What To Do If You Are Disengaged At Your Job

The other day I was speaking to a friend of mine who was unhappy in his job. When I asked him what he was going to do about it, he replied, “It’s not like everyone loves their job.” His response saddens me. As a corporate H.R. executive for over a decade, I’ve been right with Gallup in loudly and repeatedly banging the employee engagement drum. But today I am wondering what went wrong.

Gallup’s 2013 State of the American Workplace Executive Summary is, quite frankly, depressing. The report begins, “While the state of the U.S. economy has changed substantially since 2000, the state of the American workplace has not.” It goes on to say that only 30 percent of the US workforce is engaged – and that this figure remains essentially unchanged since 2000. How is this possible when influential organizations like Gallup, Deloitte, numerous other human resource consulting firms, HR departments and professional groups, most large businesses and countless “Best Companies to Work For” contests have been talking about, working on, and measuring engagement for years? Do we have it all wrong?

The Engagement Dilemma

Larry Myler, in his Forbes article, Beyond Employee Engagement–Why One Intrapreneur Is Worth A Hundred “Engaged” Employees, suggests that spending time trying to engage disengaged employees might be a waste. Instead, he asserts that focusing on your already engaged 30 percent will get you a much higher return on your investment. Defining intrapreneur as “an employee who is both willing and able to develop and implement innovative solutions, thereby adding surprising value to some or all of the organization’s stakeholders” he concludes, “Upgrading even one person from engaged to intrapreneur can create more value than migrating a larger number of disengaged people to the engaged group.”

I subscribe to Larry’s theory, but with thousands of leadership coaches and development programs out there to help leaders lead their 30 percent more effectively, who is helping the other disengaged 70 percent?

This is the billion-dollar question. Think of the possibilities in America, where 70 percent of workers were engaged or, better yet, intrapreneurs, and only 30 percent were disengaged. There would be an explosion of innovation, solutions, productivity, jobs and economic wealth.

The real return on investment in the American workforce is getting the misaligned masses engaged and in the right roles. The problem is that corporations will never get the largest part of this done.

The Real ROI: Your Life

A few years ago, Dr. Gerald Bell, a professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, published a study where he asked 4,000 retired executives – whose average age was 70 – one question: If you could live your life over again, what would you do differently? The number one response: I should have taken charge of my life and set my goals earlier. Life isn’t practice, it’s the real thing.

By flipping the tables on the static engagement numbers, we find the answer to the disengagement issue. It is not the business but the employees who need to take charge of their careers and lives. This may mean mustering up the confidence and courage to speak to your boss about how you spend your time in your current job, looking at other roles within your company, or taking a completely different career path somewhere else.

A former executive I know did just that. After years as a corporate v.p., he decided he was not happy and left to pursue a better alignment in life. After some trial and error with various types of jobs, he found his engagement and happiness in an unlikely position – as a café manager. After a lot of reflection, he decided that he did not like the stress of the corporate world, was really good with people and liked interacting with them throughout his day, loved food and serving others, and wanted to spend more time with his family and have a structured life. He was able to check all his boxes, find a job he loved – despite a significant reduction in pay – and is one of the happiest, relaxed, and fulfilled people I know.

If You Build It, They Will Come

At 32, I made a major life decision – to leave my beloved profession in the arts to chase money in corporate America. I got lucky and landed a good job in a great business. Over 11 years I grew into an executive at the Fortune 300 company, made good money, met and married my lovely wife, had my first daughter, and lived and worked all over the world.

But after a remarkably blessed and successful second career, I was offered an opportunity to move into another high paying corporate position that I wasn’t sure I wanted. I started asking myself how I wanted to spend most of my time and where I could make the biggest impact on the world – where I would be most engaged.

The answers were writing and speaking, not this new role. With this clarity and a full commitment to my new path, people started to magically appear in my life offering help and opportunities. I received contracts and offers to write and speak more, introductions to influential people willing to mentor me, and teams of talented people started asking me what they can do to support my efforts.

Stay On Purpose

While gaining confidence and courage to choose a new path in life is always easier said than done, when it comes to true engagement, staying on purpose is your only choice. Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film Hugo, which tells the story of a boy who lives alone in a Paris railway station searching for a message from his deceased father, captures this need beautifully. In a moving monologue to a female companion, Hugo opines, “Everything has a purpose. Even machines. Clocks tell the time. Trains take you places. They do what they’re meant to do. Maybe that’s why broken machines make me so sad. They can’t do what they’re meant to do. Maybe it is the same with people. If you lose your purpose, it’s like you’re broken.”

Kevin Hall’s book Aspire: Discovering Your Purpose Through the Power of Words concludes that those who follow their true path and purpose have five things in common: (1) They are able to read the clues that guide them on their path; (2) they are very clear about where they are going; (3) they recognize and embrace their natural gifts; (4) they are willing to sacrifice to make significant contributions; and (5) they follow their bliss.

So if you are in the 70 percent of disengaged workers in America, what are you going to do about it? “Life isn’t practice, it’s the real thing,” so why not get it right?


Published on Forbes, 16th October 2013 and Reel Urban News, 13th November 2013.