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.