I don't care on wood

Employee engagement.  It seems to be the new buzzword in leadership and human resources.

The argument is that engaged employees are more productive, which helps the organization achieve its goals.  It also supports the idea that engaged employees are less likely to leave the organization, which helps HR’s retention efforts.

The definitions of what it means to be “engaged” generally focus on the employee’s emotional response to the job, the work environment, and organizational leaders:

  • According to Kevin Kruse (a Forbes contributor and New York Times best selling author), engagement reflects “the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals.”
  • Even BusinessDictionary.com defines engagement as an “emotional connection an employee feels toward his or her employment organization, which tends to influence his or her behaviors and level of effort in work-related activities.”
  • Investopedia.com asserts that it is “a business management concept that describes the level of enthusiasm and dedication a worker feels toward his/her job…[they] care about their work and about the performance of the company and feel that their efforts make a difference.”
  • The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) broadens these definitions to cover “the lifecycle employees experience physically, emotionally, psychologically and behaviorally with their organization…[they] feel safe and supported in these different states and as a result behave in ways that are more productive for the organization.”
  • But Workforce Performance Solutions warns that it is “the illusive force that motivates employees to higher (or lower) levels of performance.”

Perhaps it is this emotional foundation of employee engagement that makes it so difficult for many leaders to effectively motivate and engage workers.

With emotions at the heart of employee engagement, leaders’ responses must be customized to the unique needs of the individual. 

What is also evident in these different definitions lies in the effects that employee engagement (or disengagement) exerts on the operations and outcomes of the organization.

In a time when results are paramount to not only the bottom line but also the very survival of an enterprise, it is no wonder that “engagement” is generating a great deal of discussion in not only the HR community, but also the business media.

But there’s an additional problem with this need to engage employees:  no two organizations will define “engagement” in precisely the same way!

Burnout Is the Antithesis of Engagement

My area of research and expertise focuses on workplace burnout:  a particularly relevant inquiry in light of the need to fully engage all the faculties of employees in order to for companies to effectively, efficiently, and profitably compete in the modern global market.

Organizational leaders continuously seek to inspire employees to expend the needed effort to do their jobs well by meeting (or exceeding) performance standards – which, in turn, lead to achievement of organizational strategic goals and outcomes.

Notice that I said that leaders must inspire employees; in contrast, motivation is an internal state that manifests in behaviors that are aligned with the achievement of goals that are desirable to that particular individual.

Burnout negatively impacts a worker’s emotional, cognitive, and physical well-being.  In its advanced stages, this makes it nearly impossible for employees to effectively solve problems, make decisions, communicate with others, and respond creatively.

I would even go so far as to say that an engaged employee is less likely to burn out.  This is reminiscent of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, in which he observed highly engaged individuals as suffering few negative consequences from their concerted efforts to achieve the results that are important to them – even though their lower level needs might be overlooked.

While some may argue this assertion, it cannot be denied that a disengaged employee displays the same negative performance outcomes as one who is burned out.

It is this emotional aspect of engagement that is so important to igniting the uniquely human qualities that lead to creative innovation and sustainable growth.

“When people are financially invested, they want a return.
When people are emotionally invested, they want to contribute.”
– Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why

The challenge, of course, is HOW to ignite engagement and avoid burnout.

If You Want Employees to Care, Provide Tangible Proof That YOU Care

No organization exists without its people.  It is the workforce that enables an organization to survive…or fail.  The “organization” (or “corporate”) only exists on paper.  The heart and soul of an organization are (and always have been) found in the actions of its people – not on the written words of the mission statements and plans found on paper (and often filed away).

Emotions are closely related to an individual’s quality of relationships.  Taken in a group context, these emotions are tied to the culture of the organization:  those unwritten rules of “how we do things here.”  Relationships, therefore, are the cornerstone of the engagement or disengagement that characterizes an organization’s culture.

What do your organizational policies, practices, processes, and leadership style indicate about how you really feel about your workers?  Can you unequivocally state that they consistently show your employees that you genuinely care about their well-being?  Consider these 10 business practices:

  1. Are downsizings common? How do you take care of the employees after they leave your organization?
  2. Do you follow or even surpass the “letter of the law” in employment matters?
  3. Do managers and leaders really know their subordinates? Do they understand what motivates them – and then apply the WIIFM model (“what’s in it for me”) to address their values, goals, and beliefs when assigning projects or tasks?
  4. Is there an unspoken belief that workers must negate their personal lives in order to “succeed” in your organization? How do you handle requests for vacation or personal time off?
  5. Do organizational leaders embody what’s in your corporate ethics statement – or do they engage in unrestrained rants or bullying in order to get their way (under the guise of doing what’s necessary to achieve organizational goals)?
  6. Is there an understanding and recognition of the need for employee downtime in order to fully unleash their creative capabilities?
  7. Do you talk with employees – or talk at them? In other words, is participative management a cornerstone of your business model – or is it an autocratic “just do it” management style?
  8. Do you encourage employees’ questions and do you make a genuine effort to fully answer them to the employees’ satisfaction?
  9. Are you providing stretch goals that address not only employees’ strengths (in terms of their value to the company), but also are aligned with their personal and professional goals?
  10. Finally, do you appreciate and recognize employees’ efforts for not only “going above and beyond” but also to achieving what you requested of them?

No one will give fully of themselves if they do not believe that their efforts will be appreciated, recognized, and rewarded.  We (hopefully) don’t stay in toxic relationships that make us feel bad about ourselves.  Similarly, many of us leave employers we feel deflated, under-appreciated, and believe that we really don’t matter to our employers.

But by bringing the “human” back into human resources, many of the challenges associated with employee engagement can be overcome.  No human being – regardless of their position on the organizational chart – wants to feel bad about themselves, their efforts, and their contributions.

It all starts with recognizing the unique power of being human.  Treating people the way we want (and need) to be treated in order to perform at our best.

Simply stated, we want to feel on an emotional level that our employers genuinely care about us.

That they respect the conflicting needs of our professional and personal lives.

That they are grateful for our contributions to the achievement of organizational goals.

That they are happy that we are a part of the organizational team.

Yet, this is often an anomaly in the modern workplace.  While I thoroughly support the use of technology and even artificial intelligence in streamlining work processes, it is important to remember that these systems have been created by humans and the assumptions that they have about the workforce.

So, if your employees are disengaged, maybe it’s time to look in the mirror.  After all, they won’t care about what happens in the organization if corporate leaders don’t show that they care about their workers.

© 2019 G. A. Puleo.  Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning and Coaching company focused on eradicating workplace burnout through the B-DOC Model.  An entrepreneur for over 25 years, keynote speaker, author, blogger, business coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action” by watching her TEDx Talk on YouTube.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to www.gapuleo.com

3 thoughts on “Disengaged Employees? Maybe They Don’t Think You Care

  1. Yes! Great list of business practices. I particularly like #3. Along those lines, what I always think of in regards to engagement and retention is “what’s our value proposition for the employees who are already here?” -Nina


    1. Hi, Nina – Glad you liked my list of best practices to avoid workplace burnout! I’m always surprised when leaders are expected to inspire and motivate their subordinates — but they don’t have any idea who they really are, what matters to them, and therefore what inspires them to do their best. Great tip to consider the value proposition of CURRENT employees (who are too often overlooked in the quest for finding NEW employees). Thanks for sharing!
      FYI: You can also find videos on my YouTube Channel (Dr. Geri Puleo) that address these issues.


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