I knew from the way that Pedro in the Mexico City office answered the phone that something had turned for the worst. Pedro’s voice sounded low and muffled – preoccupied and low energy compared with our recent interactions. Pedro and his colleagues had recently been missing key details in our shared projects. They just seemed disengaged from their tasks. I picked up the phone to call someone I knew from the company’s leadership team.
A Pandemic of Disengaged Zombie Workers
Pedro and his colleagues are not the exception. They are unfortunately the norm. Studies by Gallop, Deloitte, Dale Carnegie and others all point to the staggering lack of employee engagement in the United States. These studies all show 70%+ of workers surveyed consider themselves unengaged at work.
As a company breaks through from startup to growth stage, its leaders often discuss how to preserve that “entrepreneurial culture” – its key success factor. Translated:
We don’t want to lose that sense of individual employee contribution and drive to beat the odds.
We’re talking about the essence of employee engagement. According to Dale Carnegie Training, U.S. companies with engaged employees outperform non-engaging companies by 202%.
Globally The Disengagement Issue Compounds
Most growth-stage companies eventually start taking global markets seriously, opening overseas offices and hiring local staff. Here is where the employee engagement challenges start to compound. A disappointing 13% of international employees feel engaged in their jobs according to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace.
There are factors to consider to improve global worker engagement, productivity and accountability:
- Motivators Vary – Money is often a strong work motivator world wide. If paid what we feel is a fair, market rate for our efforts, then we are likely motivated. But most of us want more than that. We may want opportunities to learn new skills, job stability, and career advancement. Most of us want some work-life balance and a good work environment.
But beyond that, motivators may be quite different. For instance, in group-oriented cultures team projects are preferred to individual efforts (Japan). Some cultures expect a relaxed atmosphere (Jamaica) while others want intense work time and a shorter workweek (Germany).
- Management Styles Vary – For most Americans, the most energy-draining management style is being closely supervised while also verbally reprimanded in front of peers over seemingly minor mistakes. Yet this is common in India. Indian managers overseeing non-Indian staff learn to modify their style via coaching or negative results. Likewise, American managers are not always viewed in the same way as they would be in an American-only environment. Engaged employees normally trust their leaders, but building trust changes based on culture. Know what’s expected.
- Language and Communication Styles Vary -“Are you sitting in your seat?”, is a curious question at the onset of my colleague’s international team calls. While an interesting way to ask if everyone is ready, there are other linguistic challenges that cause breaches in trust and motivation. One of the bigger challenges in communications is between indirect and direct communicators. Direct communicators (ex. Dutch, Israeli) often say what they are thinking and value sincerity. They find indirect communicators annoying. Indirect communicators (ex. Japan, Ghana) typically avoid saying anything embarrassing to themselves or the other party. They value courtesy and respecting others. They often find the direct communicators to be rude and untrustworthy. Working with those you can’t trust reduces engagement.
Who in the Organization Should Fix This Issue?
Disengagement is often a company-wide issue, affecting operations, financials, customer engagement and other key functions. It needs to be discussed at the executive level. The Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) has a key role to play in offering solutions in terms of hiring criteria, employee onboarding, cross-cultural communications training and conflict resolution. And finally, local office managers need to be coached on global management skills.
How to Increase Employee Engagement Worldwide
All is not lost to office zombies! Here are my ideas to re-engage:
- Hire the right people overseas. Even within an overseas market, there is always a wide candidate pool variance. If your company values high energy staff or a connection to your mission or customer focus, then search for that match in international hires too.
- Ask the right questions and then listen to the answers. When an office or staff member seems out of alignment with the rest of the company, it’s the time to ask: “What do you think about…?” “Can you see a better way to do….?” “What would help you to feel more engaged in your job?” If it’s possible to fix the situation by conversation, then it saves the company the cost of replacing another employee.
- Learn the cultural basics of your global offices. Instead of assuming sameness, find out what the differences are to head off future conflict and energy drains. An easy Internet search will provide basic information on a country’s business culture.
- Take input from all locations for company goals and employee reward systems. Part of employee engagement is ownership in the company’s outcomes and processes. Solicit input and credit great ideas from outside of the HQ office.
- Explain why decisions are being made and how a decision fits into the long-term strategy. Since business rules change from country to country, it helps to explain that context in which your company leaders make their decisions. Decisions that don’t seem to make sense are a major demotivater.
Often executives of growing companies assume that global offices and employees are all from the same home culture. Few international employees will speak up when they feel that internal culture clash for fear of losing their jobs. Disengagement sets in. Instead of accepting zombie employees as an inevitable byproduct of company growth and success, it’s time to use knowledge and communications to engage and inspire throughout your organization.
Onward and upward,