Breaking the Cycle of Unengagement

groundhog day

In the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays disengaged television meteorologist Phil Connors. Phil is sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the annual groundhog ceremony whereby the famous rodent predicts the weather. Obviously frustrated by the menial assignment, Phil comes across as rude, condescending, and genuinely uninterested in both his coworkers and the townspeople around him. He arrives late for the live television feed and fakes his way through it; going through the motions in an obvious attempt to get things over with so he can get back home.

The people Phil comes in contact with make repeated attempts to connect with him. The mayor, his cameraman, and his producer all eventually get fed up with his brusque demeanor. Phil rushes the team back on the road, but a freak blizzard forces them to turn around and spend the night in Punxsutawney. He awakens the next morning to find he is trapped in a time loop, repeating the same day over and over again.

I don’t know about you, but I run into a lot of people who resemble Phil Connors. They isolate themselves from others and basically sleepwalk their way through the day. Any attempt to connect with them or collaborate is met with outright resistance or, at best, reluctant participation. They seem to exert the least possible amount of effort, performing just well enough to get through the day; but not really impacting anything or anyone. They’re miserable and it shows. And this goes on day after day after day.

In other words, they are unengaged.

A 2014 Gallup poll revealed that almost 70% of employees in the U.S. are unengaged. That means millions of people go to work every day uninvolved, unenthusiastic, and uncommitted. Employees classified as managers, executives, or officers apparently check out just as frequently. Sixty-two percent of that group said they are unengaged as well.

You don’t need a research study to figure out the implications of this. Unengaged employees obviously cost an organization in terms of sales, service, and innovation. Organizations with high levels of unengaged employees also have high turnover, incurring extra costs associated with hiring and training. The problem is real and, according to the research, widespread.

So what are we to do to combat the engagement dilemma? Well, the same Gallup survey identified a handful of organizations that seem to have cracked the code. And the number one reason for their higher-than-average levels of engagement? Involved leadership. Here’s a quote from an article detailing the findings:

“Leaders’ own attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors have powerful trickle-down effects on their organizations’ cultures. Leaders of great workplaces don’t just talk about what they want to see in the management ranks — they model it and keep practicing to get better at it every day with their own teams.”

The key to highly engaged employees is highly engaged leadership – involved leadership. Engagement doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It requires action. It requires participation. It requires getting up from the desk and interacting with people. That’s the only way you get to know them. That’s the only way you get to share with them your vision for the future. That’s the only way you can influence their desire to be a part of that vision.

How well do you know the people around you? How well do you know what’s going on in their lives? How involved are you in their work? How engaged are you?

Phil Connors tries desperately to break out of the repetitive time loop. At first he behaves erratically, thinking altering events around him will make a difference. It doesn’t. He tries running away from the problem by leaving town and even committing suicide. But every day winds up looking the same. It’s only when he decides to get involved in the lives of the people around him that something changes. It’s only when he gets to know them and decides to get engaged himself that the cycle is broken.

We don’t know how long it took Phil to break out of his time loop. The film doesn’t say. Director Harold Ramis suggested it took perhaps 10 years. Analysts of the events depicted in the movie have theorized Phil lived the same day over and over for 40 years or more. Hopefully it doesn’t take the rest of us that long to figure things out.

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