More than 85% of workers worldwide, and more than 65% of American workers, report feeling disengaged at work, according to Gallup polls. And there's a real cost associated with employees who are not engaged: Gallup estimates that employee disengagement costs companies between $450 million and $550 million per year through bad hires, lost customers and lower productivity.

So, what's the key to transforming workplaces to be more human and empathetic spaces - inspiring its culture and influencing the people within it to feel more engaged with life at work? More than 250 executives and leaders will be discussing this topic as well as diversity and inclusion, characteristics of next-generation leaders and team structure at the upcoming Life@Work conference, scheduled for October 17th and 18th in Brooklyn, New York.

We talked to a few of the executives and business leaders that will be speaking at the conference for a sneak peek of what they believe it takes to transform and influence the culture of today's workplaces.

Ask the Right Questions

Is engagement the right metric, when it comes to measuring the success of a workplace culture? Or should we be shooting for something else? Mark Levy, Global Head of Employee Experience at Airbnb says, "Engagement is a much better predictor than measures like job satisfaction or happiness, but it's important to measure it correctly. You can't just ask people if they feel engaged. You need to ask them questions that probe a bit deeper."

What sort of questions can accurately measure something as subjective as engagement? Levy says, "we measure engagement by asking questions relating to whether people feel proud of the culture we've built. Do they feel energized to do great work? Do they feel a sense of belonging? Can they see themselves working here in a year? Would they recommend us to a friend as a great place to work? Those kinds of questions tell us a lot about whether we're impacting engagement."

According to Neel Doshi, author of Primed to Perform, another challenge is that when the method of measuring engagement is a survey based process, it's not uncommon to see attempts to "game the system." Says Doshi, "Metrics are less useful when the metric is weaponized. I've seen senior executives and front line leaders alike try to game their engagement scores. Some might organize fun retreats the week before the engagement survey comes out. Some even stand behind their employees as they complete their surveys. And people will admit to lying on these surveys for fear of losing their jobs."

"When anonymous engagement surveys are used as a report card to shame executives into action, your engagement efforts are already starting off on the wrong foot."

Pull the Right Levers

So how do you influence engagement? Engagement is ultimately about human beings feeling in relationship with the organization. This sense of relationship can be influenced by leadership, but engagement shouldn't be used as a weapon to shame anyone - executives included - into action. Says Doshi, "Most organizations we've worked with understand that they must build a high performing culture, but few of them are pulling the right levers."

According to Doshi, when companies attempt to use emotional pressure like fear, shame or guilt, or economic pressure such as financial incentives and disincentives, they tend to perform worse. So what does work? Doshi says, "What we learned is that why a person does their job drives how well they do their job. High-performing organizations create right motives in their people and eliminate wrong motives."

What are the right motives? Says Doshi, "When colleagues tell us they do their work because of play, purpose and potential, we see higher levels of performance and better decision making. In other words, if they enjoy the work, believe in the work, and they feel the work believes in them, they are more engaged. They are more focused on what's best for the customer, rather than being engaged in competition with one another."

Empower, Don't Govern

Joseph White, Director of Workplace Strategy at Herman Miller, believes most organizations are looking at the issue of engagement from the wrong angle. He says, "Countless reports will tell you engagement is at an epidemic low, and that you should freak out. Most of these studies tend to implicate people, rather than the organizations where the real issue resides."

The problem, according to White, is lack of purpose. "Ask yourself whether your people truly understand the purpose of your organization and what that purpose means to them personally? In most organizations, they probably don't," says White. "When the greater purpose of work is clear and aligned with intrinsic human motivation, organizations can empower people with principles rather than govern them with policies."

However, White cautions against thinking of purpose as some sort of magic bullet. "There's not a magic trick that makes people care. It's really about entering into relationship with people; not surveying them, but actually talking to them and having a dialog."

In other words, a great culture happens when organizations ask their people the right questions, and connect with them in a human way - through relationship, purpose and opportunity. It happens when organizations motivate and empower, rather than mandate behavior. Hear more about these ideas, from these speakers and others, at Life@Work on October 17 and 18 in Brooklyn, New York.

Published on: Oct 4, 2017