Cultivating Passion

A new study uncovers a serious lack of engagement in the executive ranks. Experts discuss ways to ensure engagement efforts are effective at all levels of an organization.

By Julie Cook Ramirez

Employee engagement has long been the holy grail for HR executives, but a new report from Deloitte's San Francisco-based Center for the Edge reveals a widespread failure to move the needle when it comes to this elusive metric or its close -- but perhaps more significant -- cousin, passion.

Despite an estimated $1 billion corporate expenditure in employee engagement in 2017, the study found 68 percent of U.S. workers are not engaged and 87 percent don't feel passionate about their jobs. Perhaps even more alarming, 49 percent of C-suite executives, 51 percent of senior management and 63 percent of middle management say they are neither passionate nor engaged.

According to John Hagel, managing director of Deloitte Services and co-chairman of the Center for the Edge, HR executives should be "extremely concerned" about those findings, particularly as they pertain to the upper ranks.

"The leaders of the company are role models for the rest of the organization," says Hagel. "It's one thing to give a speech as an executive and say, 'We all need to be more engaged in our work,' but in my daily life if I'm not demonstrating that engagement myself, those words are going to be dismissed."

All too often, HR simply assumes high levels of engagement come automatically to those in the senior ranks, according to Katherine Jones, partner and director of talent research at Mercer in San Francisco.

"Somehow we expect that, once you get a staff under you, that somehow you are going to be more motivated or different than when you were an individual contributor," says Jones. "I don't think there's any evidence that the longer you are in your career or the higher up the ladder you go, the more engaged you get."

Organizations tend to forget that managers, directors and members of the C-suite are employees, too, and thus are impacted by the same factors that cause rank-and-file employees to suffer from low levels of engagement, says Jones. According to the Deloitte study, these include lack of autonomy, inability to work across teams and a lack of involvement in decision-making. While it may be hard to fathom that a senior executive would be afflicted with the same engagement killers as the rest of the workforce, "no level is totally immune," according to Patrick Kulesa, director of employee research at Willis Towers Watson in New York.

"The ability to be autonomous in your job, you are going to have that to a larger degree if you are further up the corporate food chain, but it's still quite logical that you may feel there are some gaps there as you want to grow and progress even further," says Kulesa. "The intensity of it may be different, the consequences of it may be different, but you still may face a lot of the same obstacles."

While employees and executives share many of the same challenges, the upper echelon is plagued by an additional slate of pressures unique to their position, which contribute to a lack of engagement and passion. Globalization, automation, and political and economic uncertainty have only made the situation worse, says Jones, as executives find themselves besieged by a growing list of stressors that keep them awake at night. 

"There is continued stress for revenue, for innovation, for doing more with less," says Jones. "That may not create a feeling of detachment or disenfranchisement, but a feeling of 'I'm giving my all, but what does my all look like?' and it may not look like overt passion."

That kind of mounting pressure may create a constant fear of being replaced and prompt an executive to question whether they even like their job anymore, says Hagel. That's where organizations would benefit from shifting their focus from engagement to passion, he says.

"Passionate people turn the stress of mounting performance pressure into excitement," says Hagel. "It becomes, 'I need that, I want that, give me more,' because it's an opportunity to get to that next level of impact."

According to the Deloitte study, organizations that experience sustained extreme performance improvement are those in which a specific form of passion is present amongst the workforce. These passionate workers generally exhibit a long-term commitment to making a significant impact in a domain, a questing disposition that actively seeks out new challenges and a connecting disposition that seeks to build trust-based relationships with others who can help them get to a better answer. Deloitte's findings suggest employers "might be too narrowly focused on employee engagement, rather than developing a workforce with the necessary passion to solve complex challenges and pursue new opportunities during this period of rapid technological change."

According to Hagel, building a passionate workforce starts at the top. By cultivating passion in the senior ranks, he says, an organization creates a leadership team with the ability to drive increasing performance improvement over time. What's more, that passion will likely spread to the rest of the workforce as they see it exhibited in the behavior of senior leadership on a daily basis.

"Ultimately, passion is what companies are going to need to be successful going forward," says Hagel. "Organizations can build more passion in the workforce by rethinking the work environment in ways that encourage people to be more welcoming of challenges and problems and give them the tools to solve the problems as they encounter them."

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Jun 28, 2017
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