How to Get Your Employees Engaged Quickly and at No Cost. AKA The Rule of Averages

A 2012 Gallup survey showed that only 24% of Australian employees were actively engaged with their work (and Australia ranked 2nd best!!!). Imagine that – only 1 in 4 genuinely cared and were out there doing their best for their employer every day.
The same surveys show around 16% of all workers were actively disengaged and 60% passively disengaged  – that means for every 3 workers whose heart and effort was really in “the right place”, there were 2 whose hearts were distinctly in “the wrong place” and another 7 who didn’t care much either way – it’s just a job.
How is this possible? How is it acceptable? How is it good for businesses, customers, managers and the employees themselves? Disengaged employees have lower productivity, customer satisfaction, creativity and compliance, with higher sick days, safety incidents, injuries, behavioural issues, accidents, mistakes, dishonesty and turnover. Who wants that?
For the sake of this conversation, let’s assume that most applicants are enthusiastic about the job they apply for, and that employers are choosing wisely, selecting job applicants that are likely to perform well and enjoy the work they do. Actually, no, let’s not assume that, because too often that isn’t the case – maybe we’ve already found the first problem: employing people who are not enthusiastic about doing the job they have applied for (as against enthusiasm for the title or pay or just getting a job – any job). So the first thing to do is to employ people who really want to do the nuts and bolts of the job you have on offer, irrespective of anything else. Yes, everyone seems to be enthusiastic when being interviewed, but that’s the point – if you don’t have expertise in getting past those misleading impressions in interviews, learn the skills or get the expert advice of someone who can.
Now let’s assume that everyone is initially enthusiastic about their new job. And let’s also assume there is an adequate on-boarding program so that the enthusiasm doesn’t disappear in a mist of confusion in the first week to be replaced by stress, self-doubt and a lack of sleep. Let’s also assume the job as perceived is pretty close to the actual job at hand, and while we’re at it let’s assume that the workplace is safe and the workmates reasonable people  – in other words, no broken psychological contracts and no feeling of psychological or physical danger. Is it a mistake to make these assumptions too? Probably, but let’s persevere with our utopian view.
So what goes wrong most of the time with most of the people? How do we end up with ¾ of the team disengaged? Things are as they should be, and the employee feels reasonably safe and is able to perform the required tasks – this should work perfectly – except it doesn’t.
In most teams there are some star performances – and as managers we often celebrate the star performers, either publicly or privately. Ideally, when doing this, we are clear about identifying the specific actions that gave rise to such acts of heroism and legend, thus encouraging repeat performances and showing others what they need to do share the stage (vague thanks, when sincere, have only a limited value). “Thank you Fred for doing X act to Y standard for Z customer as you got us out of a pickle and they now love us and are telling everyone else how great we are. And speaking personally I’m really thrilled to see just how well you stood up when it counted most.” In this case Fred knows what he did, who for and what the impact was, both practically and emotionally – and is in no doubt that he is sincerely appreciated for it. If others want to get this sort of accolade, they also know what sorts of things to do. Good stuff all round.
On the other end of the scale, unacceptable behaviours and performances should be managed just as specifically and fairly. We don’t expect that employees are ever going to be happy about bad news, but in my experience it is far worse when things that need to be mentioned aren’t – poor performances, behaviours and destructive sentiments continue and spread, bringing the standards of the whole team, and respect for their managers, down with them. Perhaps worst of all, tolerating poor performances commonly demotivates those who regularly produce the best performances.
So now we have described a lot of average workplaces – great stuff gets noticed and rewarded, bad stuff gets noticed and punished. And that’s kinda OK. Not necessarily a big problem, if done in the right way and perceptions of fairness are maintained. But the evidence shows we still end up with a largely disengaged workforce – and the reason why is in the theory of averages.
On average your team are going to perform their roles to an average standard – the average standard for your business. (Not that “average” has to be a bad thing – it’s simply that they perform their tasks to the average standard for your organisation.) And as long as your business’s average is good enough, or even excellent, that’s OK, that’s how averages work. But the problem is that because they “only” performed to an average standard, the odds are that their average (and perfectly acceptable) work was not really noticed, and if it was, it wasn’t mentioned. No-one says. “Thanks Patricia, today you did a perfectly average day’s work. Well done!” But somehow Patricia needs to hear it – OK, maybe not in those words, but if she’s not hearing about the things she does well enough for the business to be successful, and rarely does anything worth a special mention, then we know the only feedback she’s going to get is when she messes up. And sooner or later she will. We all do.
So imagine Patricia’s working life – she enthusiastically applied for the role, got some good attention and positive affirmation through the interviewing and on-boarding, and hopefully enjoyed a sense of mastery and accomplishment from what she did. But then, as things become “average” she gradually becomes largely ignored – at least for her work. She hears about the things that go wrong of course, and maybe that a few others are doing some really good things – but she really doesn’t hear a lot about how what she does quietly every day helps the business to succeed and satisfy its customers. The work she (hopefully) used to get complemented upon in the early days is now apparently invisible, unless there’s a problem.
From there it’s easy to imagine that it doesn’t take long for her to see work as just a job, over time seeing her become passively disengaged, or worse, keeping in mind that she was at some stages doing her unrewarded best, by having her work (which was only “average”) ignored while Fred’s was celebrated (in her eyes no better than hers) – and every time she made a mistake she was bawled out for it, she became actively disengaged, feeling unfairly treated and picked on by management. Others around her performing at similar levels may have similar feelings and say similar things, and soon their group finds commonality in reassuring each other about the unfairness of the manager – not that the manager really did anything “wrong”!
But wait, there’s hope!!!! The solution is pretty easy, and I’m sure you’ve already worked it out – be aware and appreciative of the average performers and average performances. And if a manager feels this is inappropriate because the averages in the organisation are not high enough, maybe he or she could invest in a mirror – in most cases it’s unlikely the majority of the blame lies at the feet of the team (but it might lie at the feet of previous managers if that makes people feel better).
So how in your schedule, where everyone is busy and things get missed, do you make sure to pay attention to the “average” things? Easy – go out, notice and be thankful for them, for without these unremarkable acts your business would not do the things it does every day to earn an income. Put in your diary so it happens. Make time to catch people in the act of doing something right. Show interest in the things they do; let them share stories of what they’ve been doing and how they’re feeling about it. Get out from behind the desk and go where they are. Make sure to spread yourself around evenly – we all have people and tasks we feel more or less comfortable with, but as managers that simply isn’t OK – we need to be interested in every one of our team members. They are individual humans, as needing of attention as we are. They need to feel appreciated. They need to know you care about them and their work. And who knows, by talking to the team regularly trust might build; more problems, challenges and ideas might come to light; and the “average” might move up the scale a little because everyone is engaged and contributing to continual improvement.
In other words, if you want your team to care, you need to care about them and their work first, especially if it is only “average”.
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