I’ve started to put more thought into the notion that’s been brewing in my head for a while. Here’s how it goes: at work, you can broadly divide employees into two pools: Engaged and Not Engaged. The latter sounds negative but it’s really not meant to be.
It started many years ago when I entered the work force and heard so many dread going to work. At first I was puzzled, then I was thankful for many years, and finally I reached a state of understanding.
Puzzling It Out
I was puzzled by how people could survive doing something they hated doing for the majority of each work day. Shouldn’t you just figure out a way to like what you’re doing or, failing that, change jobs?
Over time, I realized that not everyone has the opportunity to do what they love to do. And so I became thankful that I did. I looked at all the fields of work out there and how people got to where they were. And I started to think about all the lucky breaks I got on the path to where I was. So I settled into years of gratitude. I still couldn’t quite understand how some of my co-workers were less enthused by what they were doing. If I’m being honest, there was some unfair judgement there.
But I stayed there for a long time until I became a manager about 8 years ago. At that point, I found myself (frequently) in the position where I really had to understand what was going on with the less engaged personality. How is it that these folks are doing a great job but also don’t care that much about the why behind it all.
So that’s when I started to approach the problem with two important assumptions:
- Everyone involved has good intentions.
- Everyone involved has equal skill levels (or at least they net out to being on par with one another)
No doubt, these assumptions are not always true, but I would say those situations are more exceptional.
The question I wanted to answer: how is it that some Engineers are highly engaged in the team (and even in the company) while others are not. And a follow up: what do I mean by “Engaged”.
An Engaged Team
An engaged team is like a gear that is locked into position turning and being turned by other teams. A disengaged team is not fully in position to have the same effect. But this mental model I’ve had is flawed. That’s because a disengaged teammate can be incredibly productive without the interruptions that sometimes come with deeper engagement. There are other nuanced benefits of engagement that I won’t get into here, but speaking in terms of productivity only, it’s not as clear a picture as I would like.
But the disengaged employee does not necessarily “move” with the team. That is, they’re not as interested in the why of what they’re doing and they are content to fully understand and execute the what. The more engaged folks feel like they must understand the why to be happy at work. In fact, it’s more than that - the engaged feel like they need to be a part of the why in some way. Empowerment is a measure of the amount of influence that a teammate has on the why of an organization. As companies and teams grow, this level of empowerment tends to become more and more isolated to a smaller and smaller fraction of that team. The truth is that not everyone can (or should) be influencing the why at all times.
Too Many Cooks
So, if everyone on a team is fully engaged, disconent increases. It is a “too many cooks in the kitchen” scenario - but one that is avoidable. As I see it, this can be avoided in one of two ways:
1) distributing the highly engaged to other teams that have a shortfall in engagement This can solve multiple problems at once by satisfying the need for engagement on the part of the moved teammate and potentially unlocking engagement on the pre-existing teammates.
2) redirecting that energy toward a purpose that is less focused on the specific team’s burden and more on the larger organization. Guilds (or whatever you want to call them) are a good option as long as it is empowered to affect change. This requires leadership buy-in and messaging that gives the group the necessary authority. Once those ingredients are in play, the engaged teammate will likely have a feeling of satisfaction and the larger team benefits from their energy and motivation.
The engaged employees tend to need to have a feeling of empowerment and belonging that the less engaged employee needs.
I really want to be careful here because this is where I have, in the past, taken a more negative direction. My mistake was to assume that being disengaged is necessarily bad.
The less engaged employee still cares about the success of the company, the team and the project. It’s not that they do not need to feel that engagement or the feeling of empowerment - it’s just that they do not draw that need wholly from their workplace.
That revelation changed my perspective profoundly. It got me thinking of work/life balance and the relationship between work engagement and life engagement.
Because we are not omnipotent, when we pay attention to one thing, that means something else is not getting attention paid to it. That sounds obvious as I write it, but it’s something that I have not been willing to accept until very recently.
So it’s not that people are deciding to be disengaged. It only means that the things they choose to engage in are different than the things I choose to engage in. In other words, in the continuum of work/life balance, they are trending closer to the middle while I am have spent an inordinate amount of time closer to the work side of things.
This is a personal choice and likely one that changes for each person over time. Work/Life balance shifts depending on what’s going on with each at any given time. That said, some have a predelection for one or the other given the same set of events. The question isn’t whether they are right or wrong, the question is whether that is what they need at any given time.
In the end, a manager should try to stay in step with their report to understand as much as possible what that they need at any given time. If you see them lean too heavily into work at the expense of their sanity, you might try to guide them back into balance. If you see them lose touch with work, you might try to gently nudge them back into a more engaged posture. But the key here is to understand and to empathize. And, of course, that isn’t easy because like many of us, it’s not all that clear what the “right” posture is. The only thing we can do is make educated guesses and try things and use one-on-ones to understand each other and make better educated guesses in the future.