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Perspective

Dead people working
How can businesses energise demotivated and disengaged employees?

Kevin & Jackie Freiberg

There’s an epidemic sweeping businesses today — from the largest Fortune 500 firms, to the little mom-and-pop deli down the street. This epidemic kills the creativity and ingenuity that is essential for innovation and, of course, innovation is central to the growth of every business. This is an epidemic that threatens not only the success and prosperity of businesses themselves, but nothing less than the long-term economic standing of every nation in the world. The epidemic? Dead people working. 

You know them because you work with them. They are all around you, in the next cubicle, down the hall,
on the front line and yes, even in the executive suite. They are physically present, but they are psychologically, emotionally and intellectually checked-out. Research shows that 75% of the workforce is either not engaged or actively disengaged in their work and are not loyal to their companies. But this force that threatens the very innovation your business desperately needs to survive isn’t something that just happens. Boredom, apathy, despair and indifference are all the result of the choices leaders make. 

What Sucks the life out of people at work?

Billions of people go to work everyday, but way too many of them show up DOA (dead on arrival). If your goal is to create a culture of innovation, you first have to understand why this happens. There’s no magic formula or silver bullet, but we are convinced that if you eliminate these 16 “ailments”, you have a good shot at transforming the dead people working syndrome into a place where impassioned people show up to work everyday fully awake and fully engaged.

1. Employees and customers who are objectified and dehumanised. Whether leaders refer to them as “expenses”, “intellectual capital” or “market segments”, the language is symbolic of the industrial or mechanistic paradigm. People become “things” we use and manipulate on spreadsheets versus “sacred thous” who bring something incredibly special to the game. By the way, people are not your most important asset: great ideas are, and they only come from people who are alive at work.

2. Meaningless work. How many people in your company right now are working on things that, five years from today, nobody will care about? Innovation is about solving problems that matter, problems that make people’s lives and the world better. If you want your employees to change — to show more initiative, take more risks and be more creative — give them something worth changing for.

3. Failure to stretch, grow and develop people.  Leaders view coaching, mentoring and training as an expense versus an investment. If we spent as much time and energy truly identifying, drawing out and developing the gifts and talents of people as we do investing in technology, real estate, equipment, etc., more people would come to work alive.

4. Tribalism. When a part of the organisation thinks it’s extra special or more valuable than another part, the result is finger pointing and an “it’s not my job” mentality. Competition between departments, business units and various lines of business derails innovation. 

5. Leaders who are out of touch. What motivates your people? Where are they uniquely gifted? What are they passionate about at work? The best leaders we know are interesting and interested. 

6. Not enough bandwidth. While technology was supposed to make us more efficient, the fact is we are never “off”. We respond to email on Sunday, before we go to bed or right when we wake up instead of spending quality time with the family and rejuvenating. The result is that we run around pursuing the urgent versus the important with little or no time to reflect and dream about the future of the business. 

7. Failure to find the fit. Fit comes from asking three critical questions: What are my gifts and talents? What am I absolutely passionate about? What needs to be done — where can I make a contribution? When my gifts and talents are aligned with my passion in a job that makes a valuable contribution, I’m happy, alive and having fun at work. Most companies are not very rigorous about matching employee talents with the needs of the company. 

8. Too much emphasis on titles versus results. In some companies, lip service is given to engagement and empowerment, but the real deal is command and control. Employees are inadvertently taught the importance of hierarchy in getting things done. The result is a culture of fear where everyone plays to titles instead of doing what they know is right for the business. 

9. Lack of courage to test new ideas. Zero-defect cultures foster the kind of cautious inactivity that slows the organisation down and makes it sluggish. Innovation is the result of experimentation and leaders who help create an environment that inspires creativity and ingenuity and aren’t afraid to reward intelligent failure. 

10. Employees who have no voice. The true experts in most organisations are those closest to the point of action doing the work. Leaders who fail to put the true experts in control of their work create a paternal culture where creative discovery, freedom and responsibility are traded for a reactive, victim-like mentality. 

11. Lack of diversity. If you only hang out with people who look and think and act like you do, it only sharpens your prejudice. It takes guts to surround yourself with diverse others. They are the ones who will draw you out of the comfort zone and take you on an adventure where you can find the next big thing.

12. Employees who embrace a victim mentality. People want freedom, but they seek safety. Far too many people assume it is the organisation’s job to train and equip them to become more marketable. When the organisation fails, people jump into the blame frame and start pointing fingers. 

13. Failure to acknowledge the whole person. Whether it’s sick kids, ageing parents or dropping off the dry cleaning, life happens when life happens, not just before 8 am and after 6 pm. Organisations that fail to acknowledge the person behind the software developer or customer service agent fail to acknowledge the distraction that keep these individuals from doing great work. 

14. Lack of optimism and resilience. Successful companies and leaders have the ability to bounce back from failure. Unsuccessful companies let it take them down. Evidence suggests that optimism can be learned and bred into a culture intentionally.

15. Inability to celebrate and have fun. There is a “deadness” in organisations that don’t see the value in or don’t know how to celebrate. Celebration fuels people’s fire to do the next great thing; without it, heroic contributions are missed and the emotional bonds that wed people’s affection and enthusiasm to the company are weakened. 

16. No cause to fight for. When the work is defined in terms of a cause, what follows is a movement. A healthy level of fanaticism and missionary zeal characterises the movement. People want to belong to something larger than themselves — something that gives their lives meaning and significance. People who have a direct line of sight between their individual contributions and the cause are more engaged. They see innovation as a necessity, as a way to further the cause. 

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