Are We Being Honest About Our Experience of Work?
Do most people enjoy their jobs? A quick glance around the workplace or on social media, and you’d have to say yes.
In offices across the world, and on professional social networks such as LinkedIn, the mood is undeniably upbeat. Most people seem not only satisfied at work but positively brimming with excitement and enthusiasm.
But hold on a minute. Aren’t we currently in the midst of an employee engagement crisis? Aren’t most people actively looking for a way out of their current position?
The engagement illusion
Honesty, openness, and authenticity – these three characteristics are almost universally promoted by employees and employers alike. But how honest are we really being about our experience of work? And perhaps more tellingly, how honest are we able to be?
Not very, it would seem. According to Gallup, only a third of employees are actively engaged in their work. Meanwhile, a report by Mental Health America found that 70% of employees are thinking about and/or actively looking for a new job.
Yet most workplaces give the impression that engagement is widespread. Across the world, it would seem, people put on a brave face, smile, nod, and agree – we love our jobs!
Don’t get me wrong, some people truly do love their jobs, but according to the data, these people are a minority. Chances are, the type of people who truly love coming to work are in positions that afford them the autonomy, flexibility, and freedom to choose the direction their work takes. For the vast majority, however, work is nothing like that.
So why does everyone appear engaged when the data suggests otherwise? Well, to some extent, a degree of dishonesty is necessary in the workplace. In social environments, we can’t always say what we really think; if we did, the relative harmony of offices and teams would quickly disintegrate into chaos.
To a large degree, the way we act at work is more about self-preservation than honesty. It is central to our workplace culture that we appear happy, motivated, and passionate about our work, even if we aren’t. This leads to an environment riddled with dishonesty, where people outwardly love their jobs while simultaneously longing for the weekend.
This effect is exaggerated on professional social networks such as LinkedIn, where a combination of voyeurism and self-promotion have contributed to an echo chamber of positivity.
Beyond the social niceties and expectations, could this lack of honesty be hurting us?
Honesty at work
Let’s imagine for a moment a world where we are completely honest about our experience of work.
And by honest, I don’t mean that we would all suddenly spend our days groaning with boredom or telling people what we really think about them – professionalism and politeness will always be necessary components in the workplace, as in life.
What I mean is, how would work be different if we could truly tell people how we felt about it?
Let’s look at an example. Say your new manager asks how your onboarding went. Rather than the standard ‘It was great, thanks. Really informative,’ you might say what you really think: ‘to be honest, it was pretty dull, and most of the information wasn’t actually relevant. By the end I felt pretty drained, and I still don’t have the information I need.’
In our current culture, such a reply would at best raise eyebrows, and at worst would result in reputational damage – especially coming from a new starter. But what is more useful to the organisation and its employees: the truth or the lie? And what does it say about our workplace culture that the truth would be treated with suspicion?
By being honest about our experience of work, we can highlight areas that are in need of change. As a result, the onboarding experience may be improved, ensuring that new starters begin their employment journey full of genuine energy and enthusiasm. By paying lip service, as our current workplace culture would deem appropriate, nothing ever changes.
In reality, the average work day is full of such moments where we avoid saying what we really think in order to save face. By hiding our true feelings, we perpetuate the problems that are leading to disengagement in the first place. We carry on pretending that everything is great, while privately looking for a way out.
This problem extends beyond our experience of work to the products and services we sell. When everyone appears to be working in the best team, for the best company, offering the best products or services, there’s very little room for criticism. In fact, anyone who fails to toe the party line will quickly find themselves an outsider.
But what if the product you push is bang average? What if the team you work in is dysfunctional? What if the company’s policies are outdated? Only by being honest about these issues will they ever change.
Employees as customers
As a customer, would you hide your true feelings about a product or service you use, or would you speak your mind?
To improve the employee experience, perhaps it’s time we started treating staff like customers. With this shift in mindset, it would be more acceptable for employees to call out the aspects of work that they are dissatisfied with, resulting in positive change.
Rather than expecting their staff to comply with whatever conditions they find themselves in, employers should be constantly striving to provide their people with a better work experience. Any criticisms or concerns they have should be listened to keenly.
Employers may think twice about this approach. They may be quite happy with the fact that their workforce appears to be happy and engaged. But they must realise that the statistics around engagement don’t lie – however things appear on the surface, most people aren’t engaged at work. And a disengaged workforce means poor performance, low productivity, and high turnover.
A culture of honesty is key to solving the engagement crisis. But remember: honesty often means saying things that people may not want to hear. It means allowing your employees to speak their minds if they aren’t satisfied. It means not expecting people to pretend that they are happy just to perpetuate a workplace culture that is failing to serve them.