A Hard Look at the Soft StuffBy Janine Moon
With some clarity I remember hearing my Mother say, "That's why
they call it work!" The comment usually was in response to a
complaint about a seemingly difficult or distasteful task. Work,
then, became synonymous with anything but play. Always difficult,
and something to be suffered.
While I've since discovered that "fun work" or "engaging work" is not an oxymoron, many workers have not. The results of a recent Gallup survey on employee engagement show that less than one-third of those responding were engaged in their work. In other words, only thirty percent of American Ohio employees are engaged—committed to their employer, loyal and working with enthusiasm.
More scary is the fact that the other 70% of survey respondents fall into one of two other engagement categories: 53% are "not engaged" while the remaining 17% are "actively disengaged." Employees who are not engaged put in their time but have checked out. They show up, warm the seat, but contribute little to productivity. Their energy and commitment are limited or non-existent.
But the most frightening fact is that the last 17% of employees, those actively disengaged, show their unhappiness (maybe they burn the seats!) and consciously undermine the work of others. So this group of employees not only contributes nothing to your workplace productivity, they also work consciously to destroy the accomplishments of engaged workers.
Before you rush to a "not in my workplace" defense, take a look around. It's not hard to identify employees who are engaged and productive. They are the ones who move your organization ahead, who initiate new projects, who make themselves available to tackle any new (or old) challenge, and who daily bring energy, enthusiasm and resilience into your work group. They are not enveloped in fear of being part of the next rightsizing wave because they use their strengths and talents every day and clearly know their value in the marketplace.
While you're at it, take a look for your employees who fit the "not engaged" profile. These folks show up and put in their time. Maybe you call them average or satisfactory workers. Employees who do what's necessary after prodding, follow-up, missed deadlines, and lots of reminders. They may even show leadership qualities on occasion, for the Fantasy Football league, the Final Four pool or the Friday potluck. They do little to see that your organization's current customers are heard, or to improve services to gain new ones. Most of these folks keep a low profile—out of sight, out of mind—and bring no enthusiasm to either their own work or the organization's success. They have 'zip' buy-in, let alone ownership, and when you look for the signs of the unengaged, you'll find them.
These "seat warmers" may be easier to identify than the "seat burners," your actively disengaged employees. The actively disengaged are masters of passive aggressive behavior and will loudly proclaim their loyalty while they stand on the sidelines and (silently) cheer on the chaos they create. Their actions, mostly subtle, will not only undermine business, but will also wreak havoc with your engaged employees by destroying trust and sowing seeds of uncertainty. It's actually quite difficult to "out" the actively disengaged employees because few employers are willing to have the straight talk needed to do so. In the interest of avoiding confrontation, most employers will isolate or 'special project' the employee, making it easier for the employee to actually be destructive.
The bottom line? What percentage of your payroll goes to engaged employees?
Organizations trying to be competitive in the global marketplace can ill afford to pay people who operate in "neutral" or worse, in "reverse." This is comparable to taking one step forward followed by three back. Your organization has no chance of staying even, let alone moving ahead of your competition. In the Knowledge Economy, your workforce will literally make or break your business. Regardless of how cutting edge your systems or forward-thinking your consultants.
So what to do? Take a hard look at the soft stuff. The stuff that makes people engage. Because it's the people who make or break your organization. Show me an organization that doesn't need people for its success, and we'll end this conversation right now. Looking at the soft stuff is a challenge. It's hard, because soft stuff is people stuff. Soft skills, people skills, attitudes, beliefs, emotions and the messy Stuff that's easier to hide and ignore and tiptoe around than to bring out in the open and deal with. Hard stuff, like money and numbers, is easier to see and easier to control and is the stuff that has driven business in all our previous experience. And because it's comfortable, it's how we've always done things, we continue to pay attention to it. But that alone isn't enough, not in the 21st .
In the 21st century, we're well into the information age…where information and creativity are the piece parts of the workplace assembly line. But we don't have many assembly lines any more because our customers want unique solutions and a custom fit. Henry Ford's philosophy ("…they [customers] can have any color car they want as long as it's black.") worked in the last century, but not in this one. "Mass customization" is the philosophy of the marketplace now, and luckily, it's people who have the unlimited brainpower to provide this. But employees can only provide this when those same people can use their brains, and only when the body that carries the brain, that holds the emotions and beliefs and attitudes that make the person unique can come in its entirety and show up to work. And that's where things get messy and that's when workplaces find themselves with huge numbers of disengaged employees. While 21st century organizations need the whole worker, people tend only bring to work the parts of themselves that will be safe.
And so, the hard truth about the soft stuff is this: the Soft Stuff that must be assimilated throughout organizations today is, literally, their food of life and that of engaged employees, and so, it is the formula for success far beyond the next quarter's financials. Prioritizing the Soft Stuff is a major shift in the way we do business inside organizations. Just like customers demand customization, we must treat employees as individuals. Not job titles, not subordinates, not labor, but the energy-fuel that makes business run because we are and we do.