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Employee Engagement

Coming Alive: Part I — The Dissection of Disengagement


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This is an excerpt from the book Coming Alive: The Journey to Reengage Your Life and Career  by Ruth K Ross.  

According to the Collins dictionary, “Disengagement is a process by which people gradually stop being involved in a conflict, activity or organization.”

To many people, disengagement can feel like a series of small paper cuts, while to others it feels more like getting hit by an oncoming bus. The initial impact is a searing pain. The side effects can linger for a very long time. Disengagement is personal in nature and affects each person individually. Like a snowflake, no two stories are ever alike. But all disengagement can have a monumental impact on life. Every disengaged person has a reason for why they transformed into an unhappy and dissatisfied worker. And every- one deals with that feeling differently. The one constant: there is always some underlying cause or trigger for the disengagement. There is always that “moment.”

The Tree of Life

All new trees begin with just a seed. Once a tree is planted, roots grow underground and spread. The naked eye can’t perceive the vast and growing roots; we can only focus on the tree trunk, branches, or leaves. What’s invisible to us from ground level is how the tree has manifested underground and whether an ailment is stunting its growth. If there is a disease impacting its roots, we won’t know that until something else happens to help surface the problem. Before the tree can be treated, and hopefully saved, we need to know the exact cause of the problem.

Disengagement is a lot like a sick tree. On the surface our physical attributes might show a happy, satisfied person, but underneath, at our roots—those things which support us and keep us steady and strong—something is dreadfully wrong, spreading discontent and malaise throughout our whole being. In order to heal, we must first identify the underlying cause.

It’s pretty common to see a disengaged person smile on the outside while feeling enormous pain on the inside. We’ve all become masters of disguise, whether at work or with our loved ones. We’ve become conditioned to the cycle, and it can be a great coping mechanism. The problem is, like our tree of life, one day it will shed its leaves, lose its color and vibrancy, and eventually die. Unfortunately, we can’t hide behind the smile forever.

The Workplace Is a Breeding Ground of Disengagement

Disengagement doesn’t just show up one day on a whim. Usually one or more gradual factors have a bearing on this issue and cause it to rear its ugly head. Disengagement is not a sudden experience. It occurs over a period of time and slowly eats away at the passion you have for your job until there is none left. Many of the causes of disengagement are linked together, but you don’t need to experience all of them to become a target of the disengagement disease—even one can cause your roots to rot.

There are five main reasons (and a number of other small, related ones) that drive disengagement. Taken alone, each of these has a significant impact on the level of engagement a person can have in their job. Think about what could happen if more than one of these were tied together. Remember, disengagement is a choice. It may not feel like it in the moment, but we all have the opportunity to fight back or simply give in to whatever ails us. However, the first step in curing disengagement is to recognize and acknowledge the issue.

In this chapter we will profile five employees to illustrate each of the underlying causes of disengagement. This should help you begin your journey of self-discovery and ultimately arrive in the reengagement phase of the trip.

Disengaged Employee #1:

Hey, This Job Isn’t What You Promised Me

Sally is an eager, motivated young professional who has worked in a series of customer-facing jobs since graduating college two years  ago. She’s always been told that she is great with people and believed that the right career direction for her was to get hired by a stable, prof itable company in the financial services industry that was known for outstanding customer service. Imagine her excitement when Acme Bank, one of the top f inancial services organizations in the Midwest, hired her to work in their customer call center.

Sally’s job was to answer calls from clients with questions about their retail banking accounts and to help solve any issues they may have. On her f irst day, she arrived at a cubicle with a computer, a phone, a headset, and a thick manual full of procedures and processes. At the time, she didn’t have a clue as to what came next. No one was assigned to her as a mentor, no supervisor came by to welcome her, and no one offered her any guidance. She was expected to pick up the phone when it rang. This went on day after day, and Sally eventually became more adept at her job and comfortable with the required service-level standards.

But she never felt happy or committed to her job.

How many of us have experienced an interview process (sometimes a lengthy, exhausting one) that sold a pretty picture of what the job entailed, only to find out later it was an entirely different experience? This happens all the time. It isn’t unusual to be misled about the job responsibilities or even the job itself.

It is unrealistic to think a job description will always be an exact mirror of the job in action, but it’s also not unreasonable to expect that the job resemble the description during the interview process. When that doesn’t turn out to be the case, it can lead to feelings of frustration or even betrayal by the hired employee. These are roads that can lead straight into disengagement. No matter how well a job is described, sometimes if it’s a new experience, no amount of initial explanation can truly represent the actuality of the role.

Call centers are the poster child for this kind of reality show. Even if the interviewer was incredibly detailed in how he described the job, if you have never worked in that particular environment, you have no idea what it’s like to answer calls all day from unhappy customers while under tight productivity measures. The result can be a quick and steady downward slope of emotions and resentment toward the job. You begin to question your decision, feel as if you were taken advantage of, and eventually disengage.

The Right Foot

Regardless of function, level, or industry, no job is immune to this notion of the position not matching what was promised. It’s all part of starting off on the right foot with honest employers who are realistic and respectful. The result will be a more loyal, connected, and excited team willing to contribute at a maximum level if they are clear on the expectations set forth for them from day one.

This isn’t just a basic tenet for someone new to a role. As priorities shift and other things come into play, jobs can and will change over time. It is incumbent on the manager and employee to meet periodically to reset expectations and goals.

The smartest leaders are those who understand that engagement really starts during the hiring process. That meeting is the first opportunity to build trust and demonstrate to your potential hire that you care about him and his engagement with the job. I recently had a conversation with Don Fornes, founder and CEO of Software Advice, about employee engagement. Don has done a phenomenal job of creating an engaged workforce. I inquired about his secret sauce. Here’s one of the keys to success he shared with me:

“I tell my managers to get the right people in the right seats. It all starts with hiring and then giving our people autonomy. We give each person their own project, which is special and apart from their regular job. I want them to own it. I show people early on what the path for them looks like. I tell them: while you may be doing this job today, a year from now you will be doing this other job and make this amount of money. I believe everyone needs a vision.”

When a job doesn’t match the expectations and leadership takes no action to remedy the situation, employees will likely just go through the motions without any commitment or loyalty to their employer, all the while having their frustration build.

The Cure

It all starts with an effective recruiting process. Companies need to be more committed to taking their time and getting it right. We’re not just talking about putting “butts in chairs.” In the spirit of Zappos, recruiting should be a multistage process. Here are some key steps to consider for your hiring process:

  • Create a thorough job description that details all the major tasks expected of the employee. Included in the description should be a list of any measurements or standards for this role (i.e., production numbers, sales quotas, etc.), so there is no confusion as to what is required of the employee
  • Give a copy of the description to anyone interviewing for the role so you are both on the same page.
  • Thoroughly pre-screen all applicants to make sure they meet the basic requirements for the job before moving to the next phase of the interview process.
  • Using the job description, create a series of behavioral-based interview questions designed to elicit examples of how the candidate has handled these kinds of situations before. The best predictor of future behavior is past performance.
  • Select a team of interviewers that can each hone in on different things. For example, one person might be focused on questions regarding customer service skills, another on how someone approaches teamwork with colleagues, and a third on how they manage others.
  • Offer prospective candidates a chance to look around the workplace to get a sense of what the environment will be like.
  • Make sure that throughout the entire process your candidates feel comfortable asking questions and clarifying what they’ve heard so far. Those who don’t ask any questions usually haven’t done their homework, which is a big red flag.
  • ​Look for people who talk about what they can do for the company versus what the company can do for them. It will increase your odds of hiring someone predisposed to com- mitment and engagement.
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