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carl mortished

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When you were a little kid you wanted to be a ballerina or a baseball star. As a moody teenager, you were a passionate attorney fighting for justice or an emergency room surgeon saving lives. Some time after you left college you got your first real job and, according to Gallup, the polling organization, that's when it all began to go wrong.

More than two-thirds of Americans are either permanently demotivated at work or actively undermining the work of everybody else. From the moment we arrive at the office, clutching our morning lattes to our evening dash to the daycare centre or to the pub, we are just killing time. Like school kids waiting for the bell, we are passively resisting orders, playing Angry Birds, tripping up colleagues or secretly burying IEDs in the path of the boss's big project. Gallup's annual surveys of employee engagement in America show that the proportion of motivated and happy staff was 30 per cent in 2001 and since then has hovered at or just below that level with little variation or correlation with boom or bust, rhyme or reason.

Engaged workers are the ones the boss craves, described by Gallup as those who work with passion, feel connected to the company, are innovative and move things forward. Perhaps we should not be too surprised to find they are less than common. It is these kind of people, says Gallup who deliver more earnings per share. Most of us, between 50 per cent and 60 per cent are time servers or "checked out," harmless but a bit ineffectual. It is the actively disengaged, those who act out their unhappiness, who cost U.S. business more than half a trillion dollars in economic damage, and it is interesting that the survey reveals they represent just under a fifth of the work force.

Of course, Gallup doesn't recommend that bosses send HR commandos to hunt out these office terrorists and terminate them. In politically correct fashion, it calls for better leadership, bosses who encourage and praise rather than focus on weakness. Happy workers do better work and the most demotivating factor can be the supervisor. More surprising is the strong generational gap. Millenials are significantly more engaged than the baby boomers and Generation Xers who have the largest proportion of unhappy workers. If you want happy staff, hire lots of elderly people to manage the very young, the survey seems to suggest.

What Gallup doesn't ask is the fundamental question as to why we expect so much satisfaction from our jobs. Back in the 1980s, I met several refugees from Communist countries who used to express surprise that, when introduced socially, Westerners always inquired as to their jobs. Under the Soviet system, I was told, jobs were so dreary and dead-end that no one defined themselves by their employment. It was what they did outside of work that mattered. No one would recommend the Soviet solution but it is interesting and counter-intuitive that older people, who may have learned to expect less from their careers, turn out to be the most likely to be "engaged" at work. A fulfilled life does not require a great career and the latter will not always make you happy.

Carl Mortished is a contributor to ROB Insight, the business commentary service available to Globe Unlimited subscribers. Click here for more of his Insights.

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