Employee disengagement, dead writers, and why there’s more than one way to do everything

Since I wrote this post in 2013, little has changed. Gallup’s 2015 report puts employee engagement at 32% for 2015; that’s up 1/2% from 2014, and 2.4% from 2013.


The 2013 update from Gallup to their “State of the American Workplace” report paints a dismal picture (and if you’ve spent any time in any American workplace, it’s also utterly anti-climactic). To quote from the intro penned by Gallup’s Chairman and CEO, Jim Clifton (or his ghostwriter):

“Of the approximately 100 million people in America who hold full-time jobs, 30 million (30%) are engaged and inspired at work. . . . At the other end of the spectrum are roughly 20 million (20%) employees who are actively disengaged. . . . The other 50 million (50%) American workers are not engaged. They’re just kind of present, but not inspired by their work or their managers.”

This is a pretty sad commentary on life in the U.S. It’s enough to make me want to move to France (or Italy, or Spain, or Belgium, or Australia . . . ). As I sit here straining to keep myself from beating my head against my cube wall, all I really want is a serious, well-thought-out answer to one question: Why does it have to be this way?

The thing is, there is no good answer to this question, because it doesn’t have to be this way. Nothing has to be any one way. The belief that there is only one way to do something is half our problem as a species.

“You have to make three photocopies of your TPS report, because that’s the way it’s done.” Really? Why? Is that the most efficient way for me to share my TPS report? What if I email it to the people who need copies of it? Wouldn’t that be faster, cheaper, and more ecologically responsible? Wouldn’t it save time, and paper, and toner?

The answer to questions like this is invariably NO, but the rationale varies depending upon the motives of the person being asked:

  1. The person is lazy, or deathly afraid of rocking the boat: “It doesn’t matter if there’s a better way to do it. Executive So-and-So likes it done this way, and would never approve the change.”
  2. The person doesn’t like ideas he didn’t come up with himself: “No, I don’t see where that would save anything. Just print the three copies. That’s the best way to do it.”
  3. The person is intellectually challenged to the point that you lost her as soon as you used the phrase ecologically responsible: [confused look] “Uh, no. Just make three copies.”

This scenario is played out in offices all over the U.S. daily. And I say that with absolutely zero data to back it up, yet with total confidence that I am 100% correct.

I read an article this morning about a copywriter in Indonesia who died after working over 30 hours straight. Why had she been working that long? Because that’s how it’s done in ad agencies the world over! If you don’t work long hours, you’re not really creative. In fact, when you accept a job at an agency, you do so knowing that you have implicitly agreed to:

  1. Adopting the hipster uniform (try wearing professional attire and you will be sent home to change)
  2. Growing the proper facial hair (yes, even if you’re a woman)
  3. Spending a minimum of three working hours playing some type of non-work-related game (preferably one that involves a flying ball of sufficient heft to take out a flatscreen and/or a human skull)
  4. Keeping at least one of your teammates waiting while you play the aforementioned game, forcing them to work a minimum of three hours overtime (unpaid, of course)
  5. Loving every second of it (or doing a damned good job at pretending to).

This is the one and only recipe for igniting your inner creativity and being a success. Or that’s what a lot of creative “superstars” would have you believe. This is just a guess, but I think it has something to do with diverting attention away from their work, or the lack thereof. But whether that’s because they’re not any good or they just lack confidence in their abilities depends on the individual superstar.

There is a better way to do it.

Here are just a few ideas for how to run a company or at least a creative department  so that it produces great work created by fully engaged employees who enjoy their jobs (and get the added perk of staying alive):

  1. Be an involved manager. Not a micro-manager, but a manager who actually assists his/her direct reports. One who is accessible, provides useful direction, and helps employees create great work for the company, and for their own portfolios.
  2. Express appreciation for your employees’ efforts. So often, a simple “thank you” can turn a disengaged employee into a happy one, or at least a hopeful one. It’s also a really inexpensive way to encourage proactive and innovative thinking.
  3. Understand that employees are also people, and treat them accordingly. People enjoy things like being with their families; being able to make dinner plans without fear they will have to cancel at the last minute; and sleeping. Which leads to . . .
  4. Accept that sleeping isn’t just something people like to do. It’s something people need to do in order to survive, to think, to function, etc. 8 hours minimum.
  5. Create the expectation that everyone will work collaboratively, and will be considerate of each others’ time.
  6. Create the expectation that everyone will work efficiently during the workday, so that everyone can leave the office at a reasonable time.
  7. Create the expectation that, on unavoidable occasions, overtime or weekend work may be required, but that it is not the norm, and offer employees equal comp time in exchange. When overtime starts to become a regular occurrence, it’s an indication that there is a problem that needs to be addressed, so address it.
  8. Communicate to other departments that these are the parameters for your department, and they will need to set their expectations — and the clients’ — accordingly. I’ve always found this to be a welcome communication, and an approach that coworkers in other departments are thrilled to support.

Clients only expect what they are promised. Don’t promise the moon, and they won’t expect to get it.

All the above can be stated more succinctly as: Create a culture of mutual respect. Again, I have zero data, but I promise you this is THE secret to creating and sustaining employee engagement at any company, in any industry; to increased profits and financial stability; and to skyrocketing to the top of Fortune‘s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list. Guaranteed.

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