Why So Blue? Study Finds Low IT Worker Engagement

While green has been the color du jour lately — given the trendiness of environmentally friendly products and solutions — the color of note in IT today is an alarming shade of blue. A recent study by global consulting firm BlessingWhite showed that IT has low employee engagement compared to other industries.

“The State of Employee Engagement 2008,” which surveyed more than 7,500 workers on four continents, showed that just 23 percent of IT workers are fully engaged. Compare this to other departments — such as HR consulting/training with 46 percent engagement and energy/utilities at 40 percent — and it begs the question, what’s making IT workers so unhappy?

According to industrial-organizational psychologist Patrick M. McCarthy, Ph.D., J.D., this low engagement is due to the combination of the nature of the job itself and the personalities of the workers who tend to choose IT.

“IT can be a pretty wide range of tasks. But for many of those folks, the tasks can be very reactive versus strategic,” explained McCarthy, who is an associate professor and graduate program coordinator at Middle Tennessee State University, as well as a senior consultant at the Center for Organizational and Human Resource Effectiveness. “If you’re just chasing a series of unrelated crises and having to dive into one technical task after another, [a] sense of meaningfulness is really hard to get out of that on a day-to-day basis.”

Meaningfulness and a sense of control over one’s work are key to engagement, McCarthy said. But one way to counteract a lack of meaningfulness is through development.

In the BlessingWhite study, the biggest factor in engagement was the opportunity for development and training. Twenty-eight percent of IT workers said their job satisfaction would increase if they had these opportunities; 27 percent said development would improve their performance.

IT workers generally crave learning opportunities because they’re naturally intelligent, said BlessingWhite CEO Chris Rice. “All of them tend to share the characteristics of being bright, inquisitive, and so a lot of employee development is tied to satisfying that yearning for improving oneself and learning about things.”

McCarthy agreed: “Part of their personality is they enjoy solving puzzles — and top that off with [the fact that] they’re in a field that is very dynamic. What was state-of-the-art yesterday no longer is. And those two things in combination make [development] essential.”

Not only is the IT field fast-changing and stressful, but IT departments often are targets for complaints, McCarthy added. Further, IT workers “get little recognition in an ongoing way for their successes. And that can wear on you.”

He recalled a quote from early psychologist William James that demonstrates the importance of recognition in human motivation: “The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.”

“Reinforcement, in some form, is essential for motivation,” McCarthy said. “That can be kind of intrinsic: ‘I just enjoy what I do.’ But without any external rewards or recognition, eventually that drains whatever motivation or morale you had to start with. But reasonable recognition [from the organization] — it doesn’t have to be elaborate — can help build that, both the attitudinal and the motivational side of things.”

So what are the implications of low engagement? For employees, lack of job satisfaction can hurt work performance, as well as wreak havoc on their personal lives, which in turn affects the job. It is a vicious cycle in which both the worker and the organization lose.

Rice noted that lack of engagement impacts the organization’s bottom line in at least two ways. First, it leads them to perform with minimal discretionary effort, which means they perform their jobs with only the amount of effort that will keep them on the payroll.

The second cost is turnover, he said. “[With] those who are not completely engaged, the probability of turnover goes up significantly,” Rice said.

And then there are those “who have quit, but they’re still on your payroll,” he said. “Your good employees are leaving the organization; your bad employees are actually sticking around and not doing anything. And that is really expensive.”

To engage workers, managers should create an environment in which employees feel comfortable voicing concerns and opinions, Rice said. The study shows countries with this type of culture — such as the U.K., Ireland and India — have higher worker engagement.

Companies also need to take the initiative to develop their employees before this becomes a factor in their disengagement.

“If you wait for employees to verbalize [that they want development opportunities], you’re going to be behind the eight ball,” Rice said. “So companies need to understand the characteristics of high-quality technical people and what they want, and to be proactive in setting up processes and programs that will increase satisfaction and employee engagement.”

– Mpolakowski, meaganp@certmag.com

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Meagan Polakowski

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