Carbon Monoxide:The Typical Approach To Employee Engagement

"Carbon monoxide poisoning is the most common type of fatal air poisoning in many countries....colorless, odorless, and tasteless, but highly toxic." - Wikipedia
Unless you have a carbon monoxide detector, it's easy to get poisoned. The same is true of employee engagement: If you don't check it regularly, you only find out people have "checked out" after business results have suffered.

Employee engagement is not just problematic, but epidemic: According to Gallup, 71% of Americans were disengaged from their jobs in 2011. Specifically, they were "emotionally disconnected from their workplaces."

A paycheck is not enough. It's not enough.

In the past maybe it was, because you could be the angriest, most miserable person in the room and still do your job. Watch an episode of "Hell on Wheels" on AMC, where they're building the railroad. Hands swinging metal hammers over the rails meant the job was getting done. And "management" was a guy with a gun standing guard, saying ominously, "get back to work or you're fired." 

In those times you did not need emotional engagement to get workers working productively. Just the fear of starving.

But that was 150 years ago - "Hell on Wheels" depicts the Industrial Revolution and is set in 1865. Now we're in a service economy, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics it's a fundamental change away from manufacturing, with no end in sight: "The employment favor of service-providing industries is expected to continue." (Number-crunchers head here.)

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand that service work, unlike manual work, gets done when the employee is inspired, excited, happy, engaged.

Engaged employees in a service job do better work and the company makes more money. High-performing companies, according to Gallup, enjoy "3.9 times the earnings per share (EPS) growth rate compared to organizations with lower engagement in their same industry."

Most companies fail to take employees' emotional temperature, though, and so their air is sufficiently poisoned that they just stumble along. The average workplace, Gallup notes, has about 1.8 engaged employees for every actively disengaged one (whereas a top performer has a ratio of 9:57:1.)

Again, it does not take a genius to figure out how to get people excited to be at work. A funny word but a serious discipline, "engageonomics," yields some "drivers":

1. Belief that your job is important
2. Knowing what is expected of you
3. Opportunity to advance
4. Feedback from superiors 
5. Quality of relationships at work - peers, superior, subordinates
6. Perceived ethics and values in the workplace
7. Internal communications effectiveness
8. Rewards and incentives for being engaged

Even though "internal communications" is only one of these, at the end of the day every single one of these comes down to communication, don't they? How can any of them be accomplished in the absence of somebody communicating with somebody else, and the message getting through, loud and clear?

At the end of the day most service organizations don't find the pursuit of employee engagement a pleasant exercise. Let's face it - it is easier, and it preserves the existing power structure, to simply ignore and deny emotional issues rather than to face them. But just like with carbon monoxide testing, to deny the facts, however intangible, brings with it the risk that the organization will not be sustainable in the end. 

Some might be satisfied with "average" productivity based on an "average" measure of employees who routinely get "a case of the Mondays". And Tuesdays, and more. But we're living in a demanding world, where it's less and less possible to get away with being "average." 

Better to get ahead of the curve and eliminate the silent poison in the air, then to let it destroy the many positive aspects of the organization. The things that make people love what they do and where they work, and that produce good results for the customer every single day.

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