Engagement is a hot topic in the business world right now.  How engaged an employee is at work has implications for not only individual morale and well-being but also for the company’s bottom-line as well.

What is engagement, and why is it ranking so low?

Business leaders argue that the more engaged the workforce in an organization, the more competitive advantage it has.  For example, a December Harvard Business Review article reported that organizations whose employees reported high engagement had 25%-65% less attrition than their peers. 

The Gallup Management Journal, which publishes a semi-annual Employment Engagement Index, recently reported that in the U.S. only 29 percent of employees are actively engaged in their jobs. (Several years ago, that number was actually lower.)

Fifty-four percent of employees are not engaged saying they have “checked out” and are putting time into their work but not passion.  If true, those statistics are alarming and haves direct implications on an organization’s level of success and bottom line.

While engagement can be tricky to define (and even trickier to measure), consider that at its core, engagement is about connecting what we do with why we do it. (An alternate term here is ‘purpose.’) When we forget why we are doing what we are doing, the tasks themselves become empty, meaningless, and tedious — if not downright laborious.  

That’s actually what good leaders do.  They help people connect what they do with what they and the organization care about.  Leaders help others make a connection between their actions and how those actions are taking care of the future they want to create.  They help connect people in the organization to a sense of purpose and meaning and meaning generates intentional action – actions taken by design – not actions that simply show up in the drift of life, or as a result of reacting to circumstances.  

Engagement and ‘losing sight of the cathedral’

In fact, one of the deepest challenges leaders face is helping people deal with the sense of emptiness and meaninglessness that arises from their actions when they see them as disconnected from any overt sense of purpose or with what matters to them.  You may be familiar with the parable of the stone cutters that illustrates this quite well.

A laborer was breaking stones in a field and was asked by a passerby “what are you doing?”  The laborer replied in a very dour mood, “I am breaking my back to cut these stones.”  The passerby walked on and came upon another laborer in the field who was also breaking stones.  The laborer, in answer to the same question, answered rather matter-of-factly “I am working to feed my family and keep a roof over our head.”

Coming upon another laborer and asking the same question again this laborer stopped and, with a grand smile and a gaze towards the sky, replied “I am building a cathedral.”

It’s so easy to lose sight of the cathedral, isn’t it?  It’s easy to forget the future we are creating with our day-to-day actions.

Engagement and leadership priorities

Having been an executive coach for many years, the most consistent challenge my executive clients reveal after a few coaching sessions is that they have lost sight of what really matters.  They talk in terms of having lost the fire in their belly and of not finding meaning in their work any longer.  They feel they sacrificed the ‘why’ for the ‘what’ – meaning they got busy doing stuff without paying attention to whether their busyness was taking care of what they most cared about.

So, how do you get back in touch with what you care about?

It isn’t necessarily hard to do but it does require reflection, good conversations and some self-awareness.  It also requires courage to face whatever conclusions you come to especially if you realize that what you are doing– how you’re spending your finite resources (of time and energy) – doesn’t bring you aliveness or whole-hearted engagement any longer.

The power of questions and conversations in engagement

To get started, ask this question:

  • Is how I spend my time here taking care of what matters most to me?

Don’t rush your answers. Give time for percolation and reflection. Allow whatever answers arise to be legitimate.  Don’t filter or discard your observations.

It’s not uncommon that your off-the-top-of-the-head answer will usually be something like:  I care about making enough money to take care of my family or to have x, y or z.  

That’s a start.  Now ask this:

  • What will having x, y, or z get you?
  • What does that take care of?
  • You can also introduce another question which is: is there another way to better take care of what matters to me?

Don’t rush the answers!  These questions will likely open up new thinking and perhaps lay a new path of possibilities before you.  And, if your answers don’t come quickly then congratulations!  These are not inconsequential questions.  They deserve reflection, exploration, consideration.

Better yet, talk about your reflections with someone who can listen, without judgment.  There is great power in having conversations, in a safe space, to do this kind of inquiry and exploration.

After all, your every waking moment is spent doing things – filled with activities – let’s hope they are taking care of what you most care about. And if they aren’t, what a perfect time to refocus and realign your actions with the future you want to take care of.

Of course there are other elements critical to building full employee engagement.  You’ve got to have the values, motivational systems, conversations, standards etc. that are congruent with and aligned with your mission/vision and cares.  But, you have to start with the conversations of care or you will (and your team) run the risk of losing sight of the cathedral.

About Terrie Lupberger

Terrie Lupberger, MCC is a senior executive coach and advisor to leaders and teams worldwide. She is considered one of the pioneers in the profession of executive coaching; is the former CEO of an international coach training company, and a former executive at the US Department of Treasury. She now works at the intersections of leadership and coaching to elicit the very best, the greatest potentials, from an individual or a team. Terrie’s specialty is working with women leaders around the Core Principles of Feminine Leadership and is a facilitator and keynote speaker on the topic of the feminine in leadership. Through her studies and varied organizational experience she supports leaders to navigate the mine fields, pitfalls and blind spots inherent in playing a bigger game and generating greater impact. Her clients are executives in large corporations, government, IT and Finance as well as women launching start-ups. She is part of the coaching teams for SupporTED, the Unreasonable Institute, and Sundance Female Filmmaker's Initiative.

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