Our energy epidemic part 1: The tragic flaw of employee engagement

This is the first part in a series by Ken Murray tackling workplace energy levels. In part one, he examines the source of employee disengagement and asks, whose responsibility is it anyway?


“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect” – Mark Twain


This series is for employees, who find it hard to get up in the morning and drained when they get home. Breaking out from that isn’t easy, but my hope is that this first article will help challenge the system that got us there, and help put you back in the driver’s seat, where you belong.

When a project demands more of you, what’s our first strategy or resource we use to achieve the required result?


On time

When you’ve got a hard job to do, you just need more time, right?

In a paper entitled ‘The Productivity of Working Hours’, Stanford University’s professor of economics John Pencavel takes an empirical approach to measuring the proportionate relationship between hours worked and the product/outcomes efficiency. No surprise, the data shows a critical mass where productivity sharply declines.

In fact, it is generally the accepted opinion since the mid-20th century, that in the long term, at around eight 60 hour weeks, the total work done is the same as what would have been in done in eight 40 hour weeks.

I’m sure this is not news to you – what can be achieved in 480 hours can be done in 320 hours, but where did the equivalent of four 40 hour weeks (160 hours) go?

Also, consider that the workers analysed were not knowledge workers, and I think it’s fair to assume the results would have been even more extreme had they have been.

It appears that hours and results are seldom the same. Perhaps what matters instead is the quality of our energy, our skills and capacity, and our level of engagement.


Employee engagement matters

Yes, employee engagement matters. In a survey of 1500 employees, Dale Carnegie reported;

  • Companies with engaged employees outperform those without by up to 202%,
  • 71% of employees are not fully engaged, and
  • 26% of employees are actively disengaged.

Independent surveys like this one show there is huge room for improvement, and if we make these improvements, the data indicates a similarly huge pay-off. Us marketers, we like huge pay-offs.

Traditionally, my modus operandi is to seek out the highest points of leverage to achieve personal and business goals; I want to find the 20% that makes the 80% achievable, and I’ll spend the time and resources to do so.

For example, last year I was attempting to repair part of our database, and after 14 hours straight I still had not finished.

This year after some research, I made a simple update query and fixed it all in 30 seconds, (the last 28 seconds was sitting and watching it happen).

It is no secret that there are profoundly more efficient ways to do a lot of condition-based tasks.

How often do you do something, knowing there is a better way?

Me too. Enough is enough.

There is more to this, but I’ve come to the realisation now that it takes more than just the knowledge of what you think is achievable.

It is not as simple as using what you already know how to do – it is how engaged you are with what you are doing that will determine how deep you are willing to dig into yourself to find the solution (the conditions for creativity and inspiration).

It is about how engaged you are with the task at hand.


Effort does not always equal achievement

Employee engagement is one of those hot topics that has become well recognised as an area in which you can get a substantial return on investment for resources applied.

I’ve been doing a lot of research over these past few months on what could perhaps be generally surmised as ‘motivation’ – not watching YouTube videos of people working out, but the sociological, psychological and business interpretations of it and its application to employee engagement (namely Tony Schwartz, Brendan Burchard and Eben Pagan).

It started with a conversation with Josh, one of my oldest friends of 17 years. He’s now a civil engineer for a big design consultancy; a high achiever all his life, claiming the dux award in primary school, academic talent through high school, a scholarship through university, etcetera. He described his experience to me:

“Before my professional career, I was used to the simple formula of effort (in the form of study and self-application) equals achievement, but it is just not like that anymore. It doesn’t matter how hard and fast you work or even the results you achieve, they’ll just log more and more onto you, and it doesn’t matter how much paid or unpaid overtime it takes – you do whatever it takes. And the best we can hope for is money we don’t have the time to spend.”

Perhaps that experience is familiar to you, as it was for me.


The path towards engagement: who’s responsible?

In their article, ‘What Engages Employees the Most OR, the Ten Cs of Employee Engagement’, Dan Crim and Gerard Seijts describe the ‘10 Cs of Employee Engagement’  model:

  1. Connect,
  2. career,
  3. clarity,
  4. convey,
  5. congratulate,
  6. contribute,
  7. control,
  8. collaborate,
  9. credibility, and
  10. confidence.

Dale Carnegie’s whitepapers and the many other publications available on this topic demonstrate this ideology that it is only the employers and the managers who can create and sustain this culture. The publications are positioned (or sell the idea) on the merit that it will create better business results. The top recruitment firms and corporate training service providers have commoditized the ‘secret sauce’ that is cultivating motivation in the employee, but I wonder: is it because we’re so disempowered that we couldn’t possibly benefit from having the knowledge to do it ourselves? Or is it because the money is in selling it to the shareholders, not the stakeholders?

For sure, more engaged employees have positive knock-on effects, which Kevin Cruze described in his article on ‘What is Employee Engagement’ as the ‘Engagement-Profit Chain’, which says:

  • Engaged employees lead to…
  • higher service, quality, and productivity, which leads to…
  • higher customer satisfaction, which leads to…
  • increased sales (repeat business and referrals), which leads to…
  • higher levels of profit, which leads to…
  • higher shareholder returns (i.e. stock price).

I see that something subtle, yet crucial, is missing from this dialogue of employee engagement and it could be hurting us.

If you are, like my friend, not empowered to effect this level of change in your company’s culture, how can you stay engaged without the support all these cutting-edge companies are willing to focus on?

If we subscribe to most of the literature on this topic, it seems to be the employer’s or manager’s prerogative to create this culture of engagement. The implication of this is that the employees are disempowered, not responsible for their own level of engagement, and therefore have no influence on how engaged they are.

Are we that powerless? I say no way!

So what if: the culture isn’t there, the odds are stacked against you, everyone around you is actively disengaged, but you have your own standards to meet? How long will it be until you check out like the rest of your peers in this environment? How long will it be until A-players are C-players, or until we accept mediocre as our new personal standard?

Or is there a way we can stay actively engaged in spite of it all?

If we take responsibility for our personal level of engagement regardless of circumstances, perhaps that puts the ball back in our court and the responsibility back on us. I think it is both possible and necessary to challenge this way of thinking.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them” – Albert Einstein


Converting potential into action

Now, I fully acknowledge it is not easy to stay actively engaged and prevent personal burn-out when the chips are stacked against you. But we’re talking about management and marketing here, we’ve got to play the cards we’re dealt. When times are tough there is no better time to practice resourcefulness and for most of us the harsh reality is you’re in a position where:

  • You are ultimately responsible for the continuation of the company – take responsibility.
  • You are competing in a saturated market – challenge the status quo, think bigger.
  • Recessions are working against you – pick your weapons.
  • You need more content – discover the stories of your customers and your people.
  • You need greater product differentiation, you need to establish a stronger USP – work backwards from the customer’s fears.
  • You don’t have the support of other departments – figure it out for yourself, call your suppliers of raw materials, develop a technical understanding of what goes into your products.
  • Your potential customers are busy and distracted by cat videos and so on – speak to them personally, laser-focus your benefits.

You must be actively converting your potential into action – no excuses that your employer is the one making you feel unmotivated. Do your best work for yourself, to challenge yourself, and you will be actively engaged when you see the results:

  • Create customers,
  • maximise results,
  • fully utilize all these new technologies,
  • act on the insight of your analytics,
  • write effective copy,
  • manage a multi-channel campaign, and
  • seize PR opportunities before your competitors.

The good news is it is a positive spiral up and it is in your control, so why wait for encouragement?

If you need to effect personal change, or influence others, you go first.



Ken Murray
BY Ken Murray ON 6 August 2015
Ken Murray is the director of marketing for MEI Group, having now clocked over seven years of senior marketing experience specialising in the industrial sectors and B2B. 
Ken's background stems from a keen interest in pattern recognition and problem solving, which would eventually lead to an academic background in sociology (the 'why' question) to strategic marketing and business (the 'how' question). He believes success in business and marketing is about connecting the individual customer's 'why' to the business' 'how'. Next step is to operate efficiently and then you've got results, which is all he's interested in. Follow him @Kengetsitdone.