It is physically and psychologically safe.
    • Clarity: I know what good looks like at work. I understand my role, and how to be successful in it.
    • Growth: My life and work are improving and I’m growing as an individual.
    • Adaptability/Resilience: I’m able to adjust to changing circumstances, and I can cope intellectually and emotionally with the change.

    Most companies fail to address these issues, then wonder why employees are not engaged.

    Does Investing Directly In Employee Engagement Work?

    In the most recent Gallup survey, they estimate that the cost of disengaged employee engagement is $1.9 trillion annually. You know what they say – a trillion dollars here, a trillion dollars there, and pretty soon you are talking about real money.

    But whatever the theoretical number here, the bigger question is whether investing in employee engagement really changes it. Now of course, as an individual company, you may have seen great results in employee engagement investments. But it is true to say that there is little if any proof that direct investments in employee engagement do what they say on the tin.

    In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that these investments do NOT work. Despite billions of dollars of investment in employee engagement solutions – overall employee engagement figures haven’t actually changed that much in the 24 years Gallup has been running the survey. In fact, the peak level of engagement is 40%, and that number was reached at the height of the pandemic, which makes you wonder if other factors were at work. Are you going to volunteer you are not engaged when unemployment is spiking?

    Now to be clear, I’m not remotely suggesting that trying to create meaningful work for employees is meritless – just that these investments don’t pay off effectively if they don’t consider the reality of what work is today and the underlying factors that inhibit engagement.

    Should It Even Be About Engagement?

    For most of the history of work, discussions around employee engagement would be an alien concept. As hunters, gatherers and later farmers, we worked so we could feed and shelter ourselves and our families. And when the Industrial Revolution kicked in, we began a transactional relationship – employees provided the labor, and employers provided just enough money to get reliable access to that labor. You would be hard pressed to find any employers or employees talk about the concept of “meaningful work” in that environment.

    The concept of employee engagement only really began to gain traction in the management and business communities in the late 20th century, as studies began to show that employees who were more actively committed to their work were more productive. And the annual Gallup survey only served to supercharge the discussion.

    More recently, employees have been getting in on the conversation as well. Multiple studies show that GenZers are much more likely than their predecessors to seek meaning and a higher purpose in their work. But of course it’s almost impossible to separate cause and effect here. It’s entirely possible that the new generation of employees are demanding meaningful work BECAUSE their employers are seeking engagement. In other words “if you want me to care beyond the paycheck, give me a reason to.”

    Of course, all other things being equal, meaningful work that aligns with your values is more satisfying and easier to do than meaningless work that does not. But even this is more complicated than it seems. To see this, consider some counter-examples.

    • Imagine your work is so meaningful that you can never let it go. It occupies every waking hour, prevents you from sleeping, stops you exercising and eating properly and connecting with friends. Is that good for you or your team?
    • Imagine you are in a toxic work environment where you are bullied frequently by colleagues and management. Is it better for your mental health to engage more deeply in work, or disengage from it, perhaps to the point of quitting?

    The reality is that the relationship between engagement and employee health is a complicated one that has been simplified too much. In many cases increased engagement is good, in other important cases disengagement is a mental health strategy to make the reality of work more tolerable.

    An Alternative Approach: Human-Centered Organization Design

    The last few years has seen an explosion of research into happiness. The sum total of that research? Happiness is not something to pursue directly, and doing so is usually counter productive – rather its something you tend to get more of when you create the right conditions, which include creating strong, meaningful relationships with others. And happiness is a whole-life thing that includes, but is not limited to work or non-work environments.

    Unsurprisingly, our work suggests that employee engagement is similar. It’s too elusive for us to approach directly, and it’s too complicated to shortcut. But what companies CAN do is create human-centered organizations built around the fundamentals I discussed earlier in this newsletter.

    Organizations can be designed to be safe places to work, that clearly define success, invest in employee growth and arm employees to deal with change. If those foundations are created and infuse the culture, engagement can and will emerge.


    Mental Health at Work

    We are currently in the midst of Mental Health Awareness Month. Does your workplace prioritize mental health?

    It turns out that while offering mental health support services is very important, it’s a tiny fraction of what is needed to create a full workplace mental health strategy. The reality is that 2 out of 3 people with a mental health issue don’t seek help, and it often takes years for people to reach a point where they are ready to seek help.

    I had an amazing opportunity to sit down recently with Dr. Allessandria Polizzi from Verdant Consulting for the Humanity Working podcast. Dr Polizzi is one of the leading authorities on creating psychologically safe workplaces that generate business value. I learned a ton, and I think you will too if you watch or listen to the episode, which you can see below.

    Dr Polizzi and I enjoyed the discussion so much, that we’ve decided to do a follow up, with our first ever live podcast recording!

    The episode is called “How to Not Suck as a Leader” and will be recorded on May 22nd 2024 at 12PM EDT. You can register to attend here, and get your questions answered! I hope to see you there!

    About Us

    If you are worried about how prepared your employees are for change – change in work environments (like hybrid and remote), business strategy, or even technology changes, you should talk to us. Just reach out us here and we can get a call scheduled.

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