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Workplace Engagement: The Human Energy Crisis

My own study subject, Trek the puppy, exemplifying full engagement in the matter at hand.

I just listened to a webinar of late-breaking research about employee engagement and I’m stunned. The bombshell? According to the Human Performance Institute, no less than 65% of employees are “disengaged” or “toxically disengaged” at work. This means a majority of the workforce isn’t fully contributing to — and may even be creating a heavy drag on — their organizations. This news is disturbing enough that I seek out my puppy for consolation, but he is fully engaged… in a nap.

To explain the study’s results further, employee engagement means actively participating — with body, mind, and spirit — in creating a positive culture, high standards, and peak productivity for an organization. Employees who are “toxically disengaged” (a frightening 22%, according to the study) are those whose physical fatigue, emotional disconnectedness, or lack of purpose in work actually produces a negative overall effect on their own vitality and that of their workplace.

For business leaders, this is truly a crisis — a human energy crisis. If there is substance to the study’s numbers (with over 108,500 respondents, it seemed well supported), it proves that we simply are not harnessing what people really have to offer. The crisis extends beyond the general workforce and into the ranks of leadership: as many as 54% of the approximately 12,500 leaders who participated in the study proved to be “disengaged” or “toxically disengaged” as well.

I ask myself (yes, out loud) why so many people are disengaged from their work. The next question scares me a little, so I ask it silently: Am I disengaged, too?

Am I fully engaged in my work today? Talking to myself, fuming about statistics, eyeballing my dog — is this passion or procrastination? I dig deeper: this past year has definitely been fraught with business challenges: declining sales, budget concerns, team members moving on, and feeling at times that I’m trying to squeeze blood from a turnip (my grandmother always warned me of the futility of THAT particular pastime). Sometimes I just get worn down.

If I’m run-down and pessimistic, you can bet that my firm’s team members feel it. Engagement is contagious—and a leader’s engagement doubly so. In fact, in good times and in bad, an employee’s relationship with their manager can make or break the employee’s sense of engagement. If I’m enthusiastic, it can serve as a source of energy and momentum for my whole group. I’m clear that my personal engagement is not the only factor affecting our staff’s morale and performance, but it is definitely a critical one.

(I take another break to visit Trek, my sleeping puppy. Now, THERE’s a living being who experiences total engagement! He brings 100% of himself to the task: playing, chewing, whining, eating, or twitching his way through dreams of endless rabbit chases. No restraint, no hesitation, no indecision. What does he know that we don’t?!)

Luckily for today’s leaders, the best approaches for tapping into employees’ motivations are within easy reach: connect personally with your people, set clear expectations, recognize effort and progress, provide support as a coach and mentor, and help people feel aligned with the larger vision, goals, and mission of the organization. These actions cost you practically nothing in terms of money; instead, they draw on your own time, energy, and attention as a leader.

And there’s the rub: true engagement begins with you. Employees are less likely to be fully engaged unless you are engaged with body, mind, and spirit, too. So, to get started, repeat after me:

If I want my employees to feel a sense of hope for the future, I first need to feel it myself.
If I want my employees to show passion about our mission, I first must show it myself.
If I want my employees to bring their full energy to work, I must do so as well.
If I want my employees to be solution-focused, I must be the first to orient myself away from problems and toward solutions.
If I want employees to contribute higher-order wisdom to help guide our firm, well, it starts with me.

You see where these mantras are going: feel free to adapt your own. If you say them out loud regularly — and especially on the down days — you will find the very process engages you more fully in your work. (You may also find people looking at you funny… until you get a puppy to whom you appear to be talking!)