United States: 5 Steps To Foster, Inspire & Sustain Engagement

Our nation and most countries around the world are fighting an epidemic of alarming proportions. It is not cancer, intolerance, civil and political unrest, racial divides, religious warfare, terrorism, cyber-attacks, hunger, access to clean water, or the technology gap, although unfortunately all of these social epidemics remain firmly in place. It is a diagnosed crisis of disengagement—a discourse affecting the very central nervous system of our global economy, and an epidemic destroying innovation, creativity, productivity, motivation, profitability and long-term shareholder value.

This crisis of disengagement is a societal and workplace disease costing us billions of dollars a year in the United States and trillions of dollars a year worldwide—a calamity so large that it could literally reverse the trend of our evolution if not soon corrected.

Recent studies by Gallup, the Conference Board and many other prominent organizations and academic researchers have found that only 40% of Americans are "somewhat satisfied" with their work and the career paths they are following. The remaining 60+% are somewhat or highly dissatisfied, citing inadequate challenge, pay, leadership, morale, culture, sense of purpose or not feeling appreciated at the heart of their disdain. Many individuals appear to be bored or apathetic, which eviscerates productivity and ability to innovate and in turn affects the profitability of our companies and our ability to remain competitive in the world market. 

Engagement: we all want it. We want engagement in our personal lives, in our work lives and in the various relationships we maintain. Employers and managers want engaged workers and teams.  Business owners want engaged customers. Manufacturers and franchisors want engaged channel partners and franchisees. Teachers want classrooms populated by engaged students. Civic leaders want citizens that are truly engaged in their communities. Wall Street wants to invest in companies that can attract engaged innovators. Political and government leaders want voters who are truly engaged in the election process and the issues that we all face today, regardless of party affiliation. Religious leaders want congregations who are engaged as leaders and active members of their churches, synagogues, temples and mosques. 

Workers search for passion and meaning in their lives and want to be part of engaged cultures built on the basis of mutual trust and respect. The irony is that with all of the desire for engagement, most studies point to levels of disengagement that have reached crisis levels; we appear to be more disengaged, disconnected, distracted and disenchanted with our work and personal lives than ever before in our history. Why is there such a gap between our desired and actual states of engagement? What can we all do to get engagement back on track in our lives and in our workplaces? How can we close this gap quickly and efficiently in order to drive up levels of workplace satisfaction, innovation, creativity, productivity, profitability and ultimately shareholder value?

Best practices may vary among regions, industries, and even companies, but here are 5 things you can do now to foster and sustain engagement and inspire your team.

1. Tear down the walls between people, ideas and collaboration. 

The Mars family never believed in corner offices or anything standing in the way of a collaborative culture. On the reverse side, at New York City based branding firm, Collins, founder Brian Collins advocated against having an open office plan. The thought of open office plans without walls, cubicles, and other physical barriers has been dubbed a "polarizing phenomenon;" advocates argue the lack of isolation fosters community and collectivity which spurs innovative thinking, while opponents assert it is nothing more than a way for companies to save immense amounts of money under the veneer of creative development. 

Recently, a commercial real estate association conducted research on the amount of space per office worker in North America, finding that space is dropping per employee—from 225 square feet in 2010 to 176 square feet in 2012. But employees are not experiencing this phenomenon as a reduction in space alone; it is a more streamlined flattening occurring across job titles, affecting even the upper echelons of management. However, thought needs to be put into the way this space is organized;  while the open office concept may be easy to understand, designing a space in which teams can work well together in an atmosphere that vibes with the workflow of the office is critical.

2. Tear down the barriers for airing grievances and exchanging feedback.

If you work in a big company, chances are you are getting more feedback lately whether you are aware of it or not. Recent revelations about Amazon's competitive work culture described a company feedback system in which employees could send gripes to co-workers' bosses about their performance, sometimes without the co-workers' knowledge. Invoking a workplace version of "Lord of the Flies," workers said that some used the tool, called Anytime Feedback, to gang up on rivals or oust low performers. The retailer's system may strike some as harsh, but peer reviewing has been in offices for a while. So-called 360-degree reviews allow co-workers and managers to weigh in on one another's performance.

A host of firms have been experimenting lately with online tools that allow co-workers to send one another criticism or praise, sometimes anonymously. While systems like Amazon's are comparatively rare, workforce technology experts say anonymous and peer feedback features come standard in widely used performance management software utilized by Workday Inc., Cornerstone on Demand Inc., Salesforce's Work.com and others. 

However, if you truly want to get engagement back on track, you need to peel back the layers of the onion deep enough to reach the core of the problem. And, you can only get to the core of the people who are willing to tell you how they really feel and not just what you want to hear (or what they think you want to hear). 

3. Foster a culture of natural (and encouraged) curiousness.

 People who are inquisitive are usually engaged and vice versa. We rarely wonder aloud or to ourselves how to make things better or how to do our jobs more effectively when we fail to care. Every day, employees have the opportunity to learn new information that could improve their performance, yet many fail to take advantage of it. People are often hesitant to seek advice because they fear it may cause them to appear incompetent, says Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. In fact, those who seek advice are perceived as more competent than those who do not according to a recent paper written by Brooks along with Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School, and Maurice E. Schweitzer, a professor at Wharton.

On the other hand, those in a neutral emotional state tend to discount the advice they receive, according to separate research by Professor Gino. This stems from what psychologists call "egocentric bias," in which people think they know better than others. Yet, she has found that our perceptions of our own competence are often inaccurate.

4. Communicate early and often.

 It can take many moons to build a culture of trust and only one incident to dilute or destroy it.  Logjams in communication create logjams of trust, which can quickly erode a culture. People become disconnected, directionless and distrustful when leaders are playing their cards too close to the vest or become opaque in the face of great challenge or crisis. 

Leaders often assume that "father knows best" or "you can't handle the truth" or "you need to know on a need-to-know basis," but we are living in a culture of transparency; nearly half of our workforce was raised in a society of transparency, so it makes sense that our expectations have evolved. Perhaps in the 1940s or 1950s, the average worker just did his or her job and trusted in management, but today's workforce wants to stay connected, be in the loop, and participate in the decision-making which affects the future of the enterprise. 

Where there is a disconnect between leadership and perception of direction, people will let their minds wander to the worst of scenarios, or worse yet, fill in the missing blanks of your corporate mission or strategy with thoughts of their own. Those thoughts can at best be inconsistent and chaotic, or at worst negative and destructive.

5. You get what you give.

 Invest in your people or they'll vote with their feet. But do not assume that you know what they really want. The investments you make should yield short, medium and long-term results and returns for both the company and the employee. 

Of course cash is always nice, but it's a commodity with a typically short-term impact. If you give an employee a $100 bonus for a week of hard work, it will likely be used to pay a bill or even for a nice dinner and then it's gone, with no greater impact than the famous "if you give a man a fish, he eats for a day, but if you teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime" saying. If you teach a man to be a fishing guide, he teaches hundreds of others to eat for a lifetime–the multiples and catalyst effect. 

Medium and longer mutually beneficial investments are focused on what is really important: training and education (including "train the trainer"); peer recognition and reward; coaching and mentoring; lifestyle and workplace flexibility; access to great technology; and, understanding and office civility. Find the truly impactful and meaningful benefits that make a measurable difference in people's lives and they will understand that you truly care about them, which will have a direct and sustainable impact on engagement.

"The basic philosophy, spirit and drive of an organization have far more to do with its relative achievements than do technological or economic resources, organizational structure, innovation and timing. All of these variables weigh heavily in success. But they are, I think, transcended by how strongly the people in the organization believe in the basic precepts and how faithfully they carry them out."

-- Thomas J. Watson, Jr., Former CEO of IBM

The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of Brianna Schachter, a J.D./M.B.A. student at American University Washington College of Law and Summer Associate at Seyfarth Shaw.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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