“Being number one is something you have to earn every day,” eight times World Champion and winner of 80 pro titles in squash, Nicol David told me when I interviewed her. Nicol loves her job. For her, it’s all about “passion for the game.”
In a perfect world, work should make us all feel this way. It should lend us purpose and a sense of meaning, offer us structure and stability. But invariably, something goes wrong — many of us have to pull ourselves over the fence each day at a job that brings us no joy. We are readily tempted to blame ourselves for the conundrum: we chose the wrong career; we haven’t got the grit to make it up the next step on the corporate ladder; we are not extrovert enough, and so on. Yet for all the truths that this self-disapproval might contain, most of the factors that cause our hopes to run into the sand lie outside of our direct control. To blame ourselves is to misunderstand the nature of reality and comes packed with the risk of making poor decisions, such as quitting the job long before we actually leave it. This is the first mistake we make.
Here are the other six:
Letting denial run the show
We are often drawn to dismiss “disengagement” as nothing more than HR hyperbole. Something removed from us. Abstract. But when we strip this, at first sight, impersonal pseudonym from its red tape, what we find at the core, are vital requisites, such as, motivation, inspiration, and enthusiasm. Engagement is a tickled mind, a racing heart and a thirst to create. In many ways, engagement is to work what love is to relationships. How we feel at work spills over into our personal lives. Author of ‘Employee Engagement 2.0’, Kevin Kruse, found that disengagement actually crosses over on a 1:1 ratio to everyone around us: our spouses, our friends, and our children. Our love life dwindles to the passion of a pair of titmice, depression makes inroads and burnout becomes a danger that lurks at the next turn.
Looking where the looking is good, rather than where the answers are likely to be hiding
Disengagement, like grief, or falling out of love, is not something we deliberately bring on ourselves. It’s not something we actively pursue; it ensues. The story of the path to disengagement is well known. We all start off bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in our new jobs and then, with time, feelings fade. We lapse into an insistent urge to navel-gaze, we check our phones in meetings and we especially don’t want to hear about the next important organizational change. Popular surface explanation for this kind of emotional frost is that people naturally get bored of their jobs in the same way as they get bored with everything else. With this in mind, we are readily drawn to treat disengagement like any other episode of boredom: we seek out distractions.
Our managers fall into the same trap. As soon as they’re presented fear-inducing statistics, such as, “Only 13 percent of employees are engaged,” an army of ‘engagement doctors’ sound the ‘horn of faith’, waving an array of solutions in front of their eyes. Before you know it, a “simply irresistible” remedy in the form of a shiny new method, or framework is handed to us on a silver platter. We roll up our sleeves and drag our feet behind us into the next cultural transformation or change program. Given that about 75 percent of all change initiatives fail, these efforts are approximately as effective as bringing sand to the desert.
Going up the creek without a paddle
There is another explanation to why we emotionally disconnect from our jobs. This explanation might sound dark at first, but it is in the end more hopeful than inevitable boredom. There is a concept in economics called ‘negative externality’. It is defined as the “cost that is suffered by a third party as a result of an economic transaction.” The producer and consumer are the first and second parties; Any individual, organization, or resource that is indirectly affected — the third party. Pollution is an example of negative externality. In the economic transaction between employer and employee, disengagement is the negative externality. While pollution plays havoc with life, and disengagement plays havoc with our productivity and wellbeing, negative externalities are neither natural, nor inevitable.
By definition, a negative externality refers to any matter that is “out of place”. In the case of pollution, it is the effect of harmful products, toxins and contaminants released into an environment, disrupting its normal functioning. When it comes to our engagement, it refers to the introduction of thoughts, disappointments, and frustrations that are harmful to our motivation, and cause damage to the natural state of productivity. Disengagement is something at once complicated and very personal.
We tune out because we feel hurt by, frustrated with, or let down by certain events, or certain people, such as our peers, but more often — our superiors, and because we haven’t found a cathartic way to voice our feelings to ourselves or to them. Disengagement isn’t inevitable. It’s a symptom of unacknowledged emotional disease. It’s a defense mechanism. We’re not just a touch bored or emotionally disconnected. We’re experiencing an internal conflict.
Making short shrift of emotions
“Nothing personal, it’s just business!” is a philosophy we borrowed from ‘The Godfather’. Designed to favor cold logic over emotion our workplace is framed around analytical moulds, where we are expected to remain collected, rational and functional at all times.
In reality, the self that is frisky, motivated and engaged at work is not the usual adult self we perceive ourselves to be. We may at our core be very analytical and exceptionally resilient, but those parts of us which drive our zeal and zest come from an infinitely more vulnerable place. We should think of it as a younger, more primitive, more defenseless version of ourselves. A smaller self that is no tougher and not much more rational than we were as children which is when so many of our needs for acknowledgement, reassurance, and recognition were formed.
It’s this vulnerable self that continues to guide our motivation even though we now weigh more than a hundred and twenty pounds and wear a set of crow’s feet on our face. This vulnerable self gets bruised, hurt and upset with fervent ease. You could deeply distress it by not applauding loudly enough at the sight of the latest doodle it drew, by not kissing the little boo-boo on its thumb, or by choosing to make a phone call over reading it a bedtime story. Ideally, of course, this small self would at once point out what’s upsetting or frustrating it. But more often than not, it just stays surly, sullen and sulking. Not by choice, but by design. It can’t rationalize or analyze what’s wrong. It just knows it’s in pain and the first instinct is to freeze, fight, or flight. And this looks like disengagement to the adult self.
Falling into the “grass is greener” trap
When disengagement hits us we readily toy with the idea that the pastures are greener elsewhere. The decision whether we should stay, or leave our job, is one of the most consequential and often painful any of us has to make. On any given day, approximately 2.6 billion of us worldwide will be secretly turning the issue over in their minds as they go about their daily work. Our manager possibly having little to no clue as to the momentous decision weighing upon us.
While the antidote to our emotional disconnect may in certain cases be a career switch, the grass is mostly greener till you get to the other side. Opting for the greener pastures is most of the time about choosing hope over experience and hope, as we know, can often be fraught with illusions. The fact that 87 percent of all workers in the world are disengaged should be a telling sign for us that disengagement doesn’t discriminate its victims based on industry or employer, that the factors that cause this mass-disengagement lye outside of our control, direct environment or even our current workplace and that this leaves only a 13 percent window of possibility that the grass will indeed be greener elsewhere.
Throwing the baby out with the bathwater
Engagement, like happiness is our default setting. Our only job is to get to it. And how do we do that? We treat our moral sensitivities with the same patience and care we would treat a child in distress. You don’t outsource the upbringing of your small self to your superiors. No. You kiss the boo-boo on its thumb, you applaud its doodles and you read it a bedtime story.
Not even a 21st century legend like Nicol David is always at the top of her game. But the secret to her success lies in seeking out the opportunity in challenge. “Defeat is a catalyst,” she told me, it makes her, “Stronger, faster, better.” The pinnacle of performance or personal power isn’t found in the avoidance of challenge but in leveraging it as a launching platform for growth.
 Jen Stanford, 2016. “Breaking the Cycle of Failed Change Management.” Pg.1.
 Powell, R., Powell, J. 2016. AQA A-level Economics, Book 2.
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Originally published at www.thriveglobal.com.