Actively disengaged employees — the least productive — cost the American economy $450- $550 billion per year in lost productivity according to the Gallup Organization’s research into employee engagement levels in the U.S. workforce. The level of engagement has not appreciably changed during the 20+ years that Gallup has been measuring it, in spite of the explosion of leadership training approaches that have occurred during that same time frame! Each year, companies are spending nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars in an effort to improve employee engagement yet according to Gallup the numbers have not changed since they began measuring it. Academics, consultants, and leaders have been grappling with why this is the case. Their working definitions range from the simple (“discretionary effort”) to the mind-bending (“complex nomological network encompassing trait, state, and behavioral constructs”). In non academic language this refers to some, but not all of the wide ranging networks of dynamics that have a self reinforcing impact on the affect or mood of a culture.
By the end of the 20th century, over 9,000 different books with systems, languages, principles and paradigms to help explain the mysteries of management and leadership had been published according to Gallup. We’ve all seen a further explosion of such books, theories, practices and leadership programs that have been developed and marketed since that time.
Mary Uhl-Bien and Russ Marion state that “Leadership models of the last century have been products of top-down, bureaucratic paradigms. These models are eminently effective for an economy premised on physical production but are not well-suited for a more knowledge- oriented economy”.
We have entered a new era. The environment for virtually all organizations has changed. It can be seen in health care, business and in almost all government agencies. The new environment is more complex, volatile and unpredictable. With it the skills needed for leadership have also changed and the need for high engagement of the workforce has increased dramatically. Top down prescriptive leadership training and management will no longer suffice in any sector. It is a leadership challenge of a different order.
Levels of employee engagement will only appreciably increase when we address the root causes of disengagement. It doesn’t come from prescriptive leadership. It doesn’t come from extrinsic motivators such as, pay increases, job security etc., although these core sources of recognition on the job, to the extent that they are not present can be de- motivators. Nor does true engagement come solely from developing and implementing action plans and holding people accountable for the elements of those plans. These steps can be useful management tools, but by themselves (without affecting leadership behavior and transforming organizational culture) will only lead to more superficial and transitory results.
Engagement instead comes from within each person. True engagement is driven by intrinsic motivators. It is a result of satisfaction that comes from the way people do their job, the opportunity to grow personally and expand their capacity as humans through their work, and through high quality relationships with others. The research on the power of intrinsic motivators to increase engagement is massive. These are what drive the desire to step up, no matter what the job or responsibility. These are the sources of the self-motivation that is the engine of engagement.
Creating an engaged workplace therefore requires a different paradigm in leadership preparation and training than was used during the industrial era. It requires connecting people to their own intrinsic sources of satisfaction rather than attempting to solely motivate them extrinsically through, for example, job benefits. When people are intrinsically motivated the primary source of satisfaction comes from the quality of work they produce… their ability to improve… their ability to see possibilities that others miss… their ability to anticipate and respond to the needs of those for whom they are providing their services and products…and to trigger those same intrinsic motivators in others…with no boundaries. They don’t think: “good enough to get by”. Instead they step up and reach beyond the normal boundaries of what is expected.
The objective is to create a new culture. Cultures have great staying power. People can come and go. Even managers can change, but when the pervading culture which consists of the mutually reinforcing attitudes, mood, behaviors, beliefs, expectations, assumptions and values does not result in a positive work environment; one that inspires people to be at their best every day”, it reinforces low engagement and can be very sticky. Multiple studies have shown how powerfully this mutually reinforcing set of cultural attributes, which result in low engagement, resist attempts to transform the workplace into one of high engagement. New employees…even those who enter with a positive, engaged attitude are subliminally influenced over time and begin to reflect the pervading culture. Attempts to intervene are often met with short-term success which then over time snaps back. And when it does it creates cynicism about the possibility of making any successful change in the future.
Natural leadership development is based on the principle that high engagement results from the inside work of connecting to our own intrinsic motivators, and creating a support system that creates an emerging culture that reflects these natural attributes. We call them natural leaders because they highly influence others to achieve a transformed culture. They lead by example and trigger the best of others. By their presence are able to inspire that passion
in others. For many people, these attributes are not obvious…especially in a culture of low engagement. Often it is possible to create subsystems among people who show a natural tendency toward the attributes that comprise intrinsic motivation. The objective is to connect people to their own desire to continuously improve and find fulfillment in being the best version of themselves. What is required is teaching them how to support each other in this transformation.
Engagement can become a form of contagion. A tipping point can be reached similar to a phase transition in the physical sciences. Formal leadership takes on a new form. The structures flex and become continuously adaptable and permeable. And that leadership is sustained from each individual, in each department out to the entire organization.