Optimism is High Among Workers: Leverage It!

By now, anyone working in the talent management sector has encountered more than their share of depressing headlines about workplace engagement. Yes, we know…it’s at an all time low. What many people don’t realize is that workplace engagement has been sluggish for nearly two decades across sectors. Low levels of workplace engagement among Millennial workers is especially alarming. Simply put, “not engaged” and “actively disengaged” Millennial workers indicate that workplaces are failing to motivate and retain the workers who have the most potential to contribute over time. But the news is not all bad. With nearly 100% employment on the horizon, employee optimism is also now peaking, but can we leverage this optimism to solve the engagement problem and prevent “talent bleed”?

What the Numbers Reveal

The numbers on engagement continue to point to a major problem. According to Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace report, only 33% of American workers feel engaged at work, and only 21% of American workers feel their work is managed in a way that motivates them to do their best. Worse yet,16% of American workers feel actively disengaged. Among the actively disengaged, 50% would change jobs for an opportunity work off site on a full-time basis. And these low levels of engagement are not a new problem. Since 2000, the reported number of actively disengaged employees in the U.S. workforce has hovered between 15% and 20%. During the same time span, the number of not engaged employees has hovered between 51% and 56%. False or misleading expectations, lack of meaningful feedback, mismanaged performance reviews, lack of transparency, poor communication, failure to recognize and leverage employee’s inherent talents, and a lack of training opportunities all continue to be cited as top reasons for low engagement in the workplace. But this is just the bad news.

The good news is worker optimism is currently on the rise. The number of American workers who voluntarily left their job in August 2012 was 2.1 million; by December 2015, this number had jumped to 3.1 million workers and as of August 2016, the number was holding steady at 3 million workers. In 2012, only 19% of people said it was a good time to find a better job; for the first three quarters of 2016, 42% said it was a good time to look for more satisfying work. In 2016, people already in the labor force were especially optimistic: 47% said it was good time to look for more engaging work. Indeed, in late 2016, more than half of American workers surveyed by Gallup (51%) were currently looking for a new job.

What does this mean? On the one hand, we have yet to solve the workplace engagement problem but workers are more hopeful now than ever before. The challenge, then, is to leverage the optimism among your established talent base, but why and how does one do that?

Why to Leverage the Current Optimism

This is a no brainer: Employees who are hopeful are also full of energy and drive, and there is no question that you want to keep them on board.  Thus, rather than look around your workplace and see nothing but low engagement, it is important to flip the picture and start to look at your workforce as an untapped resource (a pool of optimism) that can be harnessed to positively impact engagement and by extension, productivity.

In one study, executives at a top financial services group were given two weeks to come up with as many high-quality solutions to a problem as possible. At the end of the study, the researcher, Professor Suzanne Patterson, gave a list of their strategies to a panel of experts. What Peterson discovered is that more hopeful executives produced better solutions and more solutions. As she later explained, “It may be these settings where employees’ hopefulness can have a greater impact because they require the problem-solving orientation and perseverance of those with higher hope.” Patterson also noted that hopeful employees are also more resilient: “More hopeful employees may be more likely to engage in and accept organizational change efforts.”

How to Leverage the Current Optimism

The real challenge, of course, is not why to leverage the current hopeful wave sweeping across the American workforce but how to leverage it. So far, employee optimism, which has been driven by consistently strong job growth, a strong economy, and diversification in the job market over the past decade has done more to drive up employee attrition than solve the engagement problem. To tackle engagement, there is no question that HR professionals need to do more to send out a clear message to employees that they have a future and future opportunities for growth in their current organization. This means offering clear pathways to advancement, training to make advancements possible, and incentives. In short, it means pouring more resources into harnessing the talent and optimism already in one’s ranks. Of course, this may mean shifting some resources out of talent acquisition and into training and retention.

May 6, 2017   Updated :May 6, 2017      

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