Demystifying Disengagement at Work

Over 85% of people are not engaged at work, yet we can spend 100,000+ hours (50%+) hours of our waking lives at work. Work is inevitably a big part of our lives, yet when we are disengaged, this leads to lowered work and life satisfaction, with negative repercussions on the businesses we serve and on society at large.

I know it’s possible to lower this lack of engagement statistic dramatically—most of the methods and research are out there. However the delivery of effective methods, to more people, can be improved.

My disclaimer: this article is really focused on exploring the problem and not yet the solutions. “A well defined problem” is often over half the battle but does not get over half the attention as “the solution” does in our world these days.

Why does this matter to me?

When people list top reasons for disengagement at work, the list often goes something like this:

  1. They believe it’s just a temporary or stepping stone job. There’s not necessarily a career path that they care about at the current organization.
  2. Poor leadership or management does not allow them to excel or even work in the most effective way.
  3. Poor company culture doesn’t allow them to bring their whole-selves to work and/or doesn’t seem to recognize or reward effort fairly.
  4. Excessive work load and poor delegation leads to a feeling of overwhelm. Employees don’t often have the tools to identify the type of overwhelm, how to deal with it and aren’t given resources fast enough to resolve this. We know what comes next when this happens–burnout.
  5. Lack of training, resources or support to actually do the job properly.
  6. Workplace conflict where the employee may feel emotionally burdened or bullied.

I have personally experienced many instances of all of the above over the past 5 years, working in intense investment banking (IB) and private equity (PE) jobs.

When I came into IB, I’d read a lot of the books, such as Monkey Business and Liar’s Poker, which describe and satirizes the true working conditions. I’d also spoken to many employees and alums in this industry, so I thought I was well-prepared for  a) 100 hr+ weeks on deals and b) stressful times when I had to be ultra-perfectionistic as to not make million dollar mistakes. Thus, I was expecting to suffer a bit of #1 and #4 from the list above.

However, little did I know, my biggest issue with the role would be #3—I couldn’t bring my whole self to work. I had to constantly pretend I was some IB Analyst Clone! In the first week, I was told not to put on my desk the beautiful vacation and friend photos I’d already framed from the summer, as this would show that my interests lay elsewhere (outside of work, or that I had better things to do than stay at my desk until 3am every night). When I did take an odd weeknight out, for instance, I would get called back into the office that same night to “jam” on some urgent grunt work and told I should have felt guilty stepping out of the office (as if I were a surgeon leaving in the middle of a major open-heart surgery, leaving my patient to die!)

Following close behind is #6. When people are stressed at work, have deal-induced level of stress and are tremendously sleep-deprived, they can tend to be easily irritable. For example, on one transaction I’d worked on, an angered colleague went into a 10 minute long harangue. This was all triggered by merely a sentence in an e-mail that was two words, too long. And no, those two words were not some obscenity! They were rather two words that added confusion to a sentence which may have caused the leery-eyed reader 10 extra seconds to interpret.

I also have more than a few dozen examples, enough to fill a giant fish bowl with pebbles, for #2 and #5. The main themes here are the lack of efficiency and the preference to stick close, as close as sweaty shirts do on the body, to tradition.

Some things have improved since I left IB 3 years ago. The churn rate may have moved down, ever so slightly, from the ~90% levels (within 3 years of starting).

This can’t be the way how the rest of my ~77,500 hours of work life should go!

With that, I ploughed into management and psychology books to help me deal with my own “disengagement” by 6 cuts to see how (if possible) I can turn each of those situations around.

What is the problem? Getting more specific

Now, what is the definition of work engagement anyway? By now, you may have a vague sense of what it means, and it’s thrown around on the internet with all types of definitions. Work engagement is commonly defined as the extent to which employees feel passionate about their jobs, are committed to the organization, and put discretionary effort into their work.

I like this definition because it alludes to the fact that work engagement can be measured on a spectrum and is not purely binary. Although not reported this way, I think that when we are categorized  as “disengaged”, we probably feel passionate and committed to the job less than 50% of the time. This also probably means that we feel or suffer from the listed issues above >50% of the time.

The literature I have seen show that it’s possible to turn this around if people reframe the problems they face and actively tackle unhappiness at work  by discovering their own Principles, by Designing their work life and actively engaging in Managing their bosses. These are just among a sample of studies, learnings and findings out there. Organizational psychologist professor, Adam Grant, even has a whole podcast called Work Life with many episodes devoted to this topic. 

  1. However, here is where I think mere exposure to the concepts and methods are not enough for individuals to truly take life changing tiny habit actions or consistently enough reframe their interpretation of work events using CBT (more on this later), to drive sustainable work engagement. Recall our target is to go above 50% of the time per person! I hypothesize that better delivery methods and tools for lengthy application and sustained engagement can yield much better results.
  2. Adoption needs to be much more pervasive. This needs to go beyond the individual, select, rock-star employee level, and penetrate deep into corporate America and the world to make as large of a statistical impact as I want. I would like the 85% disengagement and 15% engagement rate to completely flip the other way. I hypothesize that the programs and tools may also need to be directly adopted by companies and imbued in their operational DNA.

Takeaway

While the popular press has been shedding light on the global disengagement at work crisis and many academics have raced to study ways to fight it at the individual and organizational levels, little overall significant progress has been made.

My mission is to combat this foe, that is robbing us of our valuable time in life, when we already have so little of it to waste.

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