One of the greatest challenges for leaders of an organization is to keep people engaged in the work. Annual Gallup polls tell us that less than a third of U.S. workers are engaged. People who are engaged deliver better quality, productivity and service, whereas disengaged people perform worse and erode profit. Because the metric is “increased engagement” the solutions tend to providing more training, more tools, clearer instructions, incentives and team-building activities. I’ve argued in a previous article that engagement improves when people are given the what they need in order to do and be their best every day.
An episode of Freakonomics Radio offered a new perspective on this topic. The typical remedies for low engagement are failing to address one key factor: boredom. The program explained that research done in in Britain in the early days of the industrial revolution on fatigue and productivity revealed that boredom was a greater factor than expected. People engaged in repetitive work become less productive because of boredom more quickly than due to fatigue. Boredom as a field of psychology or behavioral economics has not been so thoroughly studied, but in simple terms boredom is the opposite of being interested or stimulated. What does not demand our attention bores us. We are interested when we are learning something, or challenged to overcome an obstacle, or exposed to something novel. Novelty can simply expand our minds or more practically help us do something better. Our brains are wired to be alert to signs of risk or rewards, and to tune irrelevant signals.
Academic, psychologist and popular science author Angela Duckworth has built a career out of believing in human potential and our ability to learn and grow. She is quoted in the radio program observing that successful people are “meta-cognitive” or
[…] able to reflect on their own emotions, their own thoughts and their own behaviors. They’re sort of able to step outside themselves and say, “Hmm, what am I doing? What just happened there? Is that something that I liked? Did I not like it? What can I do to kind of go back into the situation and do it differently next time?”
In other words, successful people are self-aware. They are able to observe, analyze and improve their own thoughts and behaviors. In Lean terms, they are able to perform hansei. It is not clear whether these people are self-aware and successful because they are engaged, or if they are engaged and successful because they are self-aware. We see correlation but not causation. The common threads are engagement, success, novelty and learning.
The problem of employee engagement is framed as “How can we get the most out of people?” That is not wrong. Gallup estimates that $500 billion is lost annually due to lack of engagement. Averaged across the 70% of the 153 million U.S. employed but non-engaged people, that’s about $5,000 per person per year. Based on what I have seen non-bored people accomplish for themselves and for their organizations, that number seems too low.
We should also frame the problem of non-engagement as a leadership deficiency in respect for people. Each individual human brings their unique perspective, strengths and life experience to an organization. Human brains are amazing things. Respect for humanity means leaders must make an effort to understand our collective nature as a species and enable us to do and be our best each day. Stop boring people, and start designing work around learning. The results will follow.