Why Engagement Sucks and Two Things We Need To Fix It – Part 1

The engagement blog series keeps on rolling. Today Josh Allan Dykstra steps up to the conversation and explores one of Shawn’s favorite topics – work as a source of joy. Josh ties it to engagement nicely. This is the first of two parts. Also, we’ll be interviewing Josh about his new book, “Igniting the Invisible Tribe” (available now)!

The idea of “engagement” in the workplace has been around awhile, and if you’re in the OD/HR space even a little bit, you’re well aware that it’s not new, flashy, or fresh. Many managers I speak with in large organizations actually view engagement as a dated idea: “Oh yeah, engagement; we ‘did’ that ten years ago.”

The problem, of course, is that whatever got done years ago didn’t really do anything. Today’s engagement scores are as dismal as ever. Depending on who’s measuring, somewhere between 70% and 80% of our people aren’t emotionally connecting to their work in a meaningful way.

While this isn’t exactly new, it is a problem. A big problem. Why? Put simply, if a person loves their work, they do it better. Combine this reality with the statistic above and we’ve cooked up a jarring realization: there’s a whole lot of supremely crappy work happening—or, at least, crappier than it should be.

The way we’re working simply isn’t working.

So, with all the time that’s gone by and all this proof of what’s going on, why can’t we make it better?

Why can’t we fix this problem?

Certainly if there were some magic silver bullet solution we’d have found it by now. While there is no “quick fix,” there is an easy way to understand what’s going on.

There’s a whole lot of supremely crappy work happening—or, at least, crappier than it should be.

We’ve been led to believe that the solutions were visible ones: that we could do a re-branding effort, or make more money, or get new software, or fire the CEO and things would change. But nothing has changed, has it? This is because the real solutions are invisible, lying beneath the surface, just out of our sight—which is why the engagement problem has been such a tricky one to solve.

There are two parts to this invisible challenge. We’ll explore the first today, and the second on Monday.


The first part of the problem is that we don’t truly believe it should be fixed. If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us, deep down, think work is supposed to suck. Somewhere near the core of our being, we’ve convinced ourselves that work is a really bad four-letter word, and that it should “feel like work.”

Well, it shouldn’t.

It doesn’t have to.

Instead of work being one of the worst parts of our lives, it can be one of the best.

But the only way this will change is if we believe something new.

I realize that makes me sound like I should go hug a tree (although it turns out that even tree hugging has significant scientific benefits), but if we take this idea outside of a business context we easily recognize its importance.

Instead of work being one of the worst parts of our lives, it can be one of the best.

Think about wars that are fought over religions; this is the destructive power of belief. Now think about how Gandhi felt about non-violence; this is the constructive power of belief.

Though they are invisible, what we believe about work is enormously important, and right now our beliefs are pushing us in the wrong direction.

If we want employee engagement to improve, we first have to believe that work can be joyful, life-giving, and meaningful.


Connect further with Josh

Josh Allan Dykstra is a consultant/author/speaker and co-founder of Strengths Doctors, a consulting firm which helps leaders and entrepreneurs design energizing company culture. His eclectic background spans Fortune 500 companies like Apple, Starbucks, Genentech, Sony, and Viacom/CBS to startups, nonprofits, universities, and government agencies. He holds an MBA in Executive Leadership from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and his new book about the changing world of work, Igniting the Invisible Tribe: Designing An Organization That Doesn’t Suck, is available now. Connect with him online at http://joshallan.com.

Photo courtesy of nobdyshome

Josh Allan Dykstra is a recognized thought leader on the future of work and company culture design. His articles and ideas have been featured by Fast Company, Forbes, Business Insider, MSN.com, and Under30CEO. He is a co-founder of The Work Revolution, a movement + campaign that advocates for life-giving work environments and a co-founder of Strengths Doctors, a consulting firm that helps leaders and entrepreneurs design energizing places to work. Josh's eclectic background includes projects with organizations like Apple, Sony, Genentech, HTC, Starbucks, UCLA and Viacom/CBS as well as startups, nonprofits, and universities. He holds an MBA in Executive Leadership from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and his new book, Igniting the Invisible Tribe: Designing An Organization That Doesn’t Suck, is available on Amazon.com. Connect with him online at http://joshallan.com.

  • http://www.hraskme.com Martin Birt

    Let’s begin the conversations about engagement at the…well at the beginning.

    I spent the early part of my working life in the Canadian Army messing around with weapons, blowing stuff up and occasionally jumping out of perfectly serviceable aircraft. When I left the army and began my thirty year business career in human resources I was sometimes asked how we motivated people in the military to do dangerous things. Well, we began by recruiting people who at that point in their lives wanted to do dangerous things within the context of a disciplined mission oriented organization. Armies, in the British and American traditions, have a pretty good sense of what they are. After all they have been about their business for a very long time. They understand their values and norms of behavior and they understand how to find and select people whose values and priorities are aligned.

    A sophisticated recruitment process focuses on identifying and selecting people whose values, character and priorities are aligned with the total employment offer of the business. In The Orange Code (p63) Bruce Philp writes “…Competence is table stakes for any employable candidate…Demand competence, but look for character. Who are these people? What drives them? What are they looking for…?”

  • http://www.intentionalworkplace.com Louise @The Intentional Workplace

    Great points. I don’t know what engagement even means anymore – just a buzzword. But the measurements, as you say are dismal. With no signs of improvement. What’s being surveyed are the beliefs and emotions that people sit on daily with few outlets for understanding or expression.

    The work is hard meme is still the dominant one in this culture. I don’t see much progress, particularly with the conditions that many people are asked to work in these days. At its heart, I believe that the command and control mindsets that still form the core of most leadership drive this.

    To your point that too many of the beliefs that could/would change the nature of work (which in my opinion the ethos that drives 24/7 allegiance) are out of the “business” context. Unfortunately, I think authentic emotional expression falls in that category. Workplace cultures won’t become more meaningful, let alone joyful, unless we allow emotional freedom in the workplace. Fear’s still the dominant ruler.

    Looking forward to Part 2 – and to checking out your book.


  • Pingback: Why Engagement Sucks, And The Two Things We Need To Fix It – Part 2 | Switch and Shift()

  • http://maritzmotivationsolutionsblog.com @michpoko

    I think more employees are and will continue to expect if not demand that work be meaningful. Engagement and motivation of people in business is too often rooted in dated beliefs, which are supported by dated systems and programs – most prevalent that people (employees) are motivated primarily out of rational self-interest. Recent science provides evidence that human motivation -what drives our attitudes, decisions and actions- is complex, and our human drives (to acquire resources/status, to bond, to create/comprehend and to defend what we believe is ours) are all triggered by powerful emotions (yup, emotions, not reason). I believe we are experiencing a values shift coming through the great recession. As I see it, people are searching for meaning and connection in all aspects of their lives, including their relationships with organizations and brands. In this new normal, I expect more and more people will demand a work environment that enables collaboration and participation, social and immersive experiences (people have found their voice through social media such as this as so many other avenues – we want to be part of the conversation). Globalization continues to be driven by technology and the exchange of information. We now live in an interlinked world where as global citizens, and more organizations are made up of employees from across the globe. I believe this will strengthen the need for a common set of organizational values and a clear purpose, while at the same time supporting cultural differences to engage employees. Numerous studies show that effective employee recognition is highly correlated with higher overall engagement. Part of why recognition is so impactful is it can touch on all our innate drives. We can acquire status, reputation, rewards. It can be a social, bonding experience, and when well delivered – it can help an employee know what they do that brings value and contributes to a meaningful cause inside their organization. Further, well delivered, recognition can lead to a growth mindset. Or organization is even looking at how knowing personal values can help design more meaningful messages and programs for employees. http://www.maritz.com/Employee-Values-Study.aspx

  • http://www.liquidleadership.com Brad Szollose

    Josh…superb. Now if we can just get the leaders who worked their way up the ladder through abuse, and obedience, to embrace a better work environment.

  • http://cashwithatrueconscience.com/rbblog Ryan Biddulph

    Hi Josh,

    Check your intent to change your organization, and of course the intent of employees.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • paulherr

    Hi Josh…Love it. Yes, by all means, we are supposed to enjoy our work. Dennis Bakke, the CEO and co-founder of AES corp, created a hugely successful company by making “joy at work” an everyday priority. He built an entire organization around “joy” in surprising ways. I highly recommend his 2005 book, “Joy at Work.”

    I’ve studied motivation for 35 years from a biological perspective. “Joy” is just natures way of saying “good job.” Nature “designed” us to feel good when they we take care of business. I like the way neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio” put it, “Nature seduces us into good behavior (with pleasure).”

    We are rewarded with positive feelings when we invent, master skills, achieve tribal goals, and work collaboratively as a tightly-knit group. Positive feelings indicate that we are functioning optimally and should be seen as signs of organizational health. This is what Dan Goleman was getting at when he wrote in Primal Leadership, “The fundamental task of leaders, we argue, is to prime good feelings in those they lead.”

    Keep up the great work. I would like to talk with you sometime.

  • http://joshallan.com Josh Allan Dykstra

    Love your thoughts on emotional freedom, Louise. Spot on. Perhaps we can use better systems (Part 2) to encourage more emotional liberty!

    Seems to me like some of this might get better as new generations enter the workplace in greater numbers, too. Gen Y, in particular, is pretty forthright about how they feel. ;-)

  • http://joshallan.com Josh Allan Dykstra

    You and I are observing many of the same trends, Michelle, particularly when it comes to demanding more meaning at work. I’m guessing you’re already familiar with all the great work done in the behavioral economics field as well as at the Havas Media Lab?

    Thanks so much for including your research, as well. Absolutely fantastic!

  • http://maritzmotivationsolutionsblog.com @michpoko

    Hi Josh. I am part of a collaborative network we call the Maritz Institute http://www.themaritzinstitute.com/ We have studied behavioral economics and the latest in all the human sciences, particularly neuroscience. We also work with a number of scientists and academics to understand, distill and apply the latest insights into human behavior and motivation into our solutions. We work with Emily Falk, worked quite a bit with the late Paul Lawrence of Harvard (co-author of 4-drive model with Nithin Nohria) and have worked with Paul Zak. Some of what came to mind reading and posting was the work we’ve studied by Barbara Fredrickson (positive psychology and the value of positive emotions and experiences on creativity, health, growth and development). I know of Umair Haque primarily through his HBR contributions and have only limited familiarity with the Lab. Would love to learn a bit more. If you are interested in the research study, I’m hosting a free webinar through an HR.com virtual event next week sharing learnings from the Employee Values Study (Oct. 30 11 – noon CST). It’s called “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”. Anyone interested can register here:: http://www.hr.com/en/webcasts_events/virtual_events/upcoming_virtual_events/rewards-and-recognition_gw7zrs6z.html Appreciate the insights and dialogue!

  • http://joshallan.com Josh Allan Dykstra

    Love it! Very happy to have connected with you. I’ll be speaking at that time on Oct 30, but thanks very much for the invite. Looking forward to learning more about you and your great work!

  • http://joshallan.com Josh Allan Dykstra

    This can be quite a trick, can’t it?

    What’s interesting to me is that if we truly embrace Point #1 — that one of our major inhibitors to creating engagement is a lack of belief — it is quite instructive for how to better attack the problem. Meaning, if we have a “crisis of faith” in the workplace, so to speak, then perhaps our methods of intervention should actually appeal more to the spiritual and meaning-craving parts of humans, instead of the left-brain logical fact-based parts that we have been talking to.

  • http://maritzmotivationsolutionsblog.com @michpoko

    More recent science actually proves there is really no such thing as a purely rational decision. Our emotional brain system and our rational brain systems are seprate but interdependent and rely on each other. But because rational thinking and decision take more time (for processing efficiency), we usually make our choices, actions, decisions based on our emotional brain’s reaction – we lean on our previous experiences and emotion-memories to direct our behavior. So, relying solely on rational arguments or data to influence and motivate behavior – well, probably not the best approach..

  • http://joshallan.com Josh Allan Dykstra

    Where’s my “Like” button!? ;-)

  • http://maritzmotivationsolutionsblog.com @michpoko

    That’ll do! I think most people agree with a definition of engagement that sounds like an emotional attachment to one’s work and the organization. So, as uncomfortable as it may be, even business is about relationships and feelings. No way around it!

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