Engagement Starts With Them

By Stephen Paskoff

Oct. 8, 2014

A recent Gallup survey found that 70 percent of U.S. workers are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” and are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces.

These findings are troubling because high levels of engagement translate into better productivity, creativity, retention and reputation, the not-so-secret sauces of excellence and competitive advantage. The report includes suggestions on how organizations and leaders can turn these scores around, a top-of-mind mission for human resources and other business leaders. Overlooked in this and other analyses is what employees themselves must do to contribute to the engagement of their team members, which ultimately leads to their own engagement. Organizations failing to recognize this are missing a key piece of the engagement puzzle.    

We often analogize our workplaces to battlefields — we talk about winning, beating the competition, marketing blitzes, and campaigns. And while going to work is not literally going to war, its demands can be challenging and brutal. What happens on the military’s front lines — surely the most challenging of workplaces — should be considered by any organization striving to build engagement and peak performance.

Several years ago James McPherson, a noted Civil War historian, wrote "For Cause & Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War," a study detailing what motivated rank and file Union and Confederate soldiers to battle selflessly, courageously, and devotedly through years of bloody fighting to further their missions. In part, he concluded that soldiers’ mutual attachment to their buddies often motivated them as much as and sometimes more than the reasons their sides went to war. "Unit cohesion" is a term often used for this finding.

After reading these surveys, I thought about jobs I have had during my career. The work, the benefits, the hours and the pay were important. But when I remembered my best work experiences, my co-workers came to mind. My favorite jobs included: selling women’s shoes and accessories, guiding tours through an upstate New York brewery, investigating or litigating cases at the EEOC, and representing employers in investigations and litigation as a management attorney.

In each instance, the bonds I had with my co-workers — the shared challenges, pressures and responsibilities, our inside jokes, the personal problems we advised each other on, the periodic frustrations we dealt with caused by this leader or that, and how we worked through them together — made my jobs memorable. These bonds played a big part in determining why I, and I believe the majority of my co-workers, liked my job and felt attached to my workplaces and committed to what I did. We weren’t at war in any of these jobs, of course, but in our own way we worked as cohesive units.

Whether it’s the military, government service, or any sort of collective work activity, if we want to increase engagement, we need to consider actions that help team members bond and work effectively with their co-workers, apart from the relationships they have directly with their supervisors.

Relying on posters, slick videos and emails to build these employee ties is not the answer. What’s required is a process where work ties are built among colleagues who trust one another. Leaders can have a critical role – how they act will set the tone for others and make a large measure of work purposeful, if not enjoyable. But building engagement is not solely a leadership responsibility. In fact, even when leadership is less than ideal, strongly engaged teams can still achieve high levels of excellence, build their own cultural performance standards and remain committed to their enterprise’s mission and values.

Employees should be given responsibilities to build communities and team effectiveness. They need to know that as part of their job, employees’ core professional responsibilities are to:

  • Treat one another respectfully and inclusively in all routine and daily interactions. These phrases need to be defined specifically, and each individual should recognize his/her behavioral responsibilities are linked to obtaining personal and organizational objectives.
  • Develop skills to talk about divisive issues, work through their differences, apologize or accept explanations for misunderstandings and then move on.
  • Know who the organization’s internal resources are for getting help, and go to them when problems can’t be resolved among themselves.

All of the above should be seen for what they are — parts of a commitment to improve organizational effectiveness that thrives when employees are engaged with their jobs — and with one another.  

Stephen Paskoff is a former EEOC trial attorney and the president and CEO of Atlanta-based ELI, Inc.,which provides ethicsand compliance trainingthat helps many of the world's leading organizations build and maintain inclusive, legal, productive and ethical workplaces.

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