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How engaged are the employees where you work?

Employee engagement is a very big deal. Much of what differentiates mediocre organizations from excellent ones is this very simple thing: do the people who work there care about their work? Will they give of their best, and will they go the extra mile?

High employee engagement, though, is very rare! The people at Gallup run an annual State of the Global Workplace survey, and they always confirm the dismal truth. The most recent results tell us that only 23 per cent of the world’s employees feel engaged at work. In other words, less than a quarter of employees find their work meaningful, feel connected to their team and organization, and take pride in their work.

Not even one in four. And by the way, that’s the highest level of engagement measured by Gallup since they started surveying in 2009. The figure has typically been stuck at 10-20 per cent engagement. Indeed, the current figure is only higher because of a big rebound in South Asia, which now leads the world in employee engagement.

How are we doing in these parts? Sub-Saharan Africa has 20 per cent of staff properly engaged at work—just one in five. 60 per cent are not engaged, and a final fifth of employees are actively disengaged (they have already quit in their heads). A whopping 70 per cent are watching for or actively seeking a new job—our part of the world sadly leads on this statistic.

This lack of meaningful interest in work is very, very costly. Enthusiasm is one of the key ingredients of success, and always has been. There is only so much anyone can achieve when bored or bitter or benumbed. And as Gallup point out, negative emotions from work end up at home. If you’re not thriving at work, you’re unlikely to be thriving at life. So what are we getting wrong, people? 

As I wrote years ago in my book, The Bigger Deal, stop blaming the employees! Many a manager has this knee-jerk reaction: people are lazy crooks and they are impossible to manage. But people do come to life—somewhere. They do give of their best—somewhere. Where? Often, it’s in the other projects of their lives: their families, their faiths, their communities—even their sports teams. If we want them to come to life at work, the onus is on us.

There are, of course, bad employees that none of us can do anything with. But that’s a small proportion. What do the middle group, the 60 per cent who could be engaged, but aren’t, want? Gallup asked that question: what would make your workplace better? Only 28 percent globally thought it was about being paid more—and even those had nuances like being paid on time, being paid on merit, and sharing rewards more equally. The majority wanted improvements relating to culture and wellbeing: recognition for work; open dialogue; autonomy in decision-making; learning and growth; fairness; flexibility; social spaces; and plain, simple respect.

There’s a clear message there: make the workplace more human, and the humans will come to work.

There are organizations that know this very well. Those who win Gallup’s Exceptional Workplace Awards are very different. The global average is about one engaged employee for every one actively disengaged employee. But for the good workplaces, that ratio is eighteen to one. That’s a huge difference.

Where to begin if we want to be better? At heart, this is a failure of management and leadership. Gallup estimates that 70 per cent of team engagement is attributable to the manager. Bad managers make bad teams and bad employees. But do we even bother to teach managers how to lead human beings? We teach them to meet targets and run a tight ship, certainly—but the human part? How to create the conditions in which humans can thrive? How to understand the mass—and mess—of feelings that is the human being, and how to harness and channel the energy in those feelings? Not so much.

In The Bigger Deal I called it a shameful waste of life and talent, to be employed like that and to be employing like that. We still persist with workplace models that are from feudal times and from primitive factories. To get the best out of them, we must celebrate people as people.

Boards and senior executives spend huge amounts of time and money on strategy, operations, technology, efficiency and the like. But all of those are achieved through human beings. If we can’t work well with humans, we can only achieve short-lived success. Proper managers don’t just manage deadlines and deliverables; they manage feelings. They succeed because they build teams that want to succeed.

These skills can be trained and coached. They are teachable. But the imperative must come from the top. If boards and CEOs just see resources when they gaze down upon the organization, there is no hope that anyone else will see people. This is about fundamental values. Do we believe that our real work as leaders is to grow humans, who will in turn grow the organization? Or is it just to grow the bottom line, any which way we can?

(Sunday Nation, 3 September 2023)

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