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09 Dec. 2011 | Comments (0)

On October 28, Gallup posted an article with the sobering headline "Majority of American Workers Not Engaged in Their Jobs." This should disturb every American worker and business leader. In an earlier report, Gallup estimated that worker disengagement accounts for more than $300 billion annually in lost productivity in the U.S. alone. In fact, according to Gallup, only one-third of workers are enthusiastic about the work they do and feel they are contributing to their organizations in positive way. Even worse, middle-aged and highly educated workers are least likely to be engaged. These are precisely the people who should be operating at peak creativity and productivity.

So, what is going on? A survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) provides some insights. For one thing, 36% of workers feel stress, and nearly half of those say it's because of low wages. This is not surprising, given that real wages have remained stagnant while worker productivity has steadily climbed over the past two decades (pdf). But pay isn't the major source of dissatisfaction. Workers reported that they were discontented at work because of limited opportunities for growth or advancement (43%), heavy workload (43%), unrealistic expectations (40% ), and long hours (39%).

Perhaps the most sobering finding of the APA survey is that 48% of employees do not feel valued at work. So, although companies often tout the importance of their people, the everyday experience of many doing the work is something quite different. Inevitably, people feel underappreciated, disrespected and disengaged. The economic cost to organizations is unacceptable, and the emotional cost to individuals is unforgivable.

What can be done? In his book, The Coming Jobs War, Jim Clifton, the chairman of Gallup, suggests some macro-level solutions. He says that countries and cities must produce good jobs. To do this, society must invest in the education of those future job creators, and in the education of those who will fill those good jobs. And companies must stop trying get by with too-lean workforces. As the APA survey shows, much of the engagement-killing stress that workers feel comes from being asked to do too much with too little.

Our own research points to some micro-level solutions. In The Progress Principle, we report that, of all the workday events that engage people deeply, the single most important is simply making progress on meaningful work. And we found two classes of actions that managers can perform each day to drive progress and engagement: catalysts and nourishers. Catalysts, such as providing clear goals and necessary resources, directly support progress in the work. Catalysts impact engagement indirectly by facilitating progress.

Nourishers act directly on engagement by boosting inner work life — the continuous flow of emotions, perceptions, and motivations that people experience throughout their work days. Nourishers include actions like showing respect, offering recognition for good work, and providing emotional support when people confront particularly difficult situations. If employees receive nourishers regularly, their inner work lives soar. They are happy, they perceive their organizations positively, and they stay motivated - in other words, they are engaged in their work.

So, if people are to be fully engaged at work, they must first have meaningful work to do. This does not necessarily mean that leaders must articulate a lofty mission, like curing diabetes. It does mean that all employees should see how their daily actions contribute to something of value, like a useful product or service. Second, there should be a regular supply of catalysts to progress, so that people can succeed at that meaningful work.

And finally, for employees to stay fully engaged, their inner work lives must be consistently nourished with respect, recognition, and encouragement. Simple, no-cost managerial actions could do much to improve the engagement of that 48% of workers who today feel undervalued. As evidenced in the words of this software developer from our research, even a brief interaction can make a big difference:

I got a nice 'attaboy' from the Project Manager about the work I put in on the database [...] I've been working so hard on. She seemed to be really pleased, and she thanked me for sticking with the assignment. Her nice words made my day go much better!

Do you feel undervalued and overburdened at work? Whether you are a leader or individual contributor, what are your solutions to this crisis?

This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 11/16/2011.

  • About the Author:Teresa Amabile

    Teresa Amabile

    Teresa Amabile is Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. She researches what makes people creative, productive, happy, and motivated at work. She is the coa…

    Full Bio | More from Teresa Amabile

  • About the Author:Steven Kramer

    Steven Kramer

    Steven Kramer is a psychologist and independent researcher. He is the coauthor of The Progress Principle (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011).

    Full Bio | More from Steven Kramer


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