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In the current economic climate it might be argued that trying to generate employee engagement is a luxury that the private and public sector can ill afford. Nicholas Ind FRSA argues that it is at precisely these times that organisations need the innovative ideas and contributions of their staff in enhancing service and performance. So why doesn’t it happen?

Most organisations want their employees to engage. Most individuals want to contribute and to find meaning at work. Yet research suggests that more than two thirds of people are not engaged with how they spend their waking hours. Instead of contributing their creativity, employees seem numbed by work, stressed by seemingly unreasonable demands and, in the UK, absent to the tune of 180 million days a year. This carries with it significant costs to the individual, to business and to society.

Even in the best of times, managers, in spite of a professed commitment to empowerment, find it hard to let go and trust employees. As Andrea Gabor observes, many companies are uncomfortable soliciting the opinions of employees in any systematic way. The abundant tacit knowledge and considerable creativity embedded in organisations remains untapped because managers find it safer to control rather than liberate.

There is also the problem of what is known as extrinsics motivations bias. Managers assume that employees’ motivation to work is driven by pay and rewards (the extrinsics), whereas studies show that the primary motivation is concerned with the nature of the job itself (the intrinsics). As Daniel Pink argued entertainingly in his RSA talk on what motivates us, by focusing on remuneration, managers are aiming at the wrong target.

For their part, employees are apt to blame management and the organisation for their disenchantment. When people join a company most of them do so enthusiastically but for many it does not take long for them to fall out of love. There is a feeling of being over-controlled, overwhelmed and under-utilised. Rather than being a part of the organisation ‘we’ start to express a distance from ‘them’, our employers and managers.

We need to change the attitudes and behaviour of managers and employees. Both should recognise that work can create the opportunity for fulfilment, a concept that is distinct from satisfaction and happiness. Fulfilment is concerned with meaning making, with commitment and with extending ourselves beyond our boundaries. For some people fulfilment is found at home, in hobbies or in sports but given that most of us spend around eight hours a day at work, it is a waste of our lives if we do not find some meaning in what we do.

Not surprisingly, people working in creative industries talk about fulfilment as central to their lives. Film director, Stefan Faldbakken describes its importance: “I feel when I am fulfilled. It’s impossible for me to do anything but make films. I have a really deep rooted joy in expressing myself, telling people something and seeing them react.” However, fulfilment does not only matter to people involved with creativity. This is Copenhagen bus driver Lars Lylloff talking about his job, “When I spend a third of my life at work driving a bus, wouldn’t it be strange if I didn’t commit myself to the job."

The responsibility of managers is to create a climate where it becomes possible for meaning to be found. Managers need to stop seeing employees as motivated by factors different from themselves and to trust them more. Organisations such as Google, Mozilla, Virgin and Rabobank, that unite around clear values and have the confidence to trust employees, are able to dispense with the considerable costs of mistrust. This is about leadership and commitment. Piet van Schijndel, a member of the board of directors of Rabobank, noted of the company’s commitment to openness that it: “Had to let go of the old-fashioned concept of an organization built on mistrust and rules. Instead, we started focusing on trust between people; between ourselves and our customers and between the management and the staff.”

For their part, employees need to reject passivity and to become more active in shaping their worlds. This means having the courage to take initiative and responsibility for changing the workplace not only for themselves but for others. It can be argued that this is always easier for individuals with status in the organisation. This may be true but there are interesting examples where this is not the case, such as the story about a cleaner at Erasmus University in Rotterdam who persuaded the administrators to change the contract for cleaning so that she and her colleagues could do their jobs better. When employees care about what they do and identify with the purpose of the organisation (which means it should be explicit and truly lived), they can go to sometimes extraordinary lengths.

2012 will present enormous challenges for both employers and employees. In this context it is even more important to think seriously about fulfilment at work. The quest for fulfilment creates economic value and individual meaning; it can drive efficiency and enhance creativity and innovation. We ought to remind ourselves that if we do not act, we can easily find that our working life has passed us by with our potential unrealised. It seems appropriate to leave the last word to Steve Jobs, who speaking at Stanford University on How to Live Before you Die said: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life… have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”


Nicholas Ind’s book Meaning at Work is published by Cappelen Damm Akademisk and is available in selected bookshops and on Amazon.

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