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Not feeling engaged at work? What can you do for yourself?

Are you engaged at work?

Or is every day the same meaningless toil in an office or workplace, with an unappreciative, uncommunicative or demanding boss, doing pointless tasks under orders, or following a mindless process and hanging on in there until the weekend, dreaming of escaping one day and being who you want to be? Are you a living Dilbert cartoon, surviving on mutual cynicism and a shared dark humor for your situation?

Ok, maybe it's not quite that bad.

On the other hand, there has been so much written, so many studies and so much rock solid data about what creates engagement at work and on how companies and managers can do it well, that it is a real surprise that when asked the majority of employees say they are not really feeling all that engaged.

So if your employer or your boss hasn't got it yet, and the data suggests a lot haven't, then it's either time to lower your expectations, or do something about it for yourself.

I'm not advocating quitting your job. That's often easy to say and a lot less easy to implement, especially when you are full on firefighting, just figuring out every day how to get by.

Quitting is a real choice, but save it for when you really can no longer stand it and when you have carefully planned out how you will exit and also established some kind of support network for yourself - that's the stuff of another post.

For now, the 'shut up' part of the post title is to remember this one key thing:


It's true. However bad it seems right now that manager is either going to get found out, or booted upstairs, (sadly that is sometimes the same thing) Never-mind, either way, they won't be in your life forever and if you have a real friend or two at work, that can be enough to get by for now.

I have seen enough people quit, only to find their boss then departs shortly after, to know that sometimes hanging on in there, is the right answer.

On the other hand, if your boss is well intentioned and generally OK, then the more usual scenario is that your manager simply doesn't really know enough about how to manage, building engagement being such a core skill for any people leader. So many of us get promoted on technical skills, or the ability to get stuff done, that often we end up leading a team with little or no support for how to do it and we are left to just figure it out as we go along.

Chances are your manager is also being managed by a boss who also doesn't know 'how' either, and so on up to the top. Now, you could wait for your manager to learn, or get some kind of training or coaching, but I suspect that you might be waiting a while.

So what is practical for you? When there is hope, what can you actually do to build your own engagement and motivation?

Whether you have clearly described it for yourself or not, what actually motivates and engages you at work is in theory pretty well understood and there are usually FIVE big things we all share:

1. Money! Yes, money motivates, just in a special way. Dan Pink said it best in his now famous TED Talk, The surprising truth about our motivations, quoting from memory: "Money at work is a motivator but in a slightly surprising way, if you are not paid enough you are not going to be motivated, the trick is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table. Pay people enough so that they are thinking about the work instead...”

I don't think anyone ever says that are satisfied with their pay, you just need to be in a place where you are at least neutral about it and then the other four critical engagement areas come into play.

2. Meaning. You need to feel that what you do every day is in some way meaningful. You know that you can make a contribution, that what you do makes a difference and you can feel at least somewhat that you have a purpose.

3. Autonomy. You feel that you have some choice about what and how you do things. If you are being micro-managed, or constrained to just follow orders, or a repetitive process, then you are not going to be highly motivated.

4. Learning. At some basic level we need to feel that we are skilled enough to do what is asked of us, and then beyond that for maximum satisfaction you ideally need to be able to be able to make two positive statements at work: "I am learning and growing on the job" and "Someone cares about my career". These are actually closely related, for each of us needs to feel that we are being appropriately challenged to grow and developing in our careers. You satisfaction with these factors is usually powerfully linked to what you direct manager does or doesn't do to support your personal development.

5. Progress: Getting Stuff Done. Can you make progress? This is directly linked to the desire to achieve things. If you are blocked at every turn by difficult people, poor data, crappy systems, etc. then you can survive for a while, but it’s not going to be a deeply satisfying experience. Not achieving anything in a job also doesn't make for a great addition to the resume either, when eventually it does come to moving on.

So score yourself and then focus on "So What?"

Take each of these 5 things in turn and score your satisfaction with that area of your work out of 10. Having zero in any area probably means you are already preparing your resume.

Having 10 in every area would probably mean that when Friday comes around you are thinking "Damn, its Friday, I cant wait for Monday". Ok, maybe not that quite extreme but you get the idea.

This is your wheel of work satisfaction:

“Connect the dots”

Having scored yourself, draw a line from spoke to spoke connecting the scores, if you have a "wonky wheel" in certain areas then start with where the wheel is most wonky and answer for yourself the following key questions:

1. What is really import for me about that area of work?

2. Then, in reference to your answer to 1 "When I get that what does that get me?"

3. Then in reference to your answer to 2, ask again "What is really important to me about that?"

Based on whatever insight that you have now, write a short list of three things that you could do to increase your satisfaction with that area of your work and from that list see what you can choose to do and when can you do it?

To help with action planning there are generic recommendations for how to remedy low scores in each of these areas.

Recommendations for Self Engagement Action Planning

1. Money

There is already a host of great advice for what to do if you are not feeling satisfied with what you are earning and I what to really focus on what else you can do, as often a raise is just a stop gap solution for what really matters.

2. Increase your Sense of Meaning

Start to view cynicism as a contagious disease

Find supporters, make time for those colleagues and people who share energy and positivity (reduce time with those who drain your energy) and let yourself feel free to take things seriously, be clear about your ideals and what you stand for and be bold to show commitment to these.

Explore your own values

Find out what is really important to you – what are your top three values at work today - stand by this discovery and remind yourself and others of it when necessary.

Engage with a vision

Make suggestions as to how the work vision could look (different) in order to remain alive and relevant to your work, then be ready to argue for changes to your way of working to fit in with the vision.

Get involved in the bigger picture

Negotiate for more responsibility, involving entire tasks or larger sub-projects – to make your contribution to the work or a specific project recognizable.

3. Increase your sense of Autonomy

Be patient and earn decision-making authority

Together with your line manager, look for solutions how you can make your own decisions on specific matters in order to do a better job.

Build more trust

Gain the trust of your line manager and confidence in yourself by showing how effectively you can self-manage and make decisions.

Start to free yourself from fear of mistakes

Admit to understandable, honest mistakes made while taking an acceptable risk, and use this as an opportunity to develop further instead of doubting your judgement.

Negotiate for information

Get access to decision-relevant information and begin to challenge more based on data in order to ensure good decisions are made.

4. Increase your Sense of Learning

Prioritize your own learning

Increase your ability through continuing education, look for role models and get a mentor (officially or unofficially) from whom you can actually learn. (If you can pick a mentor who might be your next boss)

Get out there and seek real feedback

When you assess your work, do not just focus on what went wrong but also on what you are good at and where you are making improvements. Ask people what you should continue, start or stop doing to help them even more.

Get recognized for doing what you are good at

Luck helps, you can help luck along by offering help and simple solutions to others that can be part of your personal success. Focus of doing things really well that play to your strengths and abilities.

Set just a few higher standards for yourself

Dare to take on tasks that are challenging or for which you will need to stretch. Set some higher standards when it comes to your work in just 1 or 2 areas where you know you can do better.

5. Improving your sense of progress

Do collaboration better

Strive to establish stakeholder relationships based on trust, be willing to see other people’s points of view, start with appreciation of others and find ways to ensure the collaboration works for everyone involved.

Use milestones

Because the success itself appears so far away, develop a clear picture of the various milestones along the way and celebrate each one you reach.

Get some external validation

Find ways of contacting internal and external clients and request feedback on how well your work has met their needs.

Set measurements and celebrate

Gather information that shows an improvement in what you consider important – even if that sometimes appears difficult to measure and remember to celebrate achieving you step by step targets

So Put up or Shut Up? Maybe that is not entirely fair. On the other hand waiting to be engaged means you could be waiting a while, so what can you choose to do for your own sake? And at the end of the day, “If Not You, Who Else?”

As a final thought, when you have figured out how to build your own engagement, can you then be that incredibly rare manager who actually helps others do it for themselves too? Good Luck!

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