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Boosting knowledge worker engagement through mentoring

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For more than 13 years, this column has been tracking ongoing research into building and growing an enterprise of the future. This research has produced a set of attributes for an organization to succeed in a highly complex, fast-changing world. These include a shared vision, a continuing cycle of innovation and learning, and a culture aimed at sustained personal and organizational growth, among others.

Given that backdrop, what do you think your chances are of achieving and sustaining one or more of those attributes if 85% of your workforce isn’t fully engaged? Worse yet, what if more than one-fifth of those unengaged workers routinely act out their unhappiness to the point where they end up negating what their engaged counterparts accomplish?

Those aren’t hypothetical percentages. They’re the actual numbers reported in Gallup’s latest “State of the Global Workplace” survey.

The Gallup organization defines fully engaged employees as highly involved in and enthusiastic about their work—psychological “owners” that drive performance and innovation in ways that move the organization forward. It defines people who are not engaged as having little energy, passion, or enthusiasm for their work, seeing little or no connection between the goals of the organization and their own personal goals. They show up just so they can collect a paycheck. Their unspoken message is, “I quit, but I forgot to tell you.”

According to Gallup, only 15% of employees worldwide feel they are fully engaged at work. In China and some European countries, the percentage is in single digits. For the U.S., although the figures have recently improved, the number still stands at less than 20% of employees. No country in the world has engagement levels exceeding 40%.

The implications can be disheartening. According to Willis Towers Watson’s biennial “Global Workforce Study,” more than 25% of employees are expected to leave their current job within the next 2 years. Lack of engagement is cited as a major contributing factor.

The cold, hard truth is this: If your employees aren’t engaged, knowledge simply can’t flow to the extent that’s needed in order to compete in the global economy. As such, the bulk of your human capital remains stagnant and untapped. The obvious question is: What can we do about it?

The Gallup survey contains an interesting tidbit: Disengaged employees were found to be resentful that their needs weren’t being met. While Gallup doesn’t elaborate on what those needs are, another recent survey provides some insight. In its report, “The State of Employee Engagement in 2019,” the HR Research Institute identified the top 10 factors most highly linked to employee engagement. These include trust in leaders, a sense of purpose, opportunities for career growth, and a sense of “psychological safety.” These make sense, given that many psychologists point to recognition, growth, and contribution as basic human needs, usually after a feeling of financial security has been established. In short, sustained employee engagement is vital to developing and growing your intellectual capital.

Something old, something new

It’s been a while since we last wrote about structured mentoring as a vehicle for knowledge transfer (The future of the future, Oct. 2015). However, there’s an important benefit that’s often overlooked. Creating a culture in which every employee becomes a mentor to someone else results in greater employee recognition, growth, and contribution, which in turn brings increased engagement and job satisfaction.

The newest employee can be a mentor to a summer intern. A senior, even retired, employee can remain active by mentoring and encouraging others to share and grow their knowledge. When done correctly, knowledge flows in both directions. For example, a senior person mentoring a junior-level person can learn a lot about new technologies and ideas, including the latest social trends.

By serving as a mentor, several basic needs are met. These include growth by helping others to grow (gaining teaching, coaching, mentoring, storytelling, and other knowledge transfer skills along the way), a feeling of contribution (leaving a legacy and serving as a role model for others), and increased productivity (reducing errors and redundancy, including having to explain something repeatedly—in other words, escape from the “day jail” of being the organization’s sole “go-to” person on certain matters).

While some believe that being the only source of specialized knowledge makes them valuable, it actually limits both personal and organizational growth. Lone experts rarely have time to expand their knowledge and/or areas of responsibility. This is what we mean by “day jail.”

On the flip side, having a mentor satisfies the need for growth/connection (opportunity to work side-by-side with a recognized expert), relevance (sense of “belonging”), and productivity (less time and effort wasted through trial and error).

Organizationally, the benefits are significant. These include increased productivity by relieving decision bottlenecks, making fewer repeated mistakes, and having less redundant effort; increased collaboration, which in turn drives innovation by leveraging intellectual capital; more stability through reduced turnover and reduced risk from critical knowledge walking out the door; and more honesty, openness, and trust.

Additional benefits contributing to increased levels of engagement for both mentors and mentees include increased recognition/appreciation, expansion of one’s network/influence, the satisfaction that comes from “giving back” and “making a difference,” and promotion of a safe learning environment along the lines of the “psychological safety” factor mentioned earlier.

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