The abysmal rates of employee engagement stats are all over social media, with Gallup surveys continuing to reveal a snapshot in their series on the State of the American Workplace report. Solutions to increasing employee engagement often look at the external factors to engagement -- factors such as compassionate leadership, work-life balance opportunities, continual feedback, and benefits of various sorts. In fact, Gallup identifies 12 rating questions that they claim get at the heart of employee engagement, all of them having to do with an external workplace factor, such as: My opinion seems to count; My supervisors care about me; My colleagues are committed to doing quality work; The mission of my organization makes me feel like my job is important, etc.
While all these external factors are great ways to create places of work that are appealing to potential and current employees, the focus on the externals alone misses the core of what drives employee engagement: the employee's understanding of the SOURCE of their disengagement.
Over the years, I've had the good fortune of being a young entrepreneur and starting my own firm at 18, and also being employed by amazing employers - industry leaders in the fields of healthcare, advocacy and business consulting. But until I truly understood why I tend to be engaged or disengaged at work, I was always a victim to my thoughts about my workplace, my colleagues or my sense of my own "vision" or "purpose".
As a young entrepreneur, I started a printshop in downtown Los Angeles with my then partner. We were young and ambitious and quickly grew the business to lucrative levels - yet our mistrust of each other and our inability to create a working partnership created a situation which I felt was "toxic" and my only option seemed to be to dissolve the partnership. I was only 22 years old when I left, and felt there was a whole world ahead of me, and that surely I deserved to work with colleagues who respected me and were more trust-worthy.
As I continued my education and expanded my career into technology, healthcare and later into corporate consulting, there would be times when I would be 100% engaged with my work, and other times when I couldn't focus at all. There would be times when I'd feel on top of the world, where everything seemed perfect and I felt so lucky to work with such wonderful colleagues. And other times when I would feel that certain colleagues or places of work were just "toxic" and that I deserved better. There were times when I'd feel that my level of disengagement at my place of work was because I hadn't found my "purpose" or that the particular workplace or project just wasn't delivering the level of "joy" that I needed. I even took time to live in pristine environments, breathing clean mountain air, eating organic foods, and working with "highly conscious" individuals.
Yet, through it all, my levels of engagement were never a direct result of what the workplace was offering me or the result of the clarity of my "purpose" or "vision".
The quality of my workplace engagement was connected to something else -- something other than what the workplace was offering me or how clear I was about my life's purpose.
The truth is, feeling disengaged and acting disengaged in the workplace (or anywhere for that matter) is often a painful experience. The truth is we WANT to be engaged with our daily tasks and activities. We WANT our work to mean something and most of us WANT to be in a state of flow - where everything we do feels aligned with our higher purpose and our joy, where the time just flies away and we feel inspired by what we do day in and day out. And when we don't feel inspired by our colleagues and our places of work, we THINK there's something wrong, we THINK that our source of internal dissatisfaction is because of something external. We think that if only I changed to another place of employment, if only I worked with other individuals, if only my salary levels were higher, if only I was more inspired, if only I knew my "life's purpose"... then I would be more engaged and satisfied, then I could give my 100% effort.
This way of thinking is typical, and it's natural to feel and act this way. It all seems so real. It's all very human.
But the reality is that our moment to moment experiences and feelings are only created by our thoughts in the moment. We could be literally surrounded with amazing colleagues, inspired projects, and the salary of our dreams... yet our internal experience may be far from engaged and satisfied. Why is that ?
How we feel moment to moment has NOTHING to do with other people or circumstances. How we feel and our level of engagement has EVERYTHING to do with the thoughts we have about our circumstances. Many people THINK that if they only engage positive thinking, then they can show up stronger and be more engaged in more areas of their lives. Yet positive thinking alone can't take on what may feel like a TSUNAMI of what we experience as "toxicity" in our places of work. To beat the feelings of "toxicity," we tend to think more and more... in order to come up with an idea or solution out of our current predicament. And the solution typically involves changing something about our external circumstances.
But this wave of over-thinking (whether positive or negative) never really delivers what's most important for workplace engagement. It may help us change our external circumstances, but it never really helps us to address the underlying source of disengagement and discontent. Our external situations might change, but we remain the same. Our discontent and disengagement may lessen temporarily, but it's only a matter of time before they pop up again!
What truly drives workplace engagement is a state of mind that is present, clear and content to be here now, regardless of what's going on externally.
We fall into the misunderstanding that our places of work impact our contentment or clarity of mind, and thus our levels of engagement. This way of thinking will only lead us on a wild goose chase throughout our lives, searching and chasing an illusive dream or vision that's never sustainable.
The only thing standing in the way of our full engagement is our own insecure/agitated/reactive thoughts in the moment. These internal thought-storms have a life of their own. They come and go at whim. One day everything might be great in our workplace, and the next day these thought-storms take us away from full engagement and paint a dark reality and make us feel restless, disengaged and unfocused.
It may be that we need to change our employment, yet believing in the truth value of our internal thought-storms will never help us to arrive at a place of contentment and true engagement and focus.
Turning our attention away from the internal thought-storms of insecurity and reactivity allows the storms to settle. The content of our internal thought-storms does NOT matter. It does NOT matter whether I think I'm experiencing thoughts of insecurity or unworthiness or self-righteousness or dissatisfaction. What DOES matter is knowing there's an internal thought-storm happening, and that this thought-storm does NOT paint a true picture of my current situation and does NOT hold the solution to addressing my challenges.
My most innovative and inspiring solutions to my most challenging issues (whether in the workplace or elsewhere) lie in the silence of the present moment.
Our most progressive workplaces these days offer many workplace perks to their employees to help strengthen their workplace engagement. These benefits are always amazing and are always welcome.
Yet, what's at the core of driving employee engagement is the individual's ability to see beyond their thought-storms, to see their agitated thoughts for the imposters that they are and NOT the source of accurately assessing their workplace reality.
Supporting employees to NOT be the victim of their inner thought-storms may just be the most cost effective way to create an empowered, inspired and engaged workforce. I look forward to continuing to discuss this in future blogs.
Dr. Noushin Bayat is a coach and organization development executive with expertise in operations, change management, and leadership development. She supports executives/teams to engage clear thinking, psychological agility and presence to collaborate effectively and deliver emergent innovative solutions within complex agile environments. Dr. Bayat has worked on change initiatives requiring the design of training and leadership development programs, scaling and operationalizing coaching deployment and developing agile solutions within agile product development environments. She has a BS in computer science and communications, masters in public health and spiritual psychology, and doctorate in organizational leadership, with advanced training in coaching, yoga and meditation. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.