One Big Reason Employee Engagement Remains so Low
September 2, 2011 § 2 Comments
The latest survey results from Blessing and White reports a 31% employee engagement level nationwide. A Canadian survey is similar. Why is it so low? The typical answer from consultants, such as me, recommends managers must change their behavior, their policies, and the work environment. I agree. Those are great strategies. However, another big reason is the “learned helplessness” we have taught our children and our employees and they all continue to embrace it. This attitude must change concurrent to changing management behavior. This philosophy is so deep seeded that its resilience can frustrate managers who are making an effort. Employees need help to “unlearn” this attitude.
In my opinion we have been, and are, so immersed in the Frederick Taylor model of Scientific Management (from our schooling to our Federal Government) that we think it is our only option. We think it is our only way of thinking. In fact, we are not thinking about it at all. We are just reacting because that is what we have always done.
To change we need to continuously reinforce an alternative theory of management to employees and not be deterred. This alternative theory will be consistent with our Declaration of Independence and our American Constitution. Employees (and students) have been taught to be dependent on managers for answers and for direction. They have been taught that management is omnipotent and in charge. They are conditioned to know it is easier to just wait for decisions to be made for then. It is scary and challenging to take responsibility and risk being criticized (or worse) for making new decisions.
In order to be engaged employees must be willing to take responsibility for their own engagement and for making decisions they have never made before. This feels risky and they often immediately hesitate. It takes faith, effort, and an investment of time by management to retrain employees to trust their own abilities. Employees have been asked to put their innovative problem solving muscles aside and allow others to make decisions for them. Those muscles have atrophied. They need to be exercised and as we all know, when we exercise muscles for the first time in a long time, it can cause pain.
I often hear managers complain that employees are just not willing to speak up. I hear them complain about the lack of motivation. I hear them say they must tell people what to do or they just do nothing. I agree. That is what we have taught them to do. They need to unlearn and we need to help them to not be helpless. We need to help them to stop being victims and to start being leaders.
Teaching managers how to engage employees is not enough. It is like a short burst of fresh oxygen but then they go back to the work environment where they all have to breathe toxic fumes left over from the Taylor thinking. It takes a while to clear the air. Don’t lose faith. Don’t stop trusting. Give the employees time to come around. They are trained to be helpless and we did it.