Time to Rethink Employee Engagement


Employee engagement. It is a near constant buzzword in organizational circles nowadays. The latest Gallup polling data suggests only one-third of people feel engaged by their work and according to the Career Trends Report: Employee Pursuit of Purpose, a study by Cornerstone, a full 89% of American workers would consider a lateral career move for “greater personal satisfaction.” The natural inclination is to equate these two metrics; if only employees were more engaged at work we would be more satisfied. In the headlong rush to address these issues, organizations now institute employee engagement initiatives, programs, and committees.

To our credit, most organizations now realize engagement cannot be bought with a 5% raise, so we instead turn to what we see as successful workplace cultures within Silicon Valley and institute perks such as enhanced benefits packages, free food, game rooms, nap pods, and the like. But what if engagement isn’t the problem? Rather than being an end in itself, what if engagement is merely a symptom of the actual underlying issue?

While perks are no doubt nice, the data is inconclusive to show they truly engage employees or lead to greater satisfaction. Perhaps it isn’t the perks that make the culture of Silicon Valley companies the envy of the corporate world, but the conceptual understanding of the context within which their work takes place. In that case, rather than engaging our employees, we should instead clearly communicate the importance and role of their position within the organization and the importance of that work in achieving the vision/accomplish the mission. There is an excellent story, The Parable of the Three Stonecutters made famous by Peter Drucker in his 1954 book, The Practice of Management that illustrates this point:

While walking, a traveler came across three stonecutters and asked each of them what they were doing. The first replied, “I am making a living.” The second kept on hammering and replied, “I am doing the best job of stone cutting in the entire county.” The third stopped, looked up at the traveler with a visionary gleam in his eye and said, “I am building a cathedral.”

There is much we can take from this story and a great deal has been written about the subjective motivations of each of the three stonecutters. The first stonecutter is doing his job for the paycheck and little more. He is divorced from the substance, purpose, and context of the work he performs.

The second stonecutter works to be the best. Frederick Winslow Taylor would be proud of his mindset and accomplishments. Yet, the second stonecutter also misses the point; productivity without purpose is meaningless. There would be no stones to cut if the community were not building the cathedral.

The third stonecutter truly understands the role he plays in achieving the grand vision of the cathedral. He realizes that his skill at cutting stones plays a crucial role in the project. Without a doubt he is the most engaged and satisfied of the three. His is the mindset we must foster within our workplaces.

Your initial reaction to this idea may be similar to my own when I first started thinking about this topic; “that’s ridiculous, who doesn’t understand their work and how it fits within the mission of their organization?” However, studies by Gallup indicate that only a staggering 50% of workers “strongly indicate they know what is expected of them at work.” The larger and more dispersed the organization, the more distant we all drift from the full context of our work. Corporate hierarchies have long sought to separate the “thinkers” from the “doers” in the name of efficiency, but in our modern, interconnected world this fundamentally dis-empowers those who toil at the bottom of the pyramid.

Rather than simply seeking to continually engage these employees, organizations must instead intentionally communicate the importance and value of everyone’s work. Leaders must reach out to involve each employee in ways that allow them to stretch their boundaries. We must be open-minded and provide our co-workers the freedom to approach tasks in new, innovative ways. We should seek our colleagues’ honest feedback and perspectives regarding our work and engage in conversations about how it fits into the mission of the organization. Lest we think this is a one-way street from the top down, it is equally important for employees to approach these conversations with our supervisors and managers as well. Such dialogues will begin the process of shaping the holistic vision necessary to truly understand the context within which we work. Only then will we achieve the engagement, satisfaction, and empowerment of the third stonecutter.

Dylan Mroszczyk-McDonald is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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