First Engage Yourself Book Excerpt by Zane Safrit
Illustration by Eric Jackson

Albert Einstein defined insanity as ”doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.“

Business books rarely start with quotes from Einstein or ones about insanity.

However, we’re talking about employee engagement (actually its lack) and the desperate need for a new approach. Because the current strategies and tactics outlined in millions of posts and PowerPoint slides and meetings are starting to resemble Einstein’s definition of insanity.

“Employee engagement in America isn’t budging,” writes Jim Clifton, chairman and CEO at Gallup. “Of the country’s roughly 100 million full-time employees, an alarming 70 million (70%) are either not engaged at work or are actively disengaged. That number has remained stagnant since Gallup began tracking the U.S. working population‘s engagement levels in 2000. Talk about a lost decade.”

Clifton also estimated in Gallup’s 2013 State of the American Workplace Report that the problem of disengagement is costing U.S. businesses an estimated $450 billion to $550 billion per year. Imagine what it’s costing your company.

Clearly, a new perspective is needed because the current one is insane and the ROI for inspiring greater degrees of employee engagement is insanely positive.

I’ve written two books and hundreds of posts on employee engagement since 2007-2008. Throughout them all, I treated this challenge like the proverbial elephant in the living room. I wrote all around it. Sometimes, like a blind man, I stumbled into it and tried to describe what I felt and smelt.

One afternoon in early 2014, I noticed that every post I’d read about engagement shared a common setting: a select group of employees—a very small percentage—were meeting to discuss “those employees” and “their problem.” I thought, how do you foster engagement with employees if you choose to meet about them and never with them? Meeting about your employees but not with them creates more disengagement. Otherwise, why do we have a lost decade for changing employee engagement?

The next thing I noticed was that they all chose the easy step: the annual survey.

Employee engagement is not solved with an annual survey. Surveys are surrogates for meaningful conversations, for unscripted give-and-take where ideas and complaints and what matters and questions are shared in an open, face-to-face setting.

Some companies changed the colors on their websites and tossed trinkets at their employees, thereby treating employee engagement like Mardi Gras—with employees left standing in the sun with their hands out for a plastic bracelet. Others, seeing they needed help, hired consultants. However, engaging with consultants is another surrogate for engaging with employees.

Employee engagement, like change, begins with each of us. We have to care enough to notice, to try something different, to raise our hands and ask about the emperor’s new clothes, to risk a scraped knee or a bruised ego, to ask questions and listen, to recognize and celebrate and, yes, hold accountable and to try, try, try again until we get it right.

Sounds like hard work. It is, but what’s the alternative? That’s right: insanity.

You may face some resistance. There’s peer pressure to point the finger at “those employees.” Hierarchies are installed to insulate corporate management from employees. Perks and privileges are bestowed on us as we rise through that hierarchy and disengage with our employees, our friends and colleagues and former peers.

Our education too often encourages us to competely disengage from our colleagues, friends and fellow students rather than engage, collaborate and create. We arrive at work already having lost some of our natural preferences for socializing, engaging and collaborating.

Again, what’s the alternative? Insanity or continuing to do the same thing and expect different, OK, any, results.

To download a copy of Zane Safrit’s new ebook, “First, Engage Yourself,” visit the Pipeline bookstore.