Creating Happier, Engaged Workplaces: A Conversation

Sadly, feeling disconnected from our work is not a rarity — and for all the attention focused upon the issue, progress has eluded us. To solve the greater work-life-happiness dilemma, it is becoming clear that we need to implement swift, concrete changes in the way we work. The construct of engagement, for example, has served as the basis for relevant debate, and remains a critical issue that deserves our deepest thought and undivided attention. However, we may be focusing far too much on measurement, and too little on specific strategies to affect the problems. Measurement is simply not enough — unless it leads to constructive change.

For many, workplaces do not provide the elements to help us feel satisfied or engaged. Although both employee engagement and job satisfaction relate to key organizational metrics (profit, productivity), we need to take next steps to afford progress. A lack of engagement likely represents a multitude of missed opportunities to take the right path in our workplaces. A neglect to align work with strengths — the constructive feedback, discussions of career paths and expressions of gratitude that for some reason never occurred. These overlooked opportunities are commonplace, and you shared your perspective concerning contributing factors, as well as what should happen next.

The following is an overview of comments following my LinkedIn post Americans Aren’t Happy at Work. What To Do? — the expressed concerns, shared experiences and courses of action shared. Readers responded with the honesty (and civility) that I’ve come to expect.

The Economy

Not surprisingly, the economy has taken its toll — and the fallout has shaken confidence in both our employers and the future of our own work. Moreover, the recession has likely disrupted the normal ebb and flow of job movement. We can assume that many have remained in roles that have not been positive for either “mind” or career. In fact, the weakened economy has created not only an uneasiness concerning financial security, but also a bubble of pent-up demand to shift toward better-fitting roles. As things improve, many will certainly seek more from their roles — something organizations may not as yet, be prepared for.

From reader Sean Cusack:

“Many companies assume (correctly unfortunately) that most workers cannot afford to walk. They still live in the “they are lucky to have a job” mindset and don’t believe they have to pay market wages to existing employees since they have no place to go. My guess is these companies are going to get a rude awakening in the coming months and years. As more positions are available the best and brightest will jump ship and the company will be left with C and D players and wondering what happened.”

As expressed by Michael M. Obradavitch:

“The full impact of the workforce’s expectations will not become evident until the economy returns to a ‘normal.’ If Americans are ‘not happy at work,’ it’s reasonable to assume that it is because of suppressed desires for real change. Managers should now be giving thought to how to accommodate these upcoming demands.”

The Role of Managers

Managers quickly became central to the unfolding conversation. There was heated discussion concerning managers who are not up to the task of managing others — a critical problem, looming in workplaces. Many expressed that more was needed from managers, including meaningful feedback and a respect for individual contributions. (Research on the role of managers has also been recently discussed at Harvard. Jim Clifton, CEO of Gallup, weighs in on managers and engagement here.)

This from reader Alex Burdine:

“This article is a great start to the conversation all organizations need to have. As they say, ‘People don’t leave companies, they leave managers,” but what are companies doing to solve this problem?”

It seems the role of manager in general, needs to be examined seriously — and more support to solve problems is needed, starting at the desks of leadership.

From Darres McMahon:

“Have you seen at your company a complete training program helping your manager manage?”

Some things are working. Readers did share positive experiences — and expressed they were fortunate to have managers that embodied the role. Alvin Walters shared what his manager had communicated to him, displaying interest in him and his desired future:

“My job is to expand your knowledge and develop you so you’re not in this position 10 years down the road.”

A Solution: Dual Career Tracks

A number of comments focused on a career track that would allow established employees to remain in their source career path, without progressing into a role that forces them to supervise others. This option may limit ill-advised managerial choices from occurring. In fact, the topic has already been well explored. (See an overview of dual career paths here).

This from reader Neil Walsh:

“Poor managers may find they thrive in a specialist, individual role. If they’re really good, pay them the same or more. But get the right managers.”

This same idea, expressed by Michael Wiley:

“Business’ need to understand that the MAJORITY of us are not cut out to be managers. I would go so far as to say that the majority of us don’t want to be a manager. While a few of the more progressive and younger companies have come to this conclusion, the majority continue to hold on to an antiquated ‘ladder of success’ that inevitability leads one to move into a management role in order to gain more income and have more responsibility.”

The Quest for Balance

Achieving work-life balance was also a strong theme. However, achieving this requires more than a willingness from employees to the pursue an honest conversation. Organizations must seek balance as well — to foster feelings of trust — so these conversations can occur organically. (Then we might take that vacation.) The pressure and pace in many industries may cause the human element to be overlooked. To ensure this does not continue, the basic structure of modern organizations must evolve.

From reader Chris Bailey:

“Are organizations fundamentally structured to encourage meaningful work…or does the pursuit of productive and profitable value put this at odds? Do we know what we want from our work or are we stuck in thinking that purpose is just a “nice to have”?

This from reader Joyce Hersh:

“I don’t think it’s possible to spend nearly 1/3 of our lives (and nearly half of our waking hours) at something without needing to love it. We all know how satisfying unrequited love is. So why are people asking this question, again?”

Finally, from Shree Nair:

“Happiness is elusive without balance. We’re on a No-Return Mission.”

Let’s continue this conversation. What steps should we take to impact these issues?

About the Author: Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist, consultant and speaker. She also writes the The Office Blend, recognized by Forbes as one of their “Top 100 Websites for Your Career.”

Note: This post is adapted slightly from Dr. Marla Gottschalk’s LinkedIn post “Building Happier, Engaged Workplaces: Your Feedback.”

photo credit: ashraful kadir via photopin cc

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