Jeff Haanen


Generally speaking, most Americans either hate their jobs or are just simply “checked out.” A recent Gallup survey showed that of the 100 million Americans working full-time, 70 million were either “not Engaged employees” or “Actively disengaged.” That means only 30% of Americans were “engaged employees.” What do these categories mean? Gallup defines them as:

  • Engaged employees work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company. They drive innovation and move the organization forward.
  • Not Engaged employees are essentially “checked out.” They’re sleepwalking through their workday, putting time – but not energy or passion – into their work.
  • Actively Disengaged employees aren’t just unhappy at work; they’re busy acting out their unhappiness. Every day, these workers undermine what their engaged coworkers accomplish.

In 2012, 30 percent of American workers were ‘engaged,’ 18 percent were ‘actively disengaged,’ and the majority – 52 percent – were not engaged at all. The bottom line? America’s workers are generally bored or unhappy.

So what has caused such widespread dissatisfaction? Some note that 30-somethings today will be the first generation since the Great Depression to make less than their parents. Timothy Eagan at The New York Times doesn’t think it’s wages, but bosses that are the problem. Most companies tacitly “promote a view that everyone is replaceable” and don’t spend enough time focusing on the strengths of employees, says Eagan. Nor do they allow enough “flex-time.”

Eagan concludes, “Regular praise, opportunity for growth, and the occasional question from a higher-up of a lower-down about how to improve things would go a long way toward getting the checked-out to check back in.”

Though Eagan certainly has a good point here, I think he’s missing something more basic. People long for both creative work and deep sense of purpose. Re-engagement happens when both of these factors are built into a company or organization.

First, creative work happens when there is a deep connection between thought, activity, and relationship. For example, when an author writes a book, she (1) conceives of the book in her mind, (2) does the hard work of actually producing a book and works with a publisher to get it to the shelves, and (3) receives feedback about her book from the audience.

The modern world, however, has aggressively separated thought, activity, and relationship into different categories, and thus different jobs. Many jobs are simply a list of tasks that neither originate in the mind of the worker nor are ever really embraced by the worker. With the advent of the franchise in post-WWII America, millions of jobs became systematized, offering highly specific tasks (predictable products at lower cost) but jobs that don’t care much for the creative input of employees. What became important was the doing – not the thinking. “Thinking” will be left to management. Unfortunately, this kind of separation leaves people quite literally “checked out” from their jobs. They don’t need their minds anymore. Of if they do, they feel not like they’re not challenged or encouraged to engage both thought and activity, mind and body.

Moreover, huge swaths of the American economy are run by workers who have little if any connection to the outcome of their work. They occupy one small step in a global production chain, but never see their product influencing the life of another. The typical example is of a factory – pulling a lever or assembling a table leg hundreds of times a day. Not only is the repetitiveness of the job soul-squelching, but the worker can’t have the satisfaction of seeing the car or table being used by a family – and then hearing how they appreciate the work. Satisfaction at work is found in this third element of work – relationship. We need to see the work of our hands providing a valuable service to a customer. Without this experience – well, we see what we’ve got today – widespread disengagement.

So what can be done? If you lead a company or organization, provide each employee with these three elements of creative work – significant say-so in the work that is to be done (thought), an intentional and significant responsibility to turn the employees own ideas to realities (activity), and intentional interaction between the employee and the actual person who uses the product (relationship).

Second, workers need a deep sense of purpose.  Several years ago, Howard Gardener did a study on what constitutes “good work,” that is, not just high job performance ratings, but work that contributes significantly to the communal good. Gardner found three elements were key for good work:

  • A strong sense of moral commitment to the larger purposes one brings to a job
  • A professional ethic exemplified by those doing early job training
  • Lineages of worthy models from the past with whom one identifies in working toward the future.

In Hugh Heclo’s masterful On Thinking Institutionally, he summarizes this model of good work as “being around and identifying with people who model and reinforce one’s appreciation for institutional values.” In short, being in a company of moral purpose, not just high returns, makes for meaningful work.

For example, take Denver Schools of Science and Technology (DSST). Their founder, Bill Kurtz, often speaks of a “values-based culture.” He expects employees and students alike to know school values – courage, curiosity, respect, hard work, etc – and to live them out. In so doing, he has created a culture that does these things well: teachers are committed to the moral purposes of the school (offering an excellent STEM education to inner city students in a context of ethical integrity) and a lofty professional ethic (all new teachers get a month of training in June to introduce them to DSST’s values and expectations).

DSST is consistently one of Denver’s best places to work because employees have a mission (not just a job) and they are willing to commit themselves to the moral good the  institution they are a part of.

So, action point? If your company is motivated only by the bottom line, and you’re expecting to motivate employees only with greater compensation packages, you’re in trouble. Especially among Millenials (I’m one of them!). A deep sense of purpose, of accomplish a greater good to which the company or organization is committed is fundamental to employee engagement.

Conclusion: To overcome America’s widespread on-the-job boredom, leaders will need to rethink how their institutions are organized. Jobs descriptions will need to be re-written around two focal points: creative work and moral purpose.

Photo: Office Desk

Discussion Question: Are you “checked out” of your job? Why do you think this is? Or do you have employees who work for you that are disengaged? How can both creative work and a deep sense of purpose change how you organize your department or company?


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