Far too many of us feel our hours at work don’t count. While our hands may seem full, our lives may not. As a result, many simply disengage at some level. Gallup found that 71 percent of American workers can be coded as either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” in their work, meaning they are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and are less likely to be productive. 1 “Actively disengaged” can even mean the workers are going so far as to undermine their workplace environment with negative attitudes and behaviors that amount to sabotage; we’ve probably all run into at least one of these people.
A study by the BlessingWhite research company also showed alarming disengagement levels in workplaces around the world 2 as did a study by Towers Watson that further indicated “businesses appear to be at a critical tipping point in their ability to maintain engagement over time.” 3 Relatedly, a study by the Conference Board research group indicated that only 47.2 percent of Americans are satisfied with their jobs, down from 61.1 percent when the survey was first conducted in 1987. 4
Surely though at the highest levels of a company, the executive level, where salaries are stratospheric in some cases, the problem of disengagement doesn’t exist, right?
Not the case. While engagement does increase the higher you go up the company chain, the BlessingWhite study indicated a full 41 percent of those at the executive level cannot be coded as engaged. The impact on the workplace is obviously detrimental as the report points out, “one dead battery will not jump start another”. 5
Surely this problem exists primarily among the less educated workers, those with a high school diploma or less who are likely making less money or might be laboring in less stimulating jobs, correct?
Again, this is not the case. Those with at least some college education are significantly less likely to be engaged in their jobs than are those with a high school diploma or less. 6
Surely the problem exists primarily in smaller companies that don’t have the financial resources to combat the sense of malaise, true?
This is another misconception. Leigh Branham and Mark Hirschfeld, authors of Re-Engage, found a direct correlation between company size and engagement – the larger the company size the lower the level of reported engagement. 7 While smaller employers still suffer from disengagement issues, they are better able to maintain the connective power between the rank and file than companies that have grown substantially in number of employees.
The problem of a disengaged workforce is more widespread than most would dream possible.
Which means the existence of meaning barren workplaces is more widespread than anyone would care to admit; when meaning in our work is absent, we tend to disengage at some level.
And therein lay a fundamental human truth. As Christopher Barlett from Harvard Business School said, “People don’t come to work to be number one or number two, or to get 20 percent return on assets, they come to work to get meaning from their lives.” 8 They come to work looking to get a very personal return on investment.
In fact, research indicates 70% of us are experiencing a greater search for meaning at work than in life. 9 And when work has meaning it drives the expenditure and investment of discretionary energy on a physical, cognitive, and emotional level. The investor enjoys a return of feeling like they matter and are making a difference, like their engagement is paying off.
Sadly, far too many aren’t investing enough to yield a decent return for themselves, their company, or anyone. It is the direct effect of a crisis of meaning.
A shocking number have sadly accepted their fate at work. They are effectively quitting and staying – settling for a paycheck, abandoning hope of finding fulfillment in their jobs, and knowing in their heart of hearts they aren’t performing anywhere near their maximum potential.
As well-meaning managers we employ a variety of motivational tactics to try and reverse the malaise – pay raises, bigger titles, better furnishings.
But the motivation generated doesn’t last. And so the void of fulfillment and disappearance of personal excellence accordingly follow suit. This absence of meaning can lead to resignation and withdrawal. Given adults spend more than half their waking life at work, we deserve better.
We deserve something that matters. We deserve something with resonance. We deserve meaning.
Simply put – meaning is the performance enhancer of our times. If you want to motivate the troops on a sustaining basis, job # 1 is to embrace the crisis of meaning we currently face, and embrace the materialization of meaning as the way forward. We’ll talk more on how to create a meaning-making ecosystem in future Make Work Matter blog entries.
1 Blacksmith, N., & Harter, J., Majority of American Workers Not Engaged in Their Jobs (October 28, 2011), Gallup.
2 Employee Engagement Research Update (January 2013), BlessingWhite.
3 Towers Watson Global Workforce Study (2012).
4 Conference Board Job Satisfaction Survey (2012).
5 Employee Engagement Research Update (January 2013), BlessingWhite.
6 Blacksmith, N., & Harter, J., Majority of American Workers Not Engaged in Their Jobs (October 28, 2011), Gallup.
7 Branham, L., & Hirschfeld, M., Re-Engage (2010), McGraw-Hill, p.28.
8 Atchison, T.A., Meaning: The “Secret Sauce” of High Performance, Atchison Consulting, LLC, www.governanceinstitute.com.
9 Holbeche, L., & Springett, N., In Search of Meaning at Work (2004), Roffey Park Institute.
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