My sister and I both worked at fast food restaurants as teenagers, she at McDonalds and I at a place I’ll call “Captain Hook’s”. She liked her job. I hated mine.
Both were menial jobs for miniscule pay; both featured demanding bosses and grumpy customers. So what made the difference? Mainly this: My sister was from the start supremely—some might have said annoyingly—confident of her ability to do her job, while I never was. And that’s because McDonalds put my sister through a comprehensive training program while I was left to learn “on the job,” a messy process that often involve angry customers and apoplectic managers.
Researchers tell us that fewer than a third of employees feel “engaged” at their jobs. That’s gotten the attention of many business leaders. The business bookshelves are full of remedies, most of which focus on organizational issues like communication, compensation, recognition, leadership and “career-pathing”. I’m surprised, though, by how little attention seems to be focused on teaching people how to do their jobs correctly.
Not know what you’re doing is stressful and demoralizing, and over time it leads to alienation and disengagement. Who wants to get their ego invested in something they don’t think they can be good at?
Think for a moment what a truly engaged employee acts like. Visualize her. What is she doing? Is she in a feedback meeting? Getting an award? Perusing the company mission statement? Of course not. She’s working. She’s immersed in a demanding task, she is totally focused, she radiates energy and self-confidence. Right?
Psychologists have a name for this state: flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his lab at the University of Chicago, discovered that people who are thoroughly engaged in the right sort of work consistently report a somewhat euphoric sense of being engaged, absorbed, confident and free of normal distractions—“in the zone”. Csikszentmihalyi found that “flow” occurs when someone with a high level of skill performs a challenging task. In contrast, people with a low level of skill experience worry and anxiety when confronted with a challenging task, and boredom and apathy when confronted with an easy one.
Think of an organization whose employees seem to be “on” and engaged all the time. McDonalds? Disney? Nordstrom? Ritz Carleton Hotels? Maybe the military? Whatever you thought of, I bet it’s an organization that puts a big emphasis on training its people to handle everything they are likely to encounter on the job. The organization’s employees are able to stay engaged because their skill level allows them to enter the flow state rather than going to pieces when their job gets challenging.
So when you are thinking about how to get your employees engaged, by all means work on leadership, communication, compensation and the like. But remember that none of it does any good unless your employees have the skill to do their jobs.