For the past two weeks, we have 50 or so people engaged in a LinkedIn conversation about:

“We’re spending $200 billion on training. Why can’t we involve and engage people in the workplace?”

And there have been 54 very solid comments thus far. The thread starts with this simple framework:

ASTD shows data saying that $200,000,000,000 billion or so is being spent on training and some of that is on leadership development and management training and all those things. I was reading a 1982 management magazine and it talked about the same issues in the same workplaces. Gallup has surveyed 4 million people over the years and pretty consistently finds NO improvement. 

Mercer (2012) found that engagement declined from 23% to 13% if I read their research right. Sirota (1997) stats show 85% of employees report their morale declines significantly after spending 6 months on the job.

Some people feel that it is a training issue and that we can better train people to be more involved and engaged. But others reframe this around the reality that the training is probably fine, but it is the back-end, post-training, workplace environment that is at fault and that the training does not stick. Issues are around the lack of feedback and followup and reinforcement of the newly learned skills.

Some people feel that it is the workers themselves who are choosing to not get involved and engaged and the issue is one of hiring — that if we improved the hiring practices, the difficulties would be lessened. They blame the learner for the issues, framing it as the learner choosing not to engage.

Others focus on the lack of motivation of the workers (and the managers) and that there are not the support systems in place to sustain involvement and engagement. Many put the responsibility on the supervisor and managers to do things differently and that the workers are actively being un-involved and dis-engaged. People may not get solid performance feedback, or have career paths or a sense of cause or community and there are a variety of approaches to impact those kinds of issues.

Others feel that this non-engagement in the workplace may be caused by the workplace itself and that the environment might be generating problems, like a lack of good computer systems might simply generate tons of frustration or that the workplace environment itself is a problem. There might be a negative or toxic environment:

– A 2011 Massey University (NZ) survey of 96 organizations found more than HALF had experienced workplace violence. (New Zealand??? Really?) 

– In the United Kingdom, research found that 53% of employees had been victims of workplace bullying and that 78% had witnessed such behavior.

That kind of workplace surely would not be one that would involve and engage an average person. There might also be a lack of job security or opportunities for personal growth.

The issue of organizational culture was a common one, in that a competitive environment was not conducive to teamwork and one focused on extrinsic rewards for the most successful competitors will not be acceptable to the average or below average worker. Some workplaces are too political and show favoritism and those kinds of things which are dis-engaging to many.

And then we get into the issue of toxic managers. That may be the supervisor or it may be the Senior Vice President, it may be in my line of authority or that butthead in Accounting. It is more of a perceptual thing when it is that senior person, since they generally have so little contact with the actual worker. But those things do cascade down through an organization and the impacts of replacing a really toxic senior leader with a really inspiring and effective one might take years to show an impact.

Trust is the residue of promises fulfilled. (Frank Navran)

It was suggested that we need to take more of a systems approach or even an approach linked to Learning Organizations. A focus on Lean might mean the elimination of many of the frustrating forces that operate on production in some cultures.

We do know that “Leadership” is pretty awful. Jim Clifton, CEO of Gallup, goes through all their research and takes some really hard line positions about this issue. I frame his comments up in a blog with links to his posts –

Clifton suggests firing 7 million managers, basically. My take is twofold:

•  Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and just annoys the pig. 
•  If you put a gun to their head, could they do things differently?

I will wrap this discussion up this way: I think that a LOT of the problem is simply about choice and choices. I think a LOT of people can simply choose to do something differently and that it would make a very significant difference in terms of improving performance and productivity and in its impacts on innovation and engagement. All those “workplace things” that could make the job could be addressed to make for a more better faster place to spend so much of our time.

There ARE some really great companies, some really great workplaces that build some really great employees doing some really great things for some really great bosses. Can’t we just learn from them? Do we have to always re-invent the wheel?

I think Rodney King was right: “Can’t we just all get along?”  Where’s the love?

We are not on some dead-end street. We are at a crossroad. We may be up to our axles in mud, and there are two miles of ditch for every mile of road, but we can make the choice of getting out of the ditch and up on the road. We may be thumping and bumping on wooden Square Wheels, but the Round Rubber tires are already in the wagon.

Let’s — each of us — look to do some things differently. Let’s look to Dis-Un-Engage and re-involve the people so that they feel like they felt when they were newly hired into the organization. That potential still exists somewhere. We can put some round wheels on the wagon.

Engagimentation = engagement plus implementation

Let’s look toward our management practices and change the ones that the workers feel really NEED to be changed; this could include systems and processes and it could also include the toxic managers — and we can give them choices about behavior more better differently, too. We can give them training and support and coaching if it requires new skills on the part of these “old dogs.” We can teach them some better tricks. We can help the caterpillar to fly…

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Scott Simmerman

Dr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant. 
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