07/14/2011 05:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Employee Engagement: Nobody Cares

I recently read some new statistics about how terribly disengaged the workforce is today. Well, the article was new, anyway. The conclusion, on the other hand -- the fact that a huge percentage of the workforce is either trying to quit, waiting to quit or has already mentally quit -- was not. I've been reading (and writing) for years about dreadful employee engagement statistics and how they thwart our attempts to produce useful output in our businesses.

Unfortunately, nobody cares.

Well, that's an overstatement. Some people care. In fact, some organizations are tackling the challenge of employee engagement and getting good results. If you want to cheer up a little, check out Fortune's "100 Best Companies to Work For" list. But don't cheer up too much. On the whole, we're trending the wrong way. And even if you are lucky enough to work for one of the "good ones," you almost certainly have a family member, friend or loved one who doesn't. We've all heard first-hand horror stories of workplaces filled with inept, apathetic workers who drag everyone else down. In the process, they cripple their whole group's ability to produce useful output

Clearly, either not enough people care about employee engagement, not enough people know what to do about it, or both. I don't know about you, but to me, "both" is a troubling notion. Knowledge can lead to interest, and interest can lead to knowledge. But "nobody knows and nobody cares" is a signal flare at the end of the road. It's an attitude that quickly converts to a pattern of behavior that shuts down information transfer, marginalizes improvement efforts and saps everyone of the creativity they need to solve problems in today's complex workplace. "I don't know and I don't care" is like the organizational flu. Actually, it's more like the organizational plague.

So, as we teeter on the edge of an epidemic -- and assuming that you're still reading this article because you're one of the people who does care -- I'd like to equip you with a little knowledge. Maybe it's just a reminder of things you already know, or maybe it's new information for you. Either way, I invite you to read it, ponder it, and then, most importantly, do something with it, preferably in the next few days. Put your interest and knowledge together and become just a little bit of the antidote.

Here's how:

First, engage with the engaged. I realize this may seem like the opposite of good sense. Addressing problem areas is human nature; when your car gets a flat tire, you pump up the flat first. But in the case of employee engagement, focusing first on problems is often a mistake. By giving all your time and energy to the few with the biggest engagement problems, you subtly reinforce the message that complaining is a path to attention. What I'm saying is that by pumping up the flat first, you teach the other tires that the only way to get air is to stop the car's progress. Avoid that trap! Instead, focus praise, attention and resources on those employees who are engaged. Attend first to the pressure levels in the good tires. It sounds a little crazy, yes, but it's really the only way to send a message that engagement is a reward in itself.

Second, ask people about their incentives. That doesn't mean asking people if they wish they could get paid more. (Let me save you the trouble: they do.) It means asking people, beginning with the most engaged, what they find interesting, engaging or motivating about their job. Some will tell you that they do it for the money, some may say they enjoy the problem-solving challenges, and others may talk about the opportunity to learn. Whatever they tell you, write it down. As you work your way from the most engaged to the least engaged, you'll collect some specific examples of engagement. By the time someone tells you that he or she finds nothing whatsoever to enjoy about the work, you will be able to answer with some real suggestions. "That's interesting," you might say, "other people seem to enjoy some very specific aspects of that same work," and then share part of your list. Your dialogue might just seed some ideas for the disengaged to rediscover his or her own engagement. Take care to avoid giving the impression of hard-selling anything: you're a role model, not a dictator. Still, by simply talking with others in this way, your dialogue may lead to some productive conversations about the real engagement challenges people face.

That type of conversation is fine, but remember: never take responsibility for another person's happiness. It doesn't matter whether you're the manager, the peer or the employee; if you think you can "make" someone else happy, or talk them into being engaged, think again. You can influence your own level of engagement, you can make improvement suggestions to others, and you can decide where to spend your time and attention, but that's all. Remember, though, that your decisions about where to spend time will influence your own engagement level. The more time you spend interacting with the disgruntled, the more likely you are to become that way, too, even as your energy feeds their current state. On the other hand, the more time you spend engaging with the engaged, the more connected to the work you're likely to feel yourself, and the less you will feed the "nobody knows, nobody cares" mentality with your own resources.

Here's a video that gives you some other ideas about how to address engagement in the workplace. But whether you watch the video, try out my suggestions or elect to do something else entirely, please do something! There's one thing nobody can argue about when it comes to the employee disengagement epidemic: we need more antidote.