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Americans Still Unhappy at Work: 5 Leadership Gurus Chime in to Save Us

04/20/2015 03:30 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2015

Nearly two years after Gallup stunned the business world with its announcement that 70 percent of American workers were disengaged in their jobs came some good news.

In February, U.S. engagement hit a three-year high.

Of course, few things have been given more attention in the nation's workplaces than on restoring employee satisfaction and dedication -- and Gallup's announcement momentarily suggested that all that extra focus on solutions had started to pay off.

That is, of course, until last week when the research organization announced that engagement declined by over a full percentage point in March.

And so, after twenty-four months of determined and diligent effort to make things better, the needle has barely moved. Today, 68 percent of workers still remain disengaged.

With that somber news as motivation, I reached out to five of the world's most respected leadership gurus and asked them where they would start if they were seeking to build and sustain an exceptionally loyal, committed and productive team.

Wanting their very best guidance to share with you, I asked them to provide the single most valuable piece of advice they could offer.

As you're about to read from experts Adam Grant, John Maxwell, Jim Harter, Jim Kouzes and Spencer Johnson, improving engagement seems to have much less to do with enhanced perks, weekly pulse taking and electronic recognitions programs -- and much more to do with treating workers as individuals. It requires that we display an authentic concern for what makes human beings thrive in their jobs: purpose, connection, growth and appreciation.

Here's their enlightened guidance:

Adam Grant Ph.D: Wharton Business School Professor & Author of "Give And Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success."

Enrich the meaningfulness of every person's job.

Forty years ago, Studs Terkel interviewed hundreds of people in a wide array of jobs, and arrived at this profound conclusion: "Work is a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread."

Today, Americans rank purpose as their top priority - above income, promotions and job security. And when people feel that their jobs don't matter, motivation gives way to misery.

People believe their work lacks meaning when their actions fail to have a significant and lasting impact on others. If their jobs didn't exist, people wouldn't be all that much worse off.

The good news is that there are steps we can take to make jobs more meaningful, and the best way is to show workers the direct effect of their efforts. This is why leaders at John Deere invite employees who build tractors to meet the farmers who buy them, and why leaders at Facebook invite software developers to hear from users who have reconnected with long-lost friends and family members thanks to the site. My research shows that just meeting a single person who benefits from our work can more than double our weekly effort and productivity.

Like all things in life, meaning can be pushed too far. But most people today are facing the opposite problem - too little meaning rather than too much. Against this backdrop, the chance to help others can be what makes all work worthwhile.

John Maxwell, Named the American Management Association's "Most Influential Leader In Business;" Author of "The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership."

Don't treat everyone the same.

Today in business, there's an unhealthy emphasis on "fairness." Leaders believe they're supposed to give everyone equal treatment.

The problem with that is that people are different. They have different gifts and motivations. They also deliver different results. When you treat everyone the same, team members don't find their fit, and you don't get everyone's best performance. It actually dis-incentivizes people.

A better practice is to treat people individually, according to their gifts, skills, and motivation. To do this, you really have to get to know your people, learn their story and listen to their concerns. Approaching leadership this way best serves the individual, the leader, and the team.

Jim Harter, Ph.D: Chief Scientist, Workplace Management, Engagement & Well-Being, at Gallup, Inc

The advice at all levels of leadership is to identify and leverage the natural talents - the uniquely innate ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving - of each person coming into your organization, everyone you directly manage, and yourself.

It is very difficult to engage people unless you first know what isn't likely to change in them. You can then more efficiently add skills and experiences to develop them within the context of who they are, rather than trying to make them become someone they are not.

For managers: know and leverage your natural talents and those of the people you manage. Don't try to fit yourself or others into a personality cookie cutter, like so many developmental programs have historically attempted to do.

And for executives: put predictive analytic systems in place to hire quality managers who have the natural talents to engage and develop each person they manage.

Only about 1 in 10 people have the unique combination of being great communicators and relationship builders, while also being decisive, assertive and willing to hold people accountable for their performance. We've found that organizations miss on selecting managers with these high talents 8 times out of 10.

Who you name manager has far-reaching consequences, from the short and long term performance of your organization, to the well being of your employees and their families.

Jim Kouzes: Executive Fellow of Leadership at Santa Clara University's Leavey School of Business, and Co-author of "The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations"

When I asked Don Bennett, the first amputee to climb Mt. Rainier, to tell me the most important lesson he learned from his historic ascent, he replied, 'You can't do it alone.'"

Now here's a guy who just hopped 14,410 feet on one leg and two poles, who had done something no one else had ever done, and he attributes his success to teamwork. All too often when people talk about leadership they describe it as a solo performance. Nothing is further from the truth. Grand dreams never become significant realities through the actions of a single person.

Making extraordinary things happen requires team effort. It requires solid trust and strong relationships. It requires collective competence and group collaboration. Leadership is relationship. Only when you can build the kind of relationship that allows people to do their best--and for you to do your best--will you succeed as a leader. This is serious stuff.

People can graduate at the top of the class from the best universities in the world, reason circles around their brightest peers, solve technical problems with wizard-like powers, have the relevant situational, functional, and industry experience, and still be more likely to fail than succeed--unless they can also work well with others.

When thinking about what it will take to succeed as a leader, just keep that advice from Don Bennett front of mind: 'You can't do it alone.'

Spencer Johnson, M.D.: Author of "Who Moved My Cheese? " Co-author with Ken Blanchard, "The New One Minute Manager"

Over the past three decades, I've learned that when you do a few simple, powerful things consistently, you can have a great impact on people's performance in the workplace.

The best managers have a balanced approach by being both demanding and appreciative. The most successful leaders bring out the best in people so they enjoy their work more, and become more engaged in what's important to the organization.

There are three specific things you can do that are surprisingly effective.

Goals: When you have people participate in setting goals, rather than telling them what the goals are, you inspire a sense of ownership that's both good for them and good for the organization's results.

Praising: When people do well, "catch them doing something right" by praising and rewarding them. This builds their confidence and competency. If people feel you're advocating for them, they'll move mountains for you.

Re-Directs: When they make an error, don't just criticize them. Re-direct them. Get them back on course by frankly addressing their mistake soon and reminding them that they're better than that. Let them know how much you value and need their best work.

These few simple practices can help the organization succeed because you will be more likely to attract and retain the best people.

Conclusion:

Toward the end of our conversation, Spencer Johnson predicted that many workplace managers will bristle at the idea that a greater emphasis on the human aspects of leadership is what's needed to fully restore employee engagement. "A lot of people still believe that's a weak idea that will harm profits," he said.

But he quickly followed up his remark with, "but the smart ones will quickly embrace it; they'll see that it's truth."