Engaging The Unengaged: Part 2

In Part 1 of Engaging the Unengaged, I refer to studies by the Gallup Workforce Survey. which have consistently placed the spotlight on organizational leaders’s weak “people skills” as a major factor in disengagement.

One major recurring theme in the studies is the importance of the positive relational dynamics that help co-workers feel connected to their work and a supportive workplace culture.

While these interpersonal skills may sound basic, it’s often surprising how many employees lack or ignore their value in promoting cooperation and good communication. Without question, these skills play a fundamental role in promoting engagement at work.

  • Listening 
  • Trusting others and being trustworthy
  • Empathy
  • Understanding the role of values, beliefs and needs
  • Emotional Intelligence

To understand any workplace culture, you must understand the mindset of the organization, which begins by looking at practices and norms that govern behavior.  One of the key factors necessary to foster engagement is the ability to create an energizing environment, where a person’s physical, social and emotional needs are being considered. What then, are the mindsets and behaviors that contribute to and demonstrate recognition of these needs? As leaders what do we need to know about others and ourselves emotionally that will nurture engagement?

One of the suggestions from a Gallup Study is that organizations should “hold managers accountable, track their progress, and ensure they continuously focus on emotionally engaging their employees.”  Given this recommendation, senior leaders must confront the question of how the emotional life of their organization is handled?  How emotionally aware are leaders to the needs and concerns of others? How skilled are they in their own self-awareness and self-management? How is conflict (which is normal within any healthy system) viewed and managed? While it may be the case that some senior leaders think training in these skills is important for their employees, how willing and able are they to examine how these beliefs translate into the details of their business operations?

For sure, we are always creating responses in others. From a neuroscience perspective, are they threat or reward responses? Are managers able to link their own behavior to the responses they label as unproductive in others?

Too often I hear the “refrain” that workers are paid to do their job; essentially they should show up at work, do whatever is necessary to assume their assigned roles and tasks…and leave their emotional lives behind at home.  Embedded in this mindset is the belief in a division between what is personal and what is business – that our consideration for others is only job specific. Who people are personally only matters to the extent it influences their job performance.

Absent in this belief is an understanding that engagement is an expression of a worker’s heartfelt connection to their job and depends on people’s willingness to bring who they are more fully into their workplace. The vital question is – what do people need to come alive through their work?

To put a larger frame around the issue of engagement, attention should be given to our present day business culture’s roots in a mid 19th and early 20th century mindset, exemplified by Frederick Taylor. To what extent does this mindset, buried deep in the collective psyche still affect the ability of today’s leader to influence employees in ways that build engagement?  Regarded as the “father” of scientific management, Taylor was one of the intellectual leaders of the Efficiency Movement and his ideas were highly influential in the Progressive Era.

Taylor believed in transferring control from workers to management and set out to increase the distinction between mental (planning work) and manual labor (executing work) and in the process institutionalized a new role and status differentiation between the management-thinkers and the worker-doers. Managers became the “adults,” planning for and directing the more “child-like” workers, who lacked the capacity for self-management.

In a business culture that makes engagement more difficult by discouraging the full range of one’s humanness from showing up at work and erroneously assumes that any discussion of “feelings” is akin to the therapeutic relationship, we reinforce a system that stifles self-expression, self-management and independent problem-solving. Because this 20th century Taylor mindset runs deep in the collective unconscious of today’s business culture, C-suite leaders are just as vulnerable to the dynamics of disengagement as their employees. Trained to play leadership roles, but acting from a place grounded in the mechanics of management, both managers and leaders fail to value the people side of work.

The better model would be one in which managers and leaders actually live the recognition that business transactions are done through people, that they’re not simply “cogs in a wheel. People need to feel the vitality of work and making this happen is a task equally shared by everyone no matter what their title.

In the words of Lari Washburn, founder of IdeaVerse, Lucent Technologies,“Accessing the whole, creative self hasn’t been done in corporate America, but it should be. Instead of focusing on only logic and rational thought in the workplace, people ought to draw from a deeper well. They’ll get more from their jobs and be more on the job if they do.

Thanks for reading. 

George Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants

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