Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Engagement Elephant In The Room

People never accused me of being disengaged or uninspired during my four decade career in community marketing.

Mystifying until I began studying Gallup’s longitude studies of workplace engagement was that 70% of those with whom I had contact or tried to enlist for support were disengaged, 20% even working at odds.

Usually folks like that attack you for style but no matter how much I modulated my style or grew in my job, they remained at best a drag on community performance.

This breakdown of engagement is also roughly true of public servants and elected officials but no more or less so than among those working in large private sector organizations.

Researchers think 70% of workforce engagement can be influenced by management although it is a lot easier to hire engaged employees in the first place.

But it is a lot harder to influence the “unengaged” in corporate and public bureaucracies.  This is why I have so much admiration for those who can thrive working within large entities without losing their sanity.

Regardless of having a high level of personal passion and engagement, I had to work hard every day on learning how to manage people right up until I retired.  But I restlessly tweaked the culture of the small organization I led to compensate for my inadequacies, often achieving workplace excellence citations.

Being made a CEO in my mid-20s only meant I had a much steeper and longer learning curve as well intense pressure to continuously and never endingly improve.  I simply had to try harder than most to evolve.

In general, engagement is only slightly higher though among managers.  Females tend to be more engaged on average than males and engagement among both genders on average increases noticeably under female management.

Studies also show that women are better at managing and less egocentric under stress and at avoiding risky strategies.

Equally problematic is celebrating successes in the workplace.

Engaged people tend to know how to celebrate their successes internally.  No amount of celebration seems to make a difference with those who can’t even when spoon fed.

Engagement takes shape in pre-school years when critical executive function skills are established usually as a result of parenting styles.

It is probably futile and definitely unrealistic to expect teachers, police officers, co-workers and management to somehow compensate, no matter how hard they try.

Society is greatly worried in this regard about young males and they should be.  Only 1-in-5 of this group is engaged or inspired by anything.  While more visible where poverty has taken root, this condition cuts across all socio-economic strata.

People who live in less ethnically diverse areas know that engagement/disengagement is not just about socioeconomics which is hard to accept for those intent on fostering social justice.

The roots of disengagement are put down long before society had any influence which is probably why all of the “reinventing” of management and safety nets over the years have not pushed the needle for engagement.

This is why putting all of our eggs in teacher quality or micromanaging curriculum or obsessively “helicopter” parenting will continue to have only marginal impact on engagement overall.

For a few years in the late 1990s, I worked with an educator who passed away last week.  Then at Durham Public Schools, he was a genius at mining data to spot patterns useful to understand and close gaps in student performance.

One thing that troubled him greatly was why the children of parents who had risen up from poverty or modest backgrounds to achieve degrees in higher education and who earned good household incomes, were trending downward in school performance notwithstanding these advantages.

As far as he could tell, the phenomena had been taking place for several decades, perhaps because parents assumed those conditions were enough to perpetuate student engagement.

Possibly because the condition might destabilize theories about correlations and triggers for student performance, no one seems to have unwrapped it further, at least that I’ve seen.

None of us are eager to accept where the true pressure point lies, not because becoming the greatest nation on earth has made us soft, but because it has to do with something so very personal, far more personal than even cultural or religious or political affiliation.

There simply are no requirements for having or raising children during the years when engagement is instilled.  No age requirement, no licensure or meaningful certification courses, no track record, no scorecard, no qualifications nor any kind of rating.

No amount of pressure on educators, police, courts or government can compensate for what isn’t happening during those first few years of life.

Even early intervention such as the renowned Harlem Children’s Zone can only mitigate and even then where replicated such as in Durham with the East Durham Children’s Initiative, its scalability is often hampered by lack of capacity and overarching emphasis.

In my adopted home, too many have attention deficit when it comes to being strategic which fosters grant-happy list checking and initiative-churn instead.

Where practiced with sufficient intensity, It has proven even more important to achievement than quality schools but inaccurately assumed to be important only for those in poverty.

But the problems that underlie disengagement among 70% of the workforce including managers are far more pervasive and systemic than socio-economic status.

The answers may lie in deepening and embracing research explained in books such as Mindset and Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life.

Until we somehow deal with a parenting and pre-parenting as responsibilities not just rights, we’re just chasing our proverbial tails.

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