Disengaged Workers are a Symptom, Not a Problem

I saw an interesting discussion question on LinkedIn this week:

A new Gallup tracking poll shows that an astounding 71 percent of U.S. workers are either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” in their work. In other words, these workers are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces.”

I immediately responded:

Outsourcing. Off-shoring. Mergers. Acquisitions. Divestitures. Down-sizing. Right-sizing. Re-organizing. Re-positioning. Consolidating. Achieving synergies. Cut-backs. Automating. Focusing on our core competencies. Re-badging. Apply for your current job with the new service provider. Bottom-pruning. Doing more with less. Increased insurance premiums. Eliminating the 401(k) match. Pre-existing conditions. Increased deductible. Coverage limits. Reachable on vacation. Training budget cuts. CYA. Performance improvement plan. Locked supply cabinets. Executive compensation. The holiday potluck lunch in the conference room. Motion detector light switches. Eat at your desk. Exempt employees. Saturday work. Across the board. There will be no raises this year. Executive bonuses. Corporate jet. Stockholder value.  And you think it’s the WORKERS who are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces?

The observed phenomenon of employees being actively disengaged, frequently termed “presenteeism,” is a symptom, not the problem.  Workers are rational beings, with needs, expectations, and emotional responses to social stimuli.  When employees start putting up signs in their cubicles that read, “The beatings will continue until morale improves,” you’re seeing their organization’s culture.  When Dilbert cartoons are appearing on every public surface, it reflects how these people feel about their workplace.  It’s morbid humor.

My oldest friend, Steve Miller, just called me to have me take a look at an interesting URL – “The Asshole Self-Rating Exam.”  From Bob Sutton, author of “The No-Asshole Rule,” it lists 24 affinity questions that are only morbidly funny.  They reflect abusive behavior from the point of view of the abuser, rationalizations and all.  Unfortunately, they also reflect an increasingly toxic workplace, populated by people who feel little affinity with the people around them.  We’re seeing a gradual shift in behavioral norms, in a direction which no one should like.  Worse, we’re coming to accept it as legitimate.  As Steve pointed out to me, “Steve Jobs was one of the biggest assholes in Silicon Valley.  And we’ve decided that he was a hero.”

That Sutton’s book and Scott Adams’ Dilbert strip are so popular should be of concern to senior management in every organization.  Unfortunately, many of them are driving these behaviors.  And self-criticism is not necessarily one of their core competencies.

The bottom line is, lousy management gets lousy followers.  But I’m sure that’s obvious to everyone, except maybe lousy managers.

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About Dave Gordon

Dave Gordon is a project manager with over twenty five years of experience in implementing human capital management and payroll systems, including SaaS solutions like Workday and premises-based ERP solutions like PeopleSoft and ADP Enterprise. He has an MS in IT with a concentration in project management, and a BS in Business. In addition to his articles and blog posts, he curates a weekly roundup of articles on project management, and he has authored or contributed to several books on project management.