Why aren't we more invested in our work?

The roots of our global engagement crisis run deep. Jim Whitehurst does some digging.
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Understanding employee engagement is difficult—and so is defining engagement in the first place. Many smart people offer different definitions of "engagement," but most seem to agree that it refers to the emotional connection people feel to their work.

And it's becoming one of the most frequently cited challenges for organizations around the world. Statistics about employee engagement tell a sobering story. For example, a Gallup study in 2017 found that only 15% of employees globally feel engaged at work (in the U.S. and Canada, that number is 31%—not much better).

As the nature of work changes, the factors keeping people invested in and motivated by that work are changing, too. What's clear is that our conventional strategies for cultivating engagement may no longer work. We need to rethink our approach.

New motivators

When traditional management systems (what I've called "mechanical management") were developed, most people's work could be precisely specified. It was rote and routine. So management focused primarily on dictating actions—defining organizational functions and making sure all those functions fit together in a seamless and efficient whole. In other words, it was managers' job to ensure people were following prescribed behaviors.

Organizational reward systems reinforced this. The best employees—those that performed their prescribed tasks most efficiently and with fewest deviations—received raises, bonuses, or promotions aimed at getting them to keep doing what they were doing (maybe even work a little harder at it). Rewards like those compensated for the relatively unfulfilling nature of the work itself; they seemed to acknowledge the fact that it wasn't much of a reward on its own. They were extrinsic motivators.

But as the Gallup study underscores, much has changed. Today, many jobs require initiative, judgment, and creativity more than efficiency and an ability to enact prescribed plans. That's changing our understanding of productivity, too. With routine work, the difference between an organization's most productive worker and the rest of the workforce might be between 5% and 10%. But with work that emphasizes innovation over efficiency, the most productive worker can be 10 times—even 100 times—more valuable than the average employee.

Current research suggests that extrinsic rewards (like bonuses or promotions) are great at motivating people to perform routine tasks—but are actually counterproductive when we use them to motivate creative problem-solving or innovation. That means that the value of intrinsic motivation is rising, which is why cultivating employee engagement is such an important topic right now.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not suggesting that people no longer want to be paid for their work. But a paycheck alone is no longer enough to maintain engagement. As work becomes more difficult to specify and observe, managers have to ensure excellent performance via methods other than prescription, observation, and inspection. Micromanaging complex work is impossible.


It's important to recognize that engagement is not the same as morale. It's much deeper (and more complicated) than that. Yet traditional management practices focus almost exclusively on morale—which you could define as keeping people content with the precisely prescribed work specified for them.

As work becomes more difficult to specify and observe, managers have to ensure excellent performance via methods other than prescription, observation, and inspection.

Engagement is an indicator of something that runs much deeper: your organizational culture. So to begin addressing engagement issues, you'll need to focus on both the principles your organization stresses and the routine practices you enact to reinforce those principles. It starts with the much more demanding problem of people's intrinsic motivations to remain invested in their work. You might begin in one of the following ways.

Connect to a mission and purpose. As I explained in The Open Organization innovative, engaged organizations always foreground why they exist, why they continue to do what they do. Even more importantly, they make sure everyone in the organization understands that purpose—and specifically how their work,is connected to it. When people understand the ways their work impacts not only the organization but also the wider world beyond it, they're more likely to feel more motivated by that work (because they can more easily see the difference they're making). Red Hat, for example, is a mission-driven company; Red Hatters are passionate about the fact that working on open source projects alongside open source communities impacts the world in an extremely positive way. That intense passion sets the foundation for powerful engagement.

Reconsider your view of failure. People are less likely to engage deeply with their work when they feel like they can't be creative and attempt to innovate. So alter your approach to feedback and failure to ensure people feel safe taking risks. One problem with applying traditional performance management measurements to creative tasks is that innovative behavior requires some latitude for experimentation and uncertainty. And to be clear: Most experiments will fail. But we learn from them—and that learning, in itself, is a type of success—so help your teams develop a finer-grained language for describing "success" and "failure." People who aren't perpetually fearful of being disciplined if they make a "bad call" will be more motivated to solve customer issues in new, creative ways—and they'll feel more engaged as a result.

Cultivate a sense of ownership. Employees who feel like they have a real, personal stake in the success or failure of a project are going to funnel more energy into that project. We see this kind of passionate commitment at work all the time in open source communities, where collaborators work intensely on technologies not because of the monetary compensation they receive for their work—quite often, there isn't any—but because they have a personal investment in the destiny of something they helped create. As more organizations adopt these open source technologies, leaders are experiencing the power of this kind of engagement. "I'm letting my developers contribute to open source," some have told me, "not because I care at all about open source, and not because I think I necessarily want them to do it (as a matter of fact, I had to argue with legal about it). But I can't hire talent if I don't let them contribute." People want to work on—and feel personally responsible for—something bigger than themselves. Handing over control of key projects can be scary for conventional managers, but by doing so they'll begin building more engaged teams.

These three tips alone won't be enough to fix an organization's culturally rooted engagement issues, but they're a way to begin the difficult task of making people more satisfied, more invested, and more motivated at work.

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Jim Whitehurst is President and Chief Executive Officer of Red Hat, the world’s leading provider of open source enterprise IT products and services. With a background in business development, finance, and global operations, Whitehurst has proven expertise in helping companies flourish—even in the most challenging economic and business environments.

1 Comment

To say that "most experiments fail" sounds a bit pessimistic, or maybe just off the mark a bit. The key is to set things up so that the outcome is either win-win, or fail-win. You get to fail-win by structuring the experiment so that you learn something from its failure. One thing to learn might be that the preconceived notions that went into the experiment were wrong.
I also find that often there is a lack of anticipating outcomes -- what do you expect to happen? If your only expectation is unbridled success, yes, most often you will fail. It's also good to flesh out what success or failure will look like, and if possible build in some ability to shape your experiment, by recognizing failings early and then modify your experiment as needed.

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