Looking at our role in new ways can help us to be more engaged in the workplace
By ROSHAN THIRAN
In leadership, few things are more destructive to an organisation than low morale among employees, and research by Gallup shows that between 70–80% of people consider themselves to be disengaged at work.
Disengagement is detrimental to everyone involved: the organisation, leaders, employees, customers and shareholders all feel the brunt of a workplace that fires on few cylinders.
And while much has been written about the direct problems of leadership in relation to low levels of engagement, it’s just as important – if not more so – to consider how the work itself is seen by employees, how they think about and interact with their roles.
This, of course, falls under the remit of leaders to articulate the purpose behind each role in the workplace. Having a motivated staff is a boon for all concerned, as research by the University of California has shown.
According to researchers, engaged workers produced 37% higher sales, were 31% more productive, and were three times more creative than their disengaged colleagues.
They were also 87% less likely to quit, due in no small part to their ability to understand how their efforts contributed to their organisation and its customers.
In a fascinating New York Times article from 2007, we get an insight into the so-called “Sludge Olympics”, which is a competition that highlights the skill and passion of the city’s sewage treatment workers.
Despite the tough, unpleasant and anonymous work done daily by these incredible workers, it’s interesting to note the pride with which they carry out their role. As one worker notes, it’s all about providing a valuable service to the public – that’s where the purpose is rooted.
In December 1962, United States President John F. Kennedy met a janitor during a visit to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) centre.
He said, “Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?”
To which the janitor replied, “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”
This famous story demonstrates one universal truth in business: no matter how big or small your role is within an organisation, whatever you do counts a great deal towards the bigger picture.
The emotional connection
Imagine what an organisation could achieve if its leaders could instil that kind of mindset in their employees. Or, better still, imagine what people could do if they themselves could see the ultimate importance of their role in light of the bigger picture.
From the many conversations I’ve had with employees over the years in both formal and informal capacities, often there have been concerns expressed about the organisation’s leadership. Needless to say, it’s important that any issues relating to leadership be heard, listened to and addressed.
I’ve also noticed another major issue when it comes to people being disengaged at work. Even when they’ve been told the purpose of their role and how it contributes to the organisation and its customers, many people nevertheless have felt unable to translate that communication into an emotional commitment. In short, they’re hearing the message… they’re just not feeling it.
While we should never dismiss issues relating directly to leadership, we must also never neglect our own responsibility for cultivating a purpose in what we do.
As one employee told me some years ago, “I’ve no real issues with my boss or the company… I just struggle to connect what I’m doing with the idea that it’s making any kind of impact or difference.”
If you’re someone who feels disengaged in the workplace, some shifts in perspective can help to reignite a sense of meaning in the role you play and lead you to see how your contributions truly make an impact.
While there might be other issues that factor in to your disengagement, considering the following points could help to ease your burden and reconnect you to the why of the work you do.
1. Whatever role you’re performing, it’s a valuable service to more people than you realise.
If we’re being honest, most of us wouldn’t immediately think that a janitor could help to put a man on the moon.
However, if we change our perspectives, we can see that his role at NASA played a vital part in helping to make sure that everyone else was able to do their job in a clean and safe working environment.
If you think about the many ways in which your role serves others, it can offer a valuable insight into how much difference the work your carry out every day really makes.
2. How you interact with people at work matters a lot.
Studies have shown that people who are ‘toxic’ in the workplace can actually spread their negativity throughout the organisation in what’s known as ‘emotional contagion’.
We’re all affected by the people we interact with, whether they are positive or otherwise. Far from being an anonymous cog in the wheel, we each contribute to the successes and failures of an organisation simply by the way we present ourselves.
So perhaps one way to feel more engaged at work is to invest in cultivating positive relationships.
Whether it’s through supporting a new employee as they learn the ropes, helping a colleague to solve a problem, or simply taking the time to listen to someone, all of it counts towards helping others to be the best they can be, which can provide you with an enormous sense of satisfaction as a result.
3. Keep in mind ‘why’ you work.
Although this can relate to the purpose of your role itself, the ‘why’ of what you do can – and often does – go beyond the office walls. For example, many people work to support their families, to help loved ones through their education, or as a means to build towards starting out on their own.
Some people use their work to support charity organisations or enable them to be of greater service to their community.
During those tough days or through the long hours, remembering why you’re working and who you’re working for can be a wonderful motivator that reminds you of the people who benefit greatly from your hard work and commitment.
4. The work you do can be transformed into a craft.
Disengagement can arise partly due to the fact that we become familiar with our role in a relatively short space of time.
One of the main reasons people dread going back to work on a Monday is having that “same-old, same-old” feeling of routine. In any role – and we can take the New York sewage workers as our inspiration – the skills we bring to our work can always be improved, and there is always something new to learn.
By actively looking for ways in which you can improve the work you do, it serves as a powerful driver that encourages you to pursue excellence within your role.
Be it the best cleaner, the most efficient administrative assistant, a helpful bank clerk, the greatest manager, or the most inspiring chief executive officer… there is pride and value to be striving to be the best you can be, whatever it is that you do.
Make the best of opportunities
Assuming a lifespan of 80 years, it is estimated that on average, we spend 12 years’ worth of our time at work – that’s a lot of time wasted if it’s spent being unhappy and unproductive.
As organisations are led by people, there will never be such a thing as the “perfect” working environment, although most companies do their best to ensure that the needs and wellbeing of their employees are taken care of across many areas.
It’s encouraging to see continued progress in terms of best work practices, particularly here in Malaysia, and leaders should take regular stock of how their employees are interacting with their roles and organisation as a whole.
This can help to ensure that engagement in the workplace improves, and that employees come to work looking forward to the day ahead, whether it be a Monday or a Friday.
On the flipside, employees can also help their organisations to flourish by recognising that they play the central role in what they do. How it’s done and how they approach their work impacts those around them.
While it might not be immediately obvious, we each make much more of an impact in the workplace than we realise, which is why it’s vital to think about and connect to the purpose of what we do and to recognise the valuable contribution that we make every single day.