The Gallup Institute has been gauging the state of the American workplace since 2008. The focus of their research is the attitude of the American worker. Despite the widespread acknowledgement of the statistics, first revealed in 2008, the needle has not been moved towards a more positive result. The summary is:
State of the American Workplace: Employee Engagement Insights for U.S. Business Leaders– Gallup
Of the approximately 100 million people in America who hold full-time jobs, 30 million (30%) are engaged and inspired at work, so we can assume they have a great boss. At the other end of the spectrum are roughly 20 million (20%) employees who are actively disengaged. These employees, who have bosses from hell that make them miserable, roam the halls spreading discontent. The other 50 million (50%) American workers are not engaged. They’re just kind of present, but not inspired by their work or their managers.
This information is consistent with other research from various sources, and brings to the fore questions about the very nature of work. Why do people work? The classic economic reasoning is that people work to provide sustenance for themselves and their families. The classic psychological reason is quite different. It is a need to contribute.
The need to contribute is primal. What happened in primitive society when a person was no longer able to contribute to the good of the tribe? When the tribe moved on, those no longer able to contribute were left behind. This was not an evil or thoughtless act. It was, in fact, an act of generosity on the part of the person left behind, as they were no longer a burden on the tribe. It was an act of necessity for the tribe because its very survival would otherwise be compromised by too many members not able to contribute.
This does seem like a harsh, Darwinian view of life. Certainly, with today’s affluence, we need not leave people to die. We, however, as leaders of organizations do have an obligation to assure that we are not enabling a large group of people within our organization to prevent others from making a conscious contribution. Ichak Adizes points out in his theory of the Life Cycle of Organizations, that when an organization is more interested in the continuation of the organization than service to customers, the organization has entered a death spiral leading to its own demise.
So, on the one hand, we have the individual desiring to contribute to the organization. On the other hand, we have an organization that is focused upon simply continuing its own existence. And we see this, again and again with our clients. What started as a highly effective, customer-focused organization with dedicated and committed employees, spirals into a bureaucratic malaise where no one has a clear understanding of why they come to work, or how they could more effectively impact the outcomes of the company.
This is the tragedy of modern work. We have people with an innate desire to contribute at their highest level of ability, and we have companies that desperately need that dedication. Somehow, though, the message got lost, and people are serving for the sake of serving, and the company is dedicated only to its own continued existence – existence, not vibrant life.
So how do we quickly change this dynamic? One of the most effective is by the considered use of psychometric assessments. The best known of these is, of course, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Another is the DISC profile. Both of these measure the personality a person has developed to deal with the world around them. They can be useful in showing a person’s ability to adapt. They can also offer personal insight into one’s own drivers.
All of the popular assessments are based on Carl Jung’s work around the idea of archetypes. Jung postulated that there are four main categories of behavior, and that they are reflected in classic literature from the beginning of recorded time. He also contended that there were two aspects of human nature.
One is the innate self (anima) – what we would be if the world would stop setting expectations for us. The other is the developed self (persona) – the mask we create to protect ourselves from failing to live up to those very expectations.
The MBTI, DISC, and most other assessments measure the persona – how well we have been able to adapt to an often hostile world. I prefer a different psychometric that focuses on the innate self (anima), rather than the adaptive self. The tool we use reveals with great accuracy a person’s proclivity for a certain type of work. It reveals not only which archetype is most important to an individual, but also the percentage of a person’s energy they would prefer to devote to that activity.
When we can determine a person’s innate desire for a certain type of work, we can also more easily fashion a position that will leverage the employee’s desire to contribute. It is only when a person is contributing what he or she considers the highest and best use of their time that a person feels fulfilled and satisfied with the work at hand.
Importantly, none of this has anything to do with skill. A person can easily have the skill to perform a series of tasks without having the slightest interest in doing so. In the Gallup research, they mention the estimated 20% of employees who actively detract from the efficiency of the organization. Our experience is that this results from our asking employees to perform tasks for which they have no innate interest. They do not feel they are making a meaningful contribution, even though that is what we hired them – and they agreed — to do!
To me, this is the modern-day existential tragedy. We, full of good intentions, hire a person who has the skill to do a job we need done. We believe that, because they have the skill, they will do the job and be grateful. In reality, they end up resenting us for not recognizing their true ability, and subtly (or not so subtly) undermine our organization.
Over the past 15 years, we have worked with dozens of organizations to help them identify the appropriate place of some very important employees. When we found the appropriate position, which fully allowed them to contribute at their absolutely highest level, we saw productivity and job satisfaction soar. For me, that has been my own highest contribution to every organization with which we have worked.