Employee engagement continues to vex employers globally. Despite all that’s been written and the billion dollars plus spent annually on this issue, engagement rates have remained essentially unchanged since Gallup first shared its groundbreaking research.
Why is this?
Many of the reasons involve common tactical and operational missteps. These have been addressed in What to Do Before You Ever Conduct an Employee Engagement Survey. At a more foundational level, employee engagement efforts fail to yield results because of a fundamental flaw in how engagement is viewed. This has been addressed in Why You Need to Customize Your Employee Experience.
In this article, we will explore the relational component to why so many employees remain disinterested, disenfranchised, and disengaged.
Many employees stop caring about doing any more than the bare minimum because they don’t believe their employer or their boss cares about them.
How do employees get the message “We don’t care about you”?
Reflect back on your career and you can undoubtedly recall a number of experiences where the way you were treated by a manager—or your employer as a whole—communicated:
- “I don’t care how my decisions or behavior affects you. It’s your job to figure out how to deal with me.”
- “You are a cog in a big wheel, not a human being with individual strengths, preferences, hopes and dreams, and the right to have a life outside of work.”
- “Your only value is what you can do for me and for us. The fact that you are a fellow human being doesn’t make you worthy of respect, compassion, or consideration.”
As these experiences accumulated with any job, you probably became less and less emotionally bonded to your work and the organization. You became less passionate, less loyal, less interested in giving it everything you had. Eventually, you probably left (or at least hopefully you did for both your and your employer’s sake).
Five Ways Managers Teach Employees Not to Care
While there are many ways managers unwittingly teach employees not to care, here are five common ways. Please use these as both a self-assessment and as a catalyst for discussion among your fellow managers.
- Management doesn’t show empathy for how their decisions and behaviors affect employees.—It’s human nature to care about those who care about us and NOT care about those who don’t. Thus, when managers don’t show concern for how their decisions and behavior affects employees, employees reciprocate by becoming less concerned about the things that are important to management, such productivity, customer service quality, and profitability.
- Management is “all business,” impersonal, and transactional—When managers and management as a whole relate in this way, they fail to engage the “heart power” of their people…the fuel that powers productivity and greatness. For an example of the difference this makes, compare Southwest Airline’s culture and its ability to foster fun-loving, customer-friendly service---and operational excellence—in an industry where the philosophy seems to be “We’re not happy until you’re not happy.” Southwest Airlines is possibly the most recognizable example of the difference tending to relationships makes.
- Non-responsiveness is the norm—When employees repeatedly get no response to important requests or no confirmation that important information was received via email, they learn to give up caring whether their boss received the information they wanted or their employer gets their most valuable contribution. “If they don’t care, why should I?” becomes the norm.
- Managerial entitlement is the norm—Managerial entitlement comes in many forms. Taking employees working long hours, working weekends, and other “above and beyond” effort for granted is perhaps the most obvious. Managing with a “my poor planning makes it your emergency” mentality is another. “Managing by spreadsheet”, to borrow from James Pepitone of DesignedWork, is form of imperious, entitled behavior. This is where leaders come up with unrealistic business goals totally detached from reality and how the work gets done, but instead pull a number out of the air—or in this case, based on their spreadsheet calculations. When this happens, employees not only feel angry and overwhelmed, but also disdainful of their leader’s cluelessness.
- Unrealistic expectations and unnecessary deadlines—While this is also an example of managerial entitlement, it deserves its own heading because it is so infuriatingly disrespectful to employees. This includes the “I need this by the end of the day” demand, with the “this” sitting unread and not acted upon for days or even weeks. It includes the employee working over the weekend—and missing out on family activities—to make a Monday morning deadline that was totally arbitrary. Another example of this behavior was articulated by a frustrated member of an organization’s management team who said “Because we keep making it happen when they give us these unrealistic deadlines, they have no idea of the pain and cost to us.”
So, Now What?
If you want to combat employee disengagement, if you want employees to be more “into you,” show initiative, and have a “How can I help?” mentality, share this article with your fellow managers and use it as a catalyst to explore their own experiences with this phenomenon throughout their careers.
Then use this as a jumping off point to explore how they might be unwittingly doing things that foster an “I’m just not that into you” attitude by employees.
The next step is for managers to ask their direct reports for feedback on this. To help with that, here’s an article I wrote about how to foster candid feedback: Your Employees Need to Know You Really Can Handle the Truth.