Disengagement is not a flaw: It’s built into the system

A survey by the Energy Project and The Harvard Business Review found — surprise! — that people are disengaged at work. As Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath put it,

The way we’re working isn’t working. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a job, you’re probably not very excited to get to the office in the morning, you don’t feel much appreciated while you’re there, you find it difficult to get your most important work accomplished, amid all the distractions, and you don’t believe that what you’re doing makes much of a difference anyway. By the time you get home, you’re pretty much running on empty, and yet still answering emails until you fall asleep.

The survey drills into more details:

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Here’s what they found:

Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.

And to the extent that companies achieve those goals, then they will have higher productivity, lower turnover, and other tangible benefits.

I find none of this surprising. We’ve seen research in recent years showing high levels of disengagement at work and all manner of reasons why it is so. However, Schwartz and Porath do not recommend a radical rethinking of work of the sort I — and others — have been advocating: an adoption of a broader and deeper culture of work that is centered on personal re-engagement with our calling, the transition from authoritarian controls toward autonomy, and relying on the strength of weak ties in networks instead of the brutal stability of hierarchy.

Their recommendations amount to slowing down the assembly line, and allowing people more time to rest and reflect. There is really no effort to step back and question the fundamentals of today’s work. For example, they recommend taking regular breaks every 90 minutes or so — one executive is characterized as regularly taking a walk around the block, for example — but they don’t question the open office model that now typifies the modern work environment, and which is principally driven by cost efficiencies. The authors report that feeling cared for by a supervisor has the greatest impact on people’s sense of trust and safety, but they never question the premise of being supervised, aside from noting that people desire more flexibility — where and when to work — but employers remain distrustful of the practice.

At core, Schwartz and Porath remain too tied to the norms of our time to step back far enough to question the status quo, especially the hierarchy and the implicit caste system baked into it: the Brahmin leadership who delegate to the middle managers, who oversee the work of the front line workers. The first quoted paragraph above, that starts ‘The way we’re working isn’t working’ is followed by this sentence:

Increasingly, this experience is common not just to middle managers, but also to top executives.

Imagine! Top executives can become disengaged, just like middle managers, and ‘blue collar’ workers.

Once again, evidence that the mechanisms of industrialism won’t work — at least not very well — in our postindustrial, postnormal present leads self-help gurus to recommend slightly gentler ways to oil the machine, instead of suggesting the machine itself is the problem. Disengagement is an integral aspect of the industrial management approach, not a side-effect. The answer isn’t to treat the symptoms, but to transition to a postnormal way of work. But that prescription won’t satisfy ‘top executives’, or ‘middle managers’ who aspire to climb the corporate ladder, or even front-line workers who may be afraid of any change whatsoever, since there is no guarantee that yet another change program will make things better.

I’m sure that this article will translate into a best-selling book, and a successful lecture tour for Schwartz, because he will be giving to the professional managers what they want to hear. He’ll tell them they don’t have to make really deep changes that would upset the way things are done. Instead, they’ll be guided to make superficial changes and all the while chanting that the charges are deep. That’s the easiest way to defer real change, after all.