Are you overlooking this cause of disengagement?

Are you overlooking this cause of disengagement?

“Will this ever end?”

Brom’s question, murmured only to himself and maybe the gods, refers to his stonemasonry shift. He studies this cluster of cut stones. It looks meager in the shadow of Dain’s towering pile. This adds to Brom’s frustration from failing the certification test that Dain passed.

Dain catches Brom admiring his work, winks at his colleague and immediately refocuses on the next mallet hit on his chisel. Bang! He strikes the sweet spot and another nicely formed stone peels off from the mother rock.

Brom sighs. “Why is Dain consistently happier and more productive than me? Is he paid more? Is he doping? I can’t wait to get out of here.”

Brom is the typical worker who is not involved in, enthusiastic about, or committed to his job. He is the definition of “disengaged” according to Gallup. Does he sound like those you manage? If so, it’s likely not your fault that they’re disengaged. Globally, the Broms outnumber the Dains three to one, according to Gallup.[i] Standard management practices that neglect a core element of employee engagement are, most likely, codified into your company’s policies. No matter how inspiring or charming you are, it’s unlikely you will significantly improve employee engagement until this lacking job component is restored.

So, what is this vital job component? What does Brom’s job lack that Dain’s job has? The remainder of the fable reveals the answer. Dain and Brom are excerpted, and admittedly fleshed out by my cartoonish imagination, from a story used half a century ago by Peter Drucker.[ii] If you’re unfamiliar with Drucker, he was the genius who invented management. So, what did “the king of the management gurus,” as crowned by the The Economist, suggest was the difference between unhappy, low-performing Brom and upbeat, high-performing Dain?[iii] Here is Drucker’s conclusion (again, paraphrased):

A traveler happens on this workplace and asks Brom, “What are you doing?” Brom answers, “Uh, I’m making a living.” When the traveler asks Dain, he replies, “I’m building a cathedral!”

Drucker was telling us that employees underperform when they aren’t making a meaningful societal contribution. Fortunately, any job can be modified to make a palpable difference to society and, thus, elate workers with the sense of “building a cathedral.” Managers can help transform jobs into callings. Such adjustments that expand the societal impact of jobs is what I’ve termed “job purposing.”

It’s probably not feasible for your team to “build a cathedral” (or school, if you prefer a secular equivalent). In any case, Drucker wasn’t being literal. Let’s say Dain and Brom were building a bank. How is it that Dain’s job was purposed?

To respond, I’ll need to add a character to the parable: Dain’s supervisor. Because it makes me happy, I’ll make her a woman knowing it would be unlikely in the middle ages. Her name is Juliana and she kicks butt.

A few months prior to the Dain and Brom scene described earlier, Juliana was faced with determining how her team would meet the recently updated stonemason certification standards. Like Brom’s supervisor, she could have tossed each team member a copy of the “New Medieval Stonemason’s Manual,” registered them for the practical and written tests, reminded them that their jobs depended on it and been done with it.

Instead, Juliana created Mason Mentors. She asked her team to teach stonemasonry that met the new certification guidelines to youth from a nearby orphanage. She figured that teaching was the best way to learn. at a minimum, it was more effective than reading a tedious manual.

On Thursday afternoons, which was the team’s lowest productivity shift, ten interested youth from the orphanage visited the worksite. Over a six-month period, Juliana’s team of 12 provided these youth classroom instruction and on-the-job training. They taught the nobility of building structures that protect people and property, how to use tools to shape rock, how to arrange the resulting bricks to form handsome structures, and how to become safe, competent stonemasons that met the new certification standards. Furthermore, mentors and mentees helped each other prepare for, and take, the new certification standards test. In other words, as part of their job, Dain and his colleagues shared their trade with youth who likely had little hope of learning a trade otherwise.

The mentoring took care of the certification but Juliana still needed to ensure workplace compliance with the new standards. To accomplish this, Juliana convinced her company, Medieval Capitalistic Construction, to give a 10-pound sterling donation to the Mason Mentors Fund every day her team did not violate any of the new standards. The Fund allowed Juliana’s team to purchase masonry books, supplies, food and other items that supported a productive and positive mentee experience. Juliana hoped that team members would be more motivated to abide by the standards because it would allow them to throw the medieval equivalent of a pizza party where they would present their mentees with books they could not afford on their own.

The difference, then, between Dain and Brom’s work is meaningful societal impact through concrete service to others. Dain’s supervisor broadened the societal impact of his job. She job purposed. As a result, Dain happily over performed. Conversely, Brom’s non-purposed job kept him glumly exerting as little effort as possible.


End notes

[i] Gallup. “The Worldwide Employee Engagement Crisis.” January, 2016.

[ii] Peter Drucker uses the stoneworker parable, on which mine is based, in The Practice of Management, among other places.

[iii] Schumpeter, “Remembering Drucker: Four Years After his Death, Peter Drucker Remains the King of the Management Gurus,” The Economist, Nov 19, 2009.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn on the post date and reposted here in January 2018 when this site launched.

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