BLUECASE in Forbes: The Poetry Of Disengagement: Seek Out Your Team's Intrinsic Motivators

By: Justin Follin

March 20, 2019
Forbes Poetry Of Disengagement
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Over the past few years, 31-year-old British rapper Kate Tempest has gained international recognition for her observational spoken-word poetry rhymed over unconventional hip hop beats. She was a poet and published author prior to her breakout musical career, and much of what has critics praising her work has been her signature literary style. As great poets should, she possesses the rare capability to articulate relatable, universal themes in a fresh way.

Recently, Ms. Tempest put out a track called, “Where the Heart Is.” It’s a story of down-and-out disillusionment and, basically, settling into a life of disappointing mediocrity.

The lyrics of the song struck me right from the get-go. Here’s how it opens:

So you’re off to work again
You need to make a wage
Although you kind of feel like
It’s a waste of days
Measuring the hours of your life
In the paper made
Now your pleasure is devoured
And it’s getting tedious
To take the pace
I mean, you’re sick of staying late
And rising early with the day to face
You know, punching numbers in the database
And pretending that you care
About the day to day
These office politics, man,
They’re enough to make your faith decay

This, I thought, is real. The character in the song is experiencing something the majority of us have known — or are going through right now at work.

How do I know that?

Those lyrics are reflected in one stark statistic given to us by Gallup in their State of the Global Workplace report: 85% of employees are not engaged or actively disengaged at work.

This disengagement means indifference — putting in the time and minimal necessary work without having the desire or capability to put in much else.

I’d guess that the number 85% represents a lot of people who might look at those lyrics and say, “Yep, I can relate.” As a coach, I’ve heard the signs of disengagement many times, and they sound a lot like that: indifferent, lacking purpose and checked out.

According to Jim Harter in the above Gallup post, this lack of engagement is having a dire impact on the global economy. He says, “The economic consequences of this global ‘norm’ are approximately $7 trillion in lost productivity.”

That’s a lot of dollars lost. But what do you do about it?

I want to pose a challenge to company leaders and managers out there: Don’t simply dismiss the lack of engagement as the fault of your employees.

Here’s a test for you. If I were to put Ms. Tempest’s lyrics in front of you and say, “This is what one of your employees is saying about their job.” How would you react?

Rhyme scheme aside, perhaps some of you would start asking questions: What’s going on that has her so disengaged?

But there’s another response that, based on my observation working with executives, is common: blame.

Here are some common knee-jerk responses to hearing about employee disengagement that I’ve heard working with groups of managers, including CEOs:

"What does she expect? This is a job! It’s called 'work' for a reason."

"I’m sick of all the complaining. She’s got a bad attitude."

"She gets paid a lot and gets great benefits, what more does she want?"

Here’s one that baffles me:

"Millennials are so entitled, they want everything handed to them."

(Sidenote: It’s worth taking a look at the habit of denigrating an entire generation of workplace employees. Replace the word “millennials” with any other social demographic. Would you tolerate that kind of stereotyping in the workplace? After all, it’s 85% of the workforce that’s disengaged, not just people of a certain age.)

Sure, plenty of employees shirk ownership and accountability for their own well-being. But the level of disengagement is too high not to ask the question, “How are we, as managers, at cause?”

Daniel H. Pink explored the topic of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation at length in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. In short, he explains that the distinction between these two kinds of motivations looks like this:

Extrinsic motivation is the kind of motivation driven by the promise of some external reward, (e.g., a paycheck, a pay raise or the fear of losing a job).

Intrinsic motivation comes from within. We are motivated by the satisfaction of engaging in the activity itself. We would do the activity with or without an extrinsic reward.

The research is still out over which of these forms of motivation are the most important. Ultimately, as human beings, we’re simultaneously driven by both. But research does suggest that it’s programmed into us as mammals to seek out activities that provide that sense of intrinsic reward. Called the SEEKING system, it is “believed to function as an objectless appetitive system — a ‘goad without a goal’ — until the exploratory disposition it produces leads to the discovery and learning of useful regularities.”

Basically, we’re driven to do things that challenge us to discover and learn for the sake of discovery and learning.

It’s not a huge leap to suggest that when our jobs do not provide us with that sense of self-satisfaction, we’d naturally want to disengage to find something that does. Or, as is more likely, become resigned like the character in the Kate Tempest song.

Engagement is an issue of intrinsic motivation. According to the Gallup data, the majority of the disengaged employees still show up and do their jobs (i.e., enough to get the extrinsic reward of the paycheck). They are not, however, motivated to go above and beyond — the kind of extraneous effort you see from an intrinsically motivated employee.

So how do you tap into this intrinsic motivation?

First, be curious. Recognize that what motivates you does not necessarily motivate others. Could you walk through your list of employees and say, assuredly, you know what motivates them, intrinsically?

When your employees get that you’re looking to match their jobs with their motivations, it’s the right start.