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The Business of People

“The problem with business is that it is afraid of dealing with the business of people.”
— Attributed to W. Edwards Deming

Running a business with employees is messy and fraught with challenges, not the least of which is the challenge that so many employees are also people — people who have dreams, fears, families, loneliness, hope, illness, optimism, and all of whom want to be part of a successful endeavor; to be proud of their organization and inspired by their tribe. We want to belong to our work tribe, and to be fully ourselves.

Silhouettes of five people
Licensed: Shutterstock

The annual Gallup Workplace Study was just released, showing the state of engagement in workplaces across the U.S. (Gretchen Gavett has written a nice summary here.) For the 12th year running, the results are dismaying. Seventy percent of employees in all four generational cohorts are disengaged or actively disengaged. 70% disengagement! Not promising, especially if you are relying on the people in your organization to give extra effort for customers, to contribute ideas that help the organization grow, and to function with a common purpose.

What’s fueling this disengagement? In my experience, a lack of ‘engagement’ stems from what feels like a futile desire for things to be different and better; the wish to play a different role, to have a different work experience. People want to bring their whole self to work. Unfortunately, their whole self isn’t welcome.

While measuring engagement seems to be on the rise, most senior leaders aren’t sure what action to take when they see the results. In truth, when they look around, most senior leaders see employees who are working hard, and pulling hard for their organizational tribe — even as the employees express their lack of ‘engagement.’ It is the tribe they are pulling for; the team; their manager. And they’re pulling in the face of formidable obstacles, including a lack of investment in the technology, tools, systems, and equipment they need, as well as a lack of recognition of their results, little to no feedback that is meaningful, and no career progression.

The pull of the tribe is strong however, and many employees continue to work in difficult environments for long hours, without taking time to rest and renew. They lack or forgo the opportunity to recharge, to sustain their engagement and contribution.

We need to work differently, not just more. Most of us have filled the time we have to bursting. We need to innovate our personal approach to renewal in order to contribute more and better to our work. This is beyond “soft skills.” Most organizations will not touch this. It is too mushy. Too much ‘people’ in the business. Too much love is required.

Gallup defines engaged employees as those who “work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company. They drive innovation and move the organization forward.” The big middle group, considered not engaged, are “essentially checked out. They’re sleepwalking through their workday putting time — but not energy or passion — into their work.”

How can we help this middle group rediscover their commitment? What investment is required in the people business? We wouldn’t consider running a business, or building a business plan, without addressing the capital investments required. Is it time to make the investment in our people that goes beyond a time management class and an Employee Assistance Program? Working hard is no longer having the impact employees dream of and leaders desire. Is it time to invest in the ability of our employees to stretch, grow,  renew themselves? Or shall we continue the musical chairs where the group called “not engaged” change seats, but not mindsets. Where the group who are “essentially sleepwalking” change jobs and their company alliance, and yet find themselves working in what is essentially the same organizational culture?

If do not tangle with the messy part of the business, nothing changes. Those disengagement results will continue to hang in the 70% range. Employees will continue to dream of a different way to work, and to believe that another employer is their best hope of finding that way.

This is a guest post by Isabell Annabyke. Isabell is a senior HR leader who has something to say.

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1 Comment

  1. [email protected] on June 26, 2013 at 1:30 pm

    I can’t agree more about pulling for the tribe.  IMHO people are tribal by nature and tribal commitment can overcome a poor environment or augment a great environment. 

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