How to Stay Engaged at Work

The first trick to staying engaged at your job: like your boss.

If you don’t like him or her, you probably aren’t enjoying your job much either. Even the most committed employees can find themselves turned off work by inept, distant or uncaring supervisors – including members of a Canadian symbol, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

A recent doctoral study by Vancouver Mountie Jeff Morley confirms this all-too-common employee experience.

He completed the research for the University of British Columbia’s Department of Counselling Psychology last Spring.

For the dissertation, Morley interviewed 25 RCMP officers from the Greater Vancouver area, including constables, corporals and sergeants, who had between three and 28 years of service on the force.

He asked them what increased and decreased their sense of “engagement” with their work.

Workplace engagement refers to the degree to which a worker is passionate about his or her job, wants to work hard and seeks to go the extra mile. Disengaged workers don’t want to be there or work hard. They “check out” of their jobs, both intellectually and emotionally.

For his research, Morley identified 19 kinds of workplace incidents that both contributed and detracted from RCMP officers being fully engaged in their work.

Among them:
– The quality of the relationships with supervisors.
– The type of police work itself (e.g., engaging in detective work, rescuing people or arresting suspects).
Community involvement (e.g., school programs, or cancer fundraisers) and promotion and transfer policies.

Morley, whose research was funded by the RCMP, found that officers were more likely to be engaged in their work and find it meaningful when they experienced good relationships with supervisors.

According to Morley, supervisors’ words and actions “can play a very significant role in helping or hindering officers from feeling meaningfully engaged in their work.”

The disengaging remarks and incidents ranged from the supervisor not doing the job (such as not reading an officer’s paperwork) to blatant sexual harassment to supervisory inaction, or frequent absences from the office. Supervisors fostered employee disengagement by failing to address team conflict, using oppressive supervision styles like micro- managing, or displaying signs of mistrusting officers like checking up on the officer in an unmarked police car, for example.

Sometimes officers experienced workplace disengagement after impersonal incidents, such as having to work under a new supervisor unfamiliar with the section’s work. Other occasions were far more personal – and serious – such as a male supervisor who repeatedly pinched a female officer’s rear end.

Supervisors have the power to engage or disengage a work force through their comments to subordinates. For example, female officers greeted with “Nobody wanted you here; I got stuck with you” and “We’re just taking our token woman”, reported feeling disengaged from their workplaces.

An insecure supervisor, who gossiped about officers behind their backs in an effort to find out what they thought of him, de-motivated his workforce by splitting the team into those who would gossip and those who refused.

Luckily, supervisors can also have a positive effect on workers through their comments. One officer noted that “My desire to work was very strongly influenced by who I worked for.”

Supervisor actions that increased the officer’s engagement at work included giving workers lots of latitude on the job. In one instance, an officer felt supported in doing his job without feeling overly managed by his supervisor.

Caring about workers as individuals increased the officers’ sense of meaning at work. One supervisor, for instance came out on the road with an officer, just to talk. Giving time off when requested or providing a flexible schedule to a new mother who was breastfeeding her infant, increased officer engagement at work, the study found.

Backing employees up was a big morale booster. For example, a supervising officer had to suspend an employee, resulting in her subordinates going over her head to the officer-in-charge. The officer in charge backed the supervisor up, resulting in the officer feeling supported and more engaged in her work.

A supervisor who confronted troublesome team dynamics by calling officers on their inappropriate behaviour restored an officer’s trust in the organization. Putting faith in an officer by giving special assignments increased employee self- confidence. Working for a supervisor who had high performance expectations made work more meaningful for another officer involved in the study.

Morley’s findings are valuable to the RCMP and other businesses and organizations as they try to attract and retain employees. After all, research links high rates of attrition to difficulty with management.

Morley recommends that effective training for supervisors should include teaching key leadership skills such as self- awareness, self-management, empathy and interpersonal effectiveness.

The RCMP experience is probably no different from other large organizations in Canada. Recognizing the power of effective management and continually training people to lead well makes sense. Morley’s research shows it.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at sunmail@newmangrigg.com

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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