Why more companies must recognize the sheer power of engagement
An engaged workforce makes a company somewhat recession proof.
The stock market is up, unemployment is slowly going down, and the recession is officially behind us. So why do things still feel so dismal? Gallup's underemployment numbers show that about 17% of Americans are either unemployed or working part-time jobs when they want full-time work. Consumer confidence is down significantly since June. And only about half of Americans (52%) think there's plenty of opportunity to get ahead in the U.S. today.
Gallup Global Practice Leader Ed O'Boyle thinks this is happening because our economic expectations don't match our business behavior. In fact, as he explains in this conversation, the best way to move the country forward is to recognize employee engagement for the economic engine it is. If more companies did -- and took advantage of the opportunities engaged employees afford -- the economy would improve right along with American businesses.
Gallup Business Journal: Everyone says the recession is over. So we can stop worrying, right?
Ed O'Boyle: Probably not. When you look at the state of American business and what's happening to companies and enterprises, you see that we need more great ideas that we can commercialize. We need more people going the extra mile for customers. We need more businesspeople coming up with creative approaches to drive costs down or make something work a little better. And our research is clear on this: Unless you have an engaged employee coming to work with the mindset, energy, attitude, and aptitude to do something new and potentially great, it's much less likely that your biggest challenges will be solved.
You say that people need to go the extra mile for customers, create innovations, and commercialize new ideas. Why? And why now?
O'Boyle: GDP has been flat for years. Job growth is abysmal. The U.S. is bumping along in a post-recession recovery, which has been a weak one by anyone's estimates. Yet most companies have done little to improve the attitude and aptitude of their workforce while expecting things to get better. Only 30% of U.S. employees are engaged in their jobs, according to Gallup research, and that number has basically remained flat for more than a decade.
Business leaders are expecting great things to happen, but they're not doing the fundamental things that need to happen to make their expectations a reality. To drive the changes that you're looking for, to expect something different from your business, to disrupt the status quo -- those things are easier to do when most of the employees entering your building are engaged and working to create for the greater good of your company. When they're worried about the risk of failure, they aren't likely to offer a new idea or way of doing things.
When the recession was at its worst and layoffs were constant, fear made it hard for companies and workers to change, because innovation is risky. But the economy is recovering, albeit weakly. Are companies and employees still operating out of fear?
O'Boyle: It's hard to have courage if you're scared, because if you don't do something right or you buck the trend, you might lose your job -- and in this economy, there aren't a lot of great jobs to be had. I think you get bolder thinking when jobs are abundant. But in some ways, the job market is irrelevant -- if you're engaged and you care about the job that you have, you're more likely to stick your neck out a little more to make new, profitable things happen.
An engaged workforce makes a company somewhat recession proof. Yes, there are external economic and consumer pressures out there. But even in a recession, your best workers still come in every day saying, "Here's how we're going to win; here's what I can do to make it better; here's how we're going to drive costs down." They're asking the right questions, and they're determined to do whatever it takes to drive success.
To be clear, I'm not saying that bold, market-leading thinking can't happen when the economy is off. I'm saying that it takes an engaged workforce to do it. Not-engaged and actively disengaged workers -- who make up 52% and 18% of the U.S. workforce, respectively -- are more concerned about keeping their jobs than moving the company forward, so they'll tend to take the safer road. They aren't necessarily going to be bad workers, but they aren't going to fix the process. They're exclusively going to do what they're told.
So they don't have the courage or motivation to change things, to make them better?
O'Boyle: That's exactly right. Not even when they're winning.
When I was in college, I was working as a waiter. One day, the general manager called us all together to tell us he had resigned. He said, "When I first got into this job and I saw something was wrong with the restaurant, I fixed it myself. As I became more experienced and I saw something was wrong, I got somebody else to do it. But in the last few months, I've noticed that when I see things that are wrong, I ignore them and walk on by. That's a bad way to work, so I'm leaving."
It would be in every company's best interest if all managers had the courage to do what that manager did. But our data suggest that six in 10 managers just walk by the things that need to be done. And that's the tone and attitude they're setting for everyone else -- that it's okay to walk by these things.
And ignoring problems just makes them worse.
O'Boyle: Of course. But engaged workers don't ignore problems -- they fix them. And they find ways to make good things great. That's the kind of motivation and energy American companies need. That's what will move them from hoping things get better to making things better.
-- Interviewed by Jennifer Robison