Wasting People – Who Cares?

Edvard Munch-The Scream-1893“How have you been lately?” I asked recently a friend of mine, working in a large corporation. The response stroke me – “I now feel better than a while ago. I have resigned myself to the idea that I have no future in my job, in my company. I will no longer be promoted nor challenged. So, the best I can do is switch to “autopilot” at work, and invest my brain and energy in meaningful activities outside of work”.

“I feel better. I have no hope anymore about my job”

This is killing me, really. Not just because she’s my friend, and I know she’s a very valuable resource to her company, but because I’ve witnessed this oh so many times.

Every time, it’s about skilled senior professionals, in their forties or early fifties. Although committed to the company’s mission, they are led to a point where they have no choice but to emotionally disconnect from work. These people may be bitter (read anonymous evaluations of companies on Glassdoor.com, they can be cruel) – or just disengaged. It hurts them most if they’ve strongly invested their professional field before, sometimes at the expense of their personal and social life. I’ve seen this happen a lot with women, which is not surprising given the ​lack of opportunities they are offered in the corporate world. But an awful lot of men feel they’re being put aside as well.

A lack of recognition, career stagnation, inept management, meaningless pressure, bureaucratic culture, sterilized internal communication, social stratification, the unpleasant “corporate kabuki” of performance evaluation are hurting those people in their professional life and personal self-esteem. The problem is not that people leave their companies, generating high turnover; the problem is that they stay. They stay with no enthusiasm, little pride and a low, very low productivity.

Sitting on a gold mine

Corporate leaders are sitting on a gold mine and they disregard it. While striving for growth and productivity, many companies still afford the luxury to waste a major resource: their own talents. They’ve managed to have those people join, they’re paying their salaries, infrastructure, travel, communications, and so forth… and end up using a fraction only of the available intelligence and energy.

How come they don’t take the issue more seriously?

It’s not that they are not aware. Employee disengagement is everywhere. Studies and surveys pile up. The recent Gallup “State of the Global Workplace” report, showing that only 13% of employees feel engaged, has been much publicized. Thirteen per cent! Other major consulting firms come to the same conclusion (Aon plc, Hay Group) and communicate heavily on their findings.

Mainstream business literature urges companies to do something about it. Studies demonstrate that higher employee engagement leads to “greater business success, lower cost in talent recruitment, (higher) workplace creativity and customer satisfaction”. In his remarkable book “The Flat Army. Creating a Connected and Engaged Organization”, Dan Pontefract (@dpontefract) compiles enough data and case studies to demonstrate that “engagement is good”, and “disengagement is bad”. The proof is in the numbers.

Any action?

Most often unfortunately, companies do little about this issue. Constrained by habits or unable to think differently, few of them admit that it’s precisely the way they are run that causes disengagement. Hierarchy, command-and-control, organizational silos seem natural and permanent – the price to pay for efficiency. Outdated leadership models have proven good for the leaders currently in place – so why would they change? Who would be willing to relinquish their power, status or comfort?

Some organizations launch a window-dressing “employee motivation” initiative that ends up with yet another employee survey (with closed, lenient questions), a stereotyped corporate movie (featuring beautiful, diverse, happy people that look 100% fake), one more top-down newsletter, or a wide range of lip service.

Some leaders just ignore the topic and bury their head in the sand, causing a friend of mine to claim: “Man descended from apes, leaders descended from ostriches”. They express fatalism and see employees as a mass of undifferentiated, not fully reliable people which needs guidance, structure and control. Sheep need a shepherd.

At the same time, companies go on spending $$$ to attract talent from outside, because their own talents are “not good enough”. Oh, really? Regardless of perception bias (“the grass is greener elsewhere”), could it be that they’re “not good enough” precisely because they’re not engaged?

Nobody says it’s an easy task. Engagement drivers are diverse. In large corporations, it is impossible to handle well individual aspirations and please everyone. Plagued by a “support function mindset, insufficient capabilities, and a low tolerance for risk”, most HR departments are “unable to relate the ROI or business impact of their function” (McKinsey) and cannot handle the issue seriously. They can even be an additional source of frustration for employees. Forward thinking HR exist, but they have a low share of voice.

Employee disengagement can be prevented (or cured)

However, despite the difficulties, a few simple changes could turn companies into more engaging organizations. How? Through social re-engineering. Changing paradigm. Empowering employees. Thinking of them not as “resources” but as “partners”, not as uncontrollable kids but as responsible grown-ups. Supporting communities. Giving up stereotyped language. Revisiting corporate leadership culture. Becoming a social organization… sufficient substance to feed future posts — and hopefully corporate strategies, someday. Among existing great resources on line, the Change Agents Worldwide blog is full of valuable insights on the matter.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your experiences. Have you witnessed disengagement in your working environment? Has any organization you know been able to turn around the situation, to build new motivation and passion for work? How have they done?

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