Every leader reading this right now has undoubtedly pored over the results of an annual worker engagement or workplace climate survey, even drawing what they feel are useful takeaways. So why has independent research shown that worker engagement is stagnating? Kevan Hall, author and training services leader, has an idea: Companies don’t really understand where motivation comes from.
Editor’s note: The author of this article, Kevan Hall, is CEO of Global Integration, a training service provider.
There is little disagreement that increasing engagement of our people can do wonders for our organizations. Gallup’s research has found that when compared to unengaged workforces, engaged employees are associated with higher rates of productivity (+18% in sales), lower rates of absenteeism (-81%) and higher profits (+23%).
Gallup itself has conducted research into workplace engagement continually over the past 14 years, and companies have run annual surveys of their own, spending billions each year, to understand and improve employee engagement, much of that money going to survey platforms and technology.
What’s the result been? Globally, only 23% of workers are engaged, which does represent an increase over the early days of Gallup’s research, which found that only 12% of people were engaged at work. Still, engagement rates have remained mostly stagnant since the pandemic.
Gallup’s research further shows that more than half of workers are not engaged (also known as quiet quitting) while 17% are disengaged, which Gallup calls loud quitting. Even accounting for recent positive trends in global engagement rates, it’s clear that standard approaches to understanding and improving worker engagement are not, well, working.
Each year, engagement surveys show areas to improve, and HR departments and leaders get more and more actions that they need to take to improve the engagement of their people, which sounds good. The trouble is that in some organizations, the survey process has become a stick to beat leaders with and for employees to voice their displeasure about a range of issues.
Meanwhile, we have built an expectation in our people that engagement is something that’s owned by HR and leadership and employees can sit passively and expect someone else to engage them. But is this true?
A radical approach is needed
Traditional engagement methods tend to lead to a focus on the things that trigger extrinsic motivations, such as benefits, rewards, conditions, promotions and perks. While staying competitive in these areas is important, they aren’t long-term drivers of motivation and engagement. Put another way: Remember the last big raise you had? How long did you stay highly motivated by that? Extrinsic motivators quickly become your new normal, and more is needed to achieve higher levels of motivation.
Intrinsic motivation is the internal drive to engage in a task or behavior because it is rewarding or enjoyable in itself. This form of motivation is usually much more powerful because it is self-sustaining and it leads to greater longer-term satisfaction and well-being. Intrinsic motivation relies on finding meaning in the work itself, in growing, in having autonomy and in achieving mastery in your role.
It’s time for a radically different approach based on the realization that engagement is not something we can create in others; it is something that comes from within. We need to connect people to their intrinsic motivations at work.
Low engagement is not just a leadership challenge; it is a crisis in lost human potential and happiness. Most of us spend 40% of our waking hours for over 40 years at work. If we are not engaged during these working hours, then we have no possibility of a truly happy life. And complaining about the quality of leadership at your retirement party will be cold comfort for having led a disengaged life.
Helping people find a reason to engage
Engagement is really a win/win for organizations and individuals, and leadership should give all individuals a sense of ownership and the tools they need to improve their own engagement and happiness at work.
To do this, we need to work on four key areas:
- Getting employees to take more ownership for their own engagement, rather than waiting for leaders to take control. This is partly about explaining why it is so much in their own interests, and partly about giving them the permission and autonomy to pursue the improvements that work for them.
- Help people find their purpose and meaning at work. Many people feel they have a purpose in life, and McKinsey research has shown that about 70% of people say their sense of purpose is defined by work. But few people can actually articulate their purpose, and at my organization, we’ve been working with progressive companies to help employees understand their values, strengths, passions and purpose and how to connect them to their work.
- Encourage job crafting. Empower people to evolve their tasks to suit their career and work goals.
- Help people experience more meaning at work by exploring how they can connect their own values to the organization’s values and how they can understand the impact of their work on others.
When we talk to executives about this approach, they usually have one concern, “What if we find that people don’t share our values and they leave?” to which we respond, “What if you find that people don’t share your values and they stay?”
In other words, what happens when people who don’t share your values have important roles in your company? What do you think is the impact of those 17% of people who are actively disengaged on your productivity, innovation and well-being, both on themselves and on the people around them? Are they likely to be assets in managing risk and achieving high-quality work and effective compliance?