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Understanding the Crisis of Disengagement

By Andrew J. Sherman
Seyfarth Shaw LLP

The Crisis of DisengagementMy latest book, The Crisis of Disengagement, discusses the multifaceted workplace dilemma — disengagement. It examines how apathy and complacency effects leadership and governance, company culture, fellow peers and team members, and lastly, the individual itself.  Layer by layer, I uncover the impact disengagement has on innovation, creativity, productivity, and profitability within an organization and in our communities.

At the America’s SBDC Annual Meeting in Orlando in the Fall of 2016, I gave a “Small Talk” sponsored by American Express where I discussed the impact of our nation’s current levels of disengagement on small business, innovation and entrepreneurship.  Small companies are struggling to compete for recruitment and retention of a qualified and motivated workforce and cannot withstand the financial and productivity consequence of a small group of workers who are not engaged. They also face the challenges of the “gig economy” and “the free agent nation” where nearly a third of all U.S. workers are independent or self-employed, with no loyalty on engagement towards a particular company, creating a modified set of expectations, relationships, and workplace norms. 

Statistical data on levels of disengagement are still being gathered based on various demographics such as age, industry type, macro/micro level economic conditions and situational analysis. There are several evolving notions on the crisis of disengagement topic and direct and indirect costs of disengagement are still being understood and analyzed.  However, the effects of disengagement are the same throughout each organization or business. It is a disease affecting the central nervous system of our economy — and it is destroying creativity, innovation productivity and profitability.

Dissatisfaction runs rampant in today’s workplace, with many identifying inadequate challenges, pay, morale, sense of purpose, or lack of appreciation at the heart of their disdain.  Many are terminally bored and pathetic, which eviscerates productivity and the ability to innovate, and in turn affects the profitability of companies and the ability to remain competitive in the world market.  Maybe the answer parallels the lyrics of the Rolling Stones’ hit “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” Our dissatisfaction with our jobs and lives is reaching record proportions and it is both disturbing and disruptive. Many of us overtly or secretly fear being marginalized, becoming irrelevant, living a meaningless life, feeling ignored or mistreated for our efforts, or failing to leave behind a legacy, and it leads us to be void of passion, commitment, loyalty, or trust. We would rather complain than celebrate. We would rather fight than embrace. We would rather be jealous than take pride in the accomplishments of others. Our political candidates would rather devote time and resources to attacking each other than stay focused on articulating their proposed policies or solutions. Studies have shown that users are ten times more likely to post a negative review on Yelp! or Trip Advisor than to share a positive experience. Few of us enjoy and embrace the gifts of satisfaction, passion, and happiness in the workplace.

Engagement. We want engagement in our personal lives and in our work lives. Employers and managers want engaged workers. Business owners want engaged customers. Teachers want engaged students. Civic leaders want engaged citizens. Wall Street wants to invest in companies that can attract engaged innovators. Religious leaders want congregations who are engaged. Workers search for passion and meaning in their lives and yearn to be part of organizational cultures built on the basis of mutual trust, integrity, and respect. The irony is that in spite of such across-the-board desire for engagement, we are growing ever more disengaged, disconnected, distracted, and disenchanted with our work and personal lives than ever before in our history. Why is there such a gap between our desired and actual states of engagement? What can we all do to get engagement back on track in our lives and in our workplaces? How can we close this gap quickly and efficiently in order to drive up levels of workplace satisfaction, creativity, productivity, and ultimately, shareholder value?

While writing this book I came across an interesting concept that was first conceptualized by the University of Maryland Professor, Morris Rosenberg on “Mattering.” Mattering is the ability to go home at the end of the day and share the details of your productive and impactful day that you accomplished with your family. Mattering is the ability to look at yourself in the mirror and feel a sense of pride and accomplishment, coupled with a commitment to humility and continuous self-improvement. Mattering is when your colleagues at work truly miss you on your day off. Mattering is a feeling of being significant —and in my view, very few significant people are also dissatisfied or disengaged. Mattering is being a true difference-maker in the lives of others and to find your appreciation in the art of sharing, the art of growing and the joy of its consequences, rather than solely being focused on the reward of the payback.” Simply put, mattering applies to every individual in your organization and has a huge impact on self-worth and self-esteem and you need to manage, reward and lead your company accordingly.

Today’s workplace is filled with highly matrixed and networked organizational charts with “fuzzy-at-best roles and responsibilities,” and with distracted baby boomers and disengaged millennials. Most workers report a disconnect and a perception gap between the leadership’s articulated mission and goals and the reality of their day-to-day tasks and behaviors. High turnover rates and even higher employee-replacement costs, as well as an increasingly mobile workforce and rapid changes in markets and business models, are the new norm. Blurred lines between home and the workplace lead many to question whether a work–life balance is really attainable. And the microscopes that leaders live under these days are among the issues contributing to keeping leaders up at night, and to all crises being played on a very public and transparent stage. So who will be accountable for improving engagement and thus creating that “mattering” sense within an employee? Which organizations and companies will reward their managers and employees for being engaged and for fostering engagement?  To foster greater levels of overall, engagement, leaders must first start with a brutal examination of their own management styles.  Multiple corporate crises have led to an environment where trust, transparency and collaboration are expected of leaders at all levels.

Leaders today face the need to forge a delicate balance between confidence and vulnerability. Leaders must express hope and optimism to get levels of engagement back on track. It is nearly impossible to ask an employee to be passionate about a company whose own leaders are disconnected and apathetic. The Crisis of Disengagement focuses its efforts on inspiring ways to change the astonishing workforce disengagement statistic by making us genuinely assess our own personal and professional development goals. If you are experiencing challenges as to how to better engage your employees, or maybe just feeling disengaged yourself, this book shares several ways to drive a culture of engagement within an organization, and also gives you concrete ways on fostering, inspiring and sustaining engagement.

Order your copy here.

For more by Andrew Sherman about the crisis of disengagement, and it’s impact on innovation, click here.


Andrew J. Sherman (@AndrewJSherman) is a Partner and Chair of the Corporate department in the Washington, D.C. office of Seyfarth Shaw, and a top-rated Adjunct Professor in the MBA and Executive MBA programs at the University of Maryland and at Georgetown University Law Center. He is the author of several books, including Mergers and Acquisitions from A to Z, Harvesting Intangible Assets, and his latest book to be released December 30, 2016, The Crisis of Disengagement.

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