Strong purpose drives strong engagement

2010 Engagement Photos SF & Napa over looking baker beach and crissy field Flickr/elcapitan79

When does lack of engagement among American employees become the norm rather than the exception?

That question may already have been answered. According the Gallup Organization, which has been measuring levels of engagement since 2000, the percentage of engaged workers has remained relatively constant - less than a third.

Most recently, Gallup's Daily Tracking poll for the third quarter of 2011 was at 29% one point off the historic highs of early to mid decade. Worse levels of non-engagement are dismal - just 52%, where it has been plus or minus a point for the past year. And workers who show the least levels of engagement are middle aged and educated.

Gallup has shown, as have many other research studies, that organizations with higher levels of engagement demonstrate "positive business performance" and conversely those with high levels of engagement suffer "lower productivity."

Before you can address poor engagement it's necessary to explore its causes. One big reason is the eroding levels of trust that many employees feel. They feel that senior management is spared the rod both in terms of accountability as well as income, while middle and lower ranks are laid off or lose opportunities for raises and advancement. Coupled with this sentiment is a pervasive feeling that some in senior management are lacking in vision (where we are headed), as well as mission (what we do well).

The reasons for low engagement on a personal level are dissatisfaction with supervisors, a feeling that what they do does not matter, and a lack of recognition for a job well done.

The challenge then is what to do about it? First, understand there is no quick fix. If employees lack faith in senior management, then leaders must find ways to prove their worth. Likewise, if employees feel little connection to their work, they need find it.

One way to begin to bridge the divide is for the organization to re-discover its purpose. The sense of purpose can be a unifying force that draws management and employees together. You can define purpose as the reason for why the organization exists. Strong purpose becomes the catalyst for vision -- what you wish to become; mission -- what you do; and values -- what holds you together.

Purpose, as I discovered when writing a book on the subject, is not a clever game of word play. It is a fundamental proposition upon which the organization rests. That is, when employees know the purpose of the organization, they know how their jobs contribute to its success.

We see purpose most vividly in winning organizations, those that are at the upper end performance in their sector. When you come in contact with such organizations -- be it as a customer, a patient, an end-user or even a visitor -- you come away with the feeling that "these people really know what they are doing."

Purpose is not accidental; it stems from leadership that permeates every level of the organization. For example, senior managers are accountable and transparent; they are accessible to employees. In turn, middle managers emulate this example. Employees too must buy in. Strong purpose cannot thrive if it is top down; it must be from the bottom up, as well as side to side. That is everyone must deliver on it.

"The secret to success," as 19th century British statesman Benjamin Disraeli said, "is constancy of purpose."

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