What Is the Price of Bored Employees?

Sometimes a long day at the office isn’t the result of too much work, but too little—or too much of the same kind of work.

A recent piece in the Tampa Bay Times by Robert Trigaux reports on the Gallup organization’s newly released 2017 State of the American Workplace report. Trigaux uses “bored” to describe what the report calls “disengaged” employees. Those are the workers who feel like automatons on an assembly line churning out uninspired work with no big picture in sight—it least that’s how I define the plight of those workers. Trigaux notes: “About a third (33 percent) of those employees are what Gallup calls ‘engaged’ at work. They love their jobs and make their organization and America better every day,” the report states. If employers could find a way to double the percentage of engaged workers—from one-third to two-thirds of the U.S. workforce—then the nation’s waning productivity would be over, the Gallup report suggests. That, of course, is a tall order.

Whether those engaged employees are simply better people and better employees than their less engaged peers is unknown, but what is known is not everyone is as fortunate as those engaged workers: “At the other end of the worker engagement spectrum are 16 percent of U.S. employees who are ‘actively disengaged.’ These are the folks who are ‘miserable in the workplace and destroy what the most engaged employees build,’ the Gallup report states. The workforce report estimates that actively disengaged employees alone cost the United States from $483 billion to $605 billion each year in lost productivity.

I see the cost in terms of human suffering and a loss of innovation and opportunity. In the human suffering department, you know what I’m talking about if you’ve been a disengaged employee yourself. I know what it’s like to be disengaged, and one of the things that makes me laugh now is when a person who is very well off describes themselves as “working.” It makes me laugh not because they don’t need the money, but because presumably they are working for the love of it—the ultimate state of engagement. I always wonder: If you’re so engaged in your job that you would do it even if you didn’t need the money, does it still count as “work”? Because in terms of human suffering, it is, indeed, “work” when you aren’t engaged—when your job is meaningless to you because of the content, or because of the person you have to endure to keep the job. I would liken it to the difference between a day when you feel very happy and are practically floating down the street, with little effort required to move, and a day when you’re extremely unhappy or depressed and it feels like you have weights on your legs, so you have to exert yourself greatly to go a short distance. It’s sad to inflict that kind of suffering on the “human capital” of our organizations, isn’t it?

Beyond the ethics and humanity, there is a business cost to disengagement. That comes in the form of a workforce that has lost hope, so the employees don’t bother to mention new ideas. They may not mention new ideas because they don’t want to have an argument. Sometimes an argumentative, unsupportive corporate culture can result in employees giving up, rather than innovating. I know I am loathe to pitch new ideas to my current manager because I know every time I do that I’m opening a can of worms—meaning several rounds of push-back and argument euphemized as “debate.” Do you think that often happens at your company?

Making sure you have the kind of managers who value innovation is essential. A great tip for finding out whether potential new managers are what you’re looking for is to look at whether they like to get things done. I’ve noticed two different types of employees and managers in the workforce: Those who take satisfaction in getting their work done, and doing so in a streamlined, organized, efficient manner. And those who are fulfilled by turmoil. A reader of this blog who has a psychology degree may have to step in to help explain why some people seem to revel more in turmoil than on getting work done, but I have my own layman’s suspicion: The complicated processes and argumentation fill a void inside those people.

Developing the right kinds of employees—who rise to management, and then become the right kinds of managers—requires the right corporate culture. The reason managers who stonewall and cause employees to give up exist is because their organization has rewarded them with promotions, or simply with continued employment. Why would an organization reward such a person? I suspect it’s because of the corporate version of university tenure, in which certain “seasoned” employees become virtually impossible to fire. There are about a dozen managers and executives who have been at my current company for 20 years, or longer, or who are friends with those at the top, and have about as much job security as a tenured professor. Do you have a class of untouchable managers like this at your company?

When creating your next version of performance reviews, or 360-degree reviews, a worthwhile addition is a section that evaluates the employee and manager on receptivity to new ideas, and having a “yes, and,” rather than a “no, but” perspective.

How do you create a culture that develops the kinds of managers who can create and retain an innovative workforce—full of employees who are engaged enough to come up with new ideas?

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