The Big Myth about Employee Engagement – Have You Heard This?

Employee engagement often gets discussed as an individual trait, something people just are. While this may be true of a small group of people, the truth is employee disengagement is typically an outcome of overwork and neglect of individual employees’ profession-based values.

Office setting, adults look tired, some sleeping

Have you ever felt disengaged at work? What caused you to feel that way? 

An intense, seemingly never-ending workload? 

Lack of communication or clarity from your manager about the most important tasks or about how what you are working on contributes to bigger picture goals and priorities? 

We’ve probably all heard about the statistics highlighting the high rates of employee disengagement. A March 2016 Gallup survey found that only 34 percent of employees are engaged at work, which is actually the highest engagement number reported since Gallup began tracking employee engagement in 2000. 

However, hidden in this reporting is a common flaw in how we typically talk about disengagement. Employee engagement often gets discussed as an individual trait, something people just are. While this may be true of a small group of people, the truth is employee disengagement is typically an outcome of overwork and neglect of individual employees’ profession.

For example, if you are a finance specialist who is always rushing to crank out monthly reports while also responding to urgent requests for specific numbers from various leaders — and your manager dismisses your concerns about making a mistake due to your overwhelming volume of work, you will begin to question your company’s values. 

If you are a factory worker who has to physically strain to pack more and more boxes to meet daily productivity goals, or simply struggle to keep up with the increasing speed of the assembly line, you may begin to question the degree to which the organization values your physical health or well-being.  

In both situations, you may begin to pull back from volunteering for new projects or stop offering new ideas in order to protect yourself from reputational harm, physical danger or burnout.  

Furthermore, discussing employee disengagement as an individual trait is problematic because it prevents the organization from recognizing the ways it may be causing once motivated, productive employees to become disengaged. 

So, how can we gain a deeper understanding of the workplace causes of employee disengagement?  

Here are three job-related factors that can push even top performers toward disengagement: 

1. Role ambiguity – A result of unclear tasks, responsibilities, reporting responsibilities 

Role ambiguity occurs when an employee isn’t sure what they are actually responsible for, or how they should be prioritizing the array of daily tasks, special project work, and daily individual requests for assistance they receive. They may also be unclear about who to ask for help or who has the authority to grant formal approval on completed work. 

Role ambiguity can be particularly challenging for new hires or newly promoted employees who may not yet have a sense of “who’s who” or the priorities of the role, while also feeling pressure to make a “good impression” with everyone they work with. People new to a role may also not yet be able to recognize when what they are experiencing is not normal for the role — and may be hesitant to ask for help for fear of being perceived as incompetent for not knowing or not being able to “figure things out.” 

2. Role overload – A result of too many tasks, too many difficult tasks, or too many time-consuming tasks 

Role overload can, ironically, be a challenge for your high-performing employees because co-workers are frequently seeking them out to serve on projects and lend their expertise to particularly difficult challenges. In fact, as a 2016 Harvard Business Review article highlighted, up to a third of a company’s most meaningful collaborations come from only three to five percent of employees. Translation? Top performers can quickly become overloaded as they struggle to do their own work while navigating requests to serve on special project teams and attend various meetings to share their expertise. 

3. Role conflict – A result of conflicting task assignments or job roles 

Since the recession, many companies have been running especially lean, relying on generalists to perform many roles — for example, front-line customer support for multiple products, supervising a geographically-dispersed team, and devising process improvements on top of managing day-to-day client-facing responsibilities.  

Additionally, matrix-management structures (i.e. reporting to multiple managers/departments rather than just one) can cause stress and create extra demand for communicative work – the time spent planning and navigating difficult conversations with peers and saying “no” to higher-ups and other influencers across the organization.  

While each of these issues is a natural part of the ebb and flow of our work cycles, role ambiguity, overload and conflict become problematic when employees face one or more of these issues for extended periods of time. When this occurs, people can begin to question the degree to which they are valued for their core talents and respected as a team member.  

Disengagement – and eventually burnout – can set in when these employees begin to believe that they are “replaceable” and that leaders only really care about “making the numbers look good on paper.” 

And ultimately, when facing too many of these internal and external conflicts — and not receiving the support they need to do their jobs well — we all begin to question the degree to which our managers and leaders value our professional contributions. Most importantly, we then often begin to question if our employer’s values actually match own professional values, a precursor to a decision to quit. 

Want to unpack more about how to be more effective in navigating role ambiguity, overload or conflict as an individual or manager, as well as other important workplace communication topics? Sign up for upcoming, free Link & Learns from the Graduate Certificate in Professional Workplace Communication

About the Author: Angie Pastorek, Ph.D., is a program director and lead faculty member for the graduate programs in organizational communication at the University of Kansas Edwards Campus in Overland Park, Kansas. Prior to joining KU, Angie spent more than 10 years in a variety of corporate employee development and internal communication/consulting roles for companies including Deloitte and Siemens Healthcare.

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