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Why Everyone is Disengaged at Work

The growing epidemic of disengaged employees (currently hovering around 70% according to Gallup) is costing organizations nearly $8 trillion or 34% of each disengaged employee’s salary, per year. And that doesn’t even account for the time, energy, and life lost by each employee.

While researching my upcoming book on how to engage, unlock and keep top talent in this new world, I came across several ways organizations actually cause their people to disengage. I will share a few here, and will be diving deeper into this and what organizations can do about it in the book.

Employees don’t choose to disengage at work. No one wakes up and decides they want to spend the majority of their waking hours in a state of boredom, frustration, anxiety, or alienation. This disengagement stems from disconnection and goes beyond not being in the office during the pandemic. Disengagement is a coping mechanism any healthy human would employ to avoid the cognitive dissonance or mental discomfort of having to function in a direct experience that doesn't match the reality they know to be true. Let that sink in.

Disengaging, or disconnecting psychologically enables people to remove themselves, at least mentally, from situations where they feel a lack of stimulation, agency, belonging, or find themselves in otherwise warped experiences of reality.

For some employees, the disconnect stems from the gap between their daily experience inside the organization and the reality of their world outside it. For example, employees who are used to super-personalized, consumer-grade technology like iPhones, Netflix, and Amazon in the rest of their lives, literally have to step back in time to go to work in organizations that are still using clunky, enterprise-grade technology. For other employees, the disconnect arises when they are treated as cogs who must fit into the machine, without understanding where the organization is going, why, and how they fit into it. Another form of disconnect can emerge when employees are treated transactionally and are unable to connect with colleagues in meaningful ways. Finally, a disconnect can transpire between the employee and themselves as a human being when they can't be themselves or need to wear a mask to survive in the organization.

Let’s look closer at these 4 causes of disengagement

Disconnection from reality, as part of the organization. This misalignment between a person’s experience at work and the reality outside it can include friction-filled interactions, old technology, workplace practices from the 1900s, hierarchy, bureaucracy, and treating adults like children, to name a few. Even pre-pandemic, workplaces have grown more irrelevant by the decade as changes in the labor force, globalization, and advancements in technology began to accelerate in our VUCA world. As the workforce and the world have evolved, most organizations have not done a great job of updating structures, norms, technologies, management practices, social contracts, and overall employee experience to keep pace, and as a result, they provide a distorted reality for those who are part of them.

Disconnection between the employee and the organization. This can happen when the organization is positioned as the center of gravity, which employees must fit into. When it's all about the organization or its leaders, people don’t feel they matter or have agency and impact. As a result, they don’t feel accountable or committed. Along these lines, in our age of worker agency, organizations that do things to employees, instead of with them will see disengagement as well. This includes a lack of transparency, laying people off at a whim, or implementing changes in the organization without engaging employees in problem-solving and the design and implementation of solutions.

Over the years, the workforce has become more diverse, educated, and entrepreneurial. Yet many organizations still operate from industrial-era models when autonomy, creativity, and authorship were stripped of jobs in return for standardization and consistency. This is like a slow death to today’s knowledge worker who craves growth, meaning, and interesting work.

Today, employees and consumers alike want to be part of organizations whose values, strategies, policies, and actions align with their own personal ethos. Organizations that don’t articulate and activate an authentic vision, mission, and purpose, with ways employees can get involved will see this type of disconnect.

Disconnection between the employee and the people in the organization. Another disconnect can emerge when people in the organization are treated transactionally and seen as value to be extracted. If people don't feel known, included, and appreciated as an individual outside of their role, it diminishes rapport and connection with their colleagues and leaders. It’s important to build meaningful connections between people across the organization, based on authenticity, common understanding, and shared experiences to build trust, minimize bias, and increase belonging.

Disconnection between the employee as a human and the masks they may need to wear to be part of the organization. Employees who are expected to function in a toxic culture or an environment that lacks psychological safety, trust, inclusion, or respect, will experience a disconnect between themselves as a human and the role they need to play to survive in the organization. As a result, they will spend their energy hiding who they are, code-switching, and holding back on fully contributing their talents, insights, and abilities.

When employees are not acknowledged to be humans, instead of machines, another disconnect will arise. As technology has advanced over the years, so have expectations of employees to be always ‘on’, accessible, and giving discretionary effort as the baseline. Operating at this superhuman level for unsustainable periods without flexibility and the ability to recharge is one of the largest causes of burnout, disengagement, and attrition. which means the organization is definitely not getting the best of this talent.

The takeaway…organizations often inadvertently cause their people to disengage. Perhaps this flew under the radar in the industrial era, when all that was expected of factory floor employees was their hands. However, today, the main source of value creation (85%) in organizations comes from their people’s peak intellectual abilities and most humane qualities. This means organizations must be deliberate about creating the conditions to elicit them.

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