Future of Work (Pt. 2)

I ended the last segment with the following question: how do you get a highly-preoccupied population, many of whom are soon to be out of a job, some of whom may be out of a career, to cooperate in the production of a solution to an unprecedented problem?

Before I venture an answer to that question, let me provide a bit more context.

An Epidemic of Disengagement 

According to a 2015 Gallup poll, 68% of US employees are not engaged at work.

“Gallup categorizes workers as ‘engaged’ based on their ratings of key workplace elements -- such as having an opportunity to do what they do best each day, having someone at work who encourages their development and believing their opinions count at work -- that predict important organizational performance outcomes.”

Gallup’s definition and statistics of engagement in the workplace may be further understood by looking at the concept of engagement through the lens of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Engagement + Maslow.jpg

While engagement at work doesn’t entirely define one’s state of Maslovian development, Gallup’s definition does map rather gracefully onto the final two tiers of what Maslow called “deficiency needs.” As each successive tier of development requires significant fulfillment of the preceding tier, it seems reasonable to assume that any individual spending forty hours per week (over one third of one’s waking adult life) in an environment where they are struggling or failing to fulfill their deficiency needs has a fundamentally limited capacity to co-create, be receptive to, or perhaps even be aware of societal solutions. To self actualize.

By contrast an engaged employee, having largely fulfilled desires for social belonging and self esteem, has a newfound capacity to think creatively, morally, and to contribute to the betterment of their social group.

And now returning to the lingering question, paraphrased: how do you get a bunch of stressed out, soon-to-be down and out strangers to collaborate in solving a wildly complex problem?

The answer is, I honestly have no idea. I'd love to pitch you an easy, winning solution, but I don't think we have one. It seems it'll be hard to avoid a great deal of suffering in this huge wave of change. But the question, and the lack of a silver bullet solution pose another great (if somewhat grand) question: what if the numbers were reversed, and 68% of US workers were engaged? What might that increase in collective mental and emotional bandwidth mean for our societal capacity to reach across the proverbial aisle and engage in more productive dialogue? To collaborate? To solve the world’s most difficult problems?

Digging Deeper

Gallup’s reports show that engagement levels in the US workforce have remained relatively static over the last fifteen years, despite increasing awareness of the positive impact of higher engagement for on many business functions, including increased sales and customer satisfaction, and despite the fact that US organizations spend almost almost three-quarters of a billion dollars on so-called engagement initiatives every year.

What accounts for this massive failure in the broader US engagement initiative? There appears to be a misunderstanding about what engagement really means.

What engagement clearly isn’t:

  • Easy
  • A quick fix or pre-packaged solution
  • Something an organization can have done to it by a consultant, any number of pioneering leaders, or anyone else
  • A lip-service or motivational attempt at reinventing a company’s culture, values, or policies
  • Always easy to measure results of (due to the multitude of non-controllable variables in any given organization)

What engagement likely is:

  • Hard
  • Time-consuming
  • Less attractive to individuals interested in maintaining a sense of control
  • Painful in the short to medium term
  • A unique set of behavioral and policy-based decisions that members of an organization can sincerely buy into.

As surreal as it sounds, if a sufficient percentage of American companies were to be sold on the idea that the above definition of engagement is sexy (profitable), and thereby develop a new workplace standard of intelligence, creativity and collaboration, could this new standard be more easily translated to, or even expected of society as a whole? Of government? What are the limits of our collaborative efforts?

Part 3 of this series will explore the link between Gallup's definition of engagement and theories of human motivation.

Corey Morrow