Why would people be ‘engaged’ at work?

Only a third of employees trust their bosses and 58 percent have a ‘not bothered’ attitude to their work, the CIPD announced earlier this week. These findings, based on the quarterly Employee Outlook survey, were greeted with alarm by many in my Twitter stream…well, alarm followed by attempts to plug leadership training anyway. Others, including the CIPD’s new chief executive, blamed the “unethical behaviours and corrosive cultures overseen by senior [business] leaders” in recent months.

There are a couple of things wrong with all this. From what I can see, the employee engagement and trust scores in the CIPD’s report haven’t changed much in recent months.

The CIPD hasn’t been running its employee engagement index for long enough to go back much further than this but take a look at this survey from 2006.  It found that only 30 percent of employees were fully engaged.  So, assuming the definitions were similar,  employee engagement was about the same in 2006 as it is now. Even before the banking crisis, the News International scandal and Libor fixing, only around a third of employees were engaged. Not much evidence there, then for the “corrosive cultures’ claim.

None of this is new either. Go back to 2003 and Gallup reckoned that 61 percent of employees were disengaged and only 20 percent were fully engaged. Makes the CIPD’s 36 percent look quite good.

Is this just the British with their not-bloody-likley attitudes? Not according to Towers Watson who have found that 63 percent of American employees are “not fully engaged in their work“.  What about China then? According to this 2010 survey:

Chinese employees are the most disengaged globally. Nearly a third of employees (29%) in China are fully disengaged. Furthermore, only 1 in 6 — 17% — are actually engaged.

And so it goes on. The world is full of surveys by pollsters, consultancies and management bodies bemoaning the lack of employee engagement.

But wait a minute, look again at that CIPD survey. The middle 58 percent are simply described as ‘neutral’, implying that they are neither engaged nor disengaged. The interpretation ‘not bothered’ was added into the commentary and press release.

Most engagement surveys are published with a commentary that treats disengagement, or even the absence of full engagement, as pathological. Clearly, the lack of it means that something is wrong.

The definitions of engagement vary but they usually involve workers having some kind of emotional identification with the organisation, speaking positively about it to others, feeling enthusiastic about their jobs and being willing to put in discretionary effort, or “go the extra mile”. Just doing your job, it seems, makes you ‘not bothered’.

Engagement, then, is asking quite a lot of people. Perhaps those who are engaged are the odd people and the ‘not bothereds’ are normal. The survey data certainly seem to suggest this.

Even in the most empowered and least hierarchical organisations, the employment relationship always contains some measure of compulsion. Even the best bosses sometimes make you do things you don’t want to do. The further down the hierarchy you are the more of this you get. Command and control, in its various forms, is still the order of the day in many organisations, which is why we have a powerful lobby demanding that the government make it easier to punish workers.

Most of us are only a few pay packets away from poverty and we have to work to live. A few of us are lucky enough to enjoy at least some aspects of our jobs but for many, work is just what you do to earn the money you need. If bits of it are interesting that’s a bonus. A lot of people dread work. That’s why people get Sunday night anxiety and there are no restaurants called TGI Monday.

Harry Braverman told us that this is because most people are divorced from the ownership and control of the means of production. With only their labour to sell, workers have limited control over how that labour is used and no control over how the products of it are distributed. All this, says Braverman, is de-humanising and soul-destroying. No wonder, then, that a lot of people have a Meh attitude to work.

Managers, especially senior ones, with a high degree of control and often a stake in company stock, express surprise that so many people are disengaged from work. What they should really be asking themselves is why people should be engaged at all. As I’ve said before, reading a bit of Harry Braverman might be good for them. If managers started with the expectation that people would be disengaged unless they did something to engage them, it might make them better managers.

Is it really surprising that those with little stake or control in the organisation don’t identify much with it or feel inclined to “go the extra mile”? The way most companies are organised and the unequal distribution of rewards ensure that the prevailing wind blows in the direction of disengagement. Left to their own devices, people will drift along with it. It takes a particularly skilled and enlightened manager to steer them in the opposite direction.

Against this background, 39 percent engaged, only 3 percent actively disengaged and the rest nether-here-nor-there, doesn’t look that bad.

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16 Responses to Why would people be ‘engaged’ at work?

  1. Pingback: Why would people be ‘engaged’ at work? - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. Owen Adams says:

    The most ‘meh’ employees ever? http://www.meh.uk.com/

  3. Thank you – I enjoyed your post. You might be interested in Kellerman’s ‘The End of Leadership’; in essence she suggests that there is indeed a trend here – that the balance of power is shifting from leaders to followers for a variety of reasons. Without going into detail, her argument does seem broadly consistent with a widespread shift from top-down, one-to-many, command&control structures to many-to-many networks of influence. And there is some solid research relating to demographic trends (thinking of a 2010 Accenture report I read) suggesting that future generations will expect to move jobs more frequently and be driven by self-interest. And frankly – who can blame them: organisations are tending towards more flexible extended workforce models utilising a greater proportion of contract and freelance staff. In this light ‘Employee engagement’ and ‘trust in your leaders’ smack of paternalism, and seem a little, well… anachronistic.

  4. Daniel says:

    Meh doesn’t help when i realise out of 12 months work about 5 months of it belong to the taxman in income taxes. For 3 hours of my 8 hour day i’m not fully compensated for my work so why bother working overly hard all day if it isn’t warranted.

    • Doug Shaw says:

      Interesting contribution. I may have misunderstood, but do you think people in work would feel more engaged if they kept 100% of their earnings while the country literally fell apart around them? I’m struggling to understand what you mean by ‘warranted’ in that context.

      • Daniel says:

        I know i would and your country falling apart line is pure hyperbole and would be better served by reading some Rothbard or Mises than me answering it. Warranted in that context means i don’t feel warranted working hard all day since i know nearly half of it isn’t for my employer it’s for the taxman.

        I will preface this with saying i am a voluntarist and feel all taxes are morally wrong due to the implied or literal threat of force needed to collect them, probably one of the only ones on this site i would imagine.

        Working within the current real world I would prefer workers were given all their wages and any taxes the government wants them to pay (lest they should be fined or go to jail failing to pay) should be paid like any other household bills, by the workers and not taken from their wages. I think people would hold their government more accountable if they actually had to physically pay their taxes rather than stealthily taken off them before they have a chance to miss it, i’d also have every item sold display price inc and exc taxes on it so you can see how much you are forced to pay tax on items, constant reminders.

        When i said 5 months of my work is for the taxman i was just talking income taxes, if i add in the taxes like VAT, NI, Fuel Tax and heck knows how many others i wonder what my effective tax rate it, probably 50% or more, i work half my working life for the government.

        • Rick says:

          Daniel, your ‘voluntarist’ idea falls at the first hurdle. If there are no taxes, there can be no state. If there is no state, there can be no property. In which case, the stuff you say is yours is no longer yours.

          Your property is only yours because the law says it is. Property, like taxes, also relies on the implied threat of force to preserve it. Without the state, anyone could come along and take what you deem to be yours.

          • Daniel says:

            > If there are no taxes, there can be no state.
            Indeed it’s mostly based on the Non-Aggression Principle but it’s sometimes called anarcho-capitalism for that reason, though i don’t like that term personally as in a voluntarist territory you could be a capitalist or a communist, since there is no state monopoly on the use of force to enforce any one form of organization. Once you see the hidden threat of force that follows you it’s hard to unsee it, taxes are the most obvious one. I wouldn’t expect any such society to happen any time soon, technology will probably continue to make the state less decentralized then irrelevant altogether.

            > Property, like taxes, also relies on the implied threat of force to preserve it.
            Property relies on the threat of force, sure, but does it have to be threat of government force? Any force used would be much more accountable than government force is now.

            Property rights are a heavily debated topic in the community though most seem to think that a system of homesteading and mixing your labour with the land (i.e. if i own myself then i own the products of my labour) would define who owns what. Money would still be around and fall into that last bit, if i work for someone i am compensated for my labour with money and i can trade that for items made with other peoples labour, including land. It’s pretty simple, whether it’s barter or money trade so long as no fraud or force is used then the transaction is voluntary and both parties gain from it.

            >Without the state, anyone could come along and take what you deem to be yours.
            Private security is another debated topic, though i would imagine such a society would be well armed and versed in self defense with private security needed for when the force is beyond your ability to defend yourself and your possessions. What’s to stop you from mugging me now? Breaking into my home and killing me? Anyone who is willing to do those things isn’t bothered about the law or the state, crime happens everywhere even in the most heavily policed states and it would still be an issue in a stateless society.

            But like i said it’s complex topic and would be better explained by reading something like Man, Economy, and State by Murray Rothbard.

  5. Pingback: Being engaged at work « Carnival Boy

  6. This is a really interesting blog, though I’m not sure that it is alienation from the ownership of production and more the unstimulating nature of many jobs that causes a lack of engagement. I prefer the Adam Smith view that “The man whose whole life is spent in performing a
    few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same,
    or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to
    exercise his invention” – in other words boring jobs means disengaged workers!

  7. Hi Rick. Sorry for delayed response – and glad of the ‘Twompt’ (see what I did there?). I did read this the other day, and shared with colleagues. I really liked it. It made me laugh, and think. Both good – and both typical of when I read your blogs.

    Did we put a catchy title on the press release? Guilty. But not sure I agree with the view that the stats aren’t that bad. A lot depends on what you think the question is. If it is “Should I as an employees be more engaged?”, or “Do I really have to display more than neutral engagement to justify my pay check?”, then I think you’re entirely justified in querying whether employees can or should be *expected* to answer anything other than “no”. But if you turn the question back on managers and leaders and ask “is this good enough?”, then our point is that you’ve got to *want* the answer to be “no”.

    Our concern with the high levels of neutral engagement is not directed at the “not engaged”, but at the managers and leaders who are not sufficiently engaging. As a CEO, or a shareholder, you can’t wish for those levels of neutral engagment, if you know that means a disproprotionate number of people are going to be underperforming or looking to move on.

    So, back to where I think we 100% agree … As you say: “What they should really be asking themselves is why people should be engaged at all?”. Absolutely!

    Thanks for taking the time to read and engage with our stuff. We liked the blog, and the challenge.

    Rob Blevin, from the CIPD.

  8. Mil says:

    I don’t want to criticise the poll-takers themselves but I do know that engagement surveys carried out by external companies for the corporation I used to work for were massaged mercilessly by middle- and lower-management: this massaging ranged from free time with free chocolate bars whilst taking the survey to managers looking over shoulders to help “explain” the meaning and implications of the questions. Some colleagues even got time out in the run-up to the blessed surveys themselves in order to prepare explanatory PowerPoints which were aimed at showing how the company was indeed fulfilling its goals. So just ‘cos the poll says such-and-such a percentage of people don’t feel engaged – or do – doesn’t mean it’s true. But you knew that anyway.

  9. Based upon anecdotal evidence I’m just surprised that (consistently) only 3% of workers state themselves to be “disengaged”.

  10. Pingback: The surprising truth behind falling employee engagement - XpertHR's Employment Intelligence blog - XpertHR Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  11. Angelos says:

    I totally agree with Chris. It is really surprising that only 3% feels disengaged. I guess, like all the other surveys, people have a tendency to move towards the positive side. Moreover, any idea why China has some high percentage of disengaged?

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