Root Causes of Employee Disengagement

A number of surveys show that the majority of employees are disengaged from their work.  Factors that lead to the alienation of the modern executive  are: viewing life as  a means to an end ,  no respect for quality, abstractification and commodification.

The main reason why most of us go to work is essentially for the sake of earning a livelihood. And when a tired executive comes home, he wants to just relax or chill out before a TV flipping on channels every now and then. The traffic, work pressures even though look genuine reasons are actually superficial.  Erick Fromm , a renowned psychologist calls this phenomenon as alienation wherein  people are disengaged from themselves.  Let us understand the above four factors in details:

  1. Means to an End : As a society we are obsessed with careers which primarily revolve around medicine and engineering. Do we as a nation have excelled in any of these fields? We want our children to study hard in school so that they get good marks leading to  admission in good college. From there it is the entrance exams. If the child is able to get into IIT then nothing like it. A combination with a PG degree in IIM will be an icing on the cake. I know some friends who after a rigorous course in Mechanical  Engineering in IIT Bombay are now developing strategies for selling packaged mineral water post their management degree. And why does a  child   need to have these fancy degree? So that he/she can get a comfortable job, fat pay packet and then get settled in life.  In this entire journey, all the activities undertaken by the student are with an ulterior motive, a means to an end. The student never learns for the sake of knowledge. He merely learns to get placed in a good job.  Karnataka has around 56,000 Engineering seats of which around 18, 500 seats go vacant every year. Do this plethora of colleges produce any exceptional engineering  ?  The answer is an emphatic no. The reason for this is our whole approach of looking at life as  a means to an end. Private equity funds like Sequoia and Sofina have invested around $75 Mn ( Rs. 525 Crores) in Byju’s Classes who will prepare students to get into IITs/IIMs and Medical colleges. But what do these students do after coming out of such colleges?

 In 2008 an unknown scientist delivered a talk on ribosomes in IIT Madras. The auditorium was almost empty with hardly 300 people. The next year, the same person spoke on the same abstract topic,  but this time the auditorium was overflowing with  more than 3000 people eager to listen to this scientist. How come this person become a celebrity within such a short span?

He was none other than Dr. Venkataraman Ramakrishnan, ( Venky)  the recipient of Nobel prize in Chemistry in 2009. The Tamil media  claimed credit as he was a Tamil  by  birth. The Gujarati media claimed he was a Gujarati as his parents moved to Baroda ( now Vadodara) when Venky was three years young.  and  studied in MS University Vadodara. Some journalists and Indian students  even had the temerity  to ask him what did he do to earn a Nobel? He found the question a bit embarrassing  and said there is no such  formula. He could neither crack the IIT entrance nor the one of CMC Vellore. He said the major part of his research work was carried out in the US and later at Cambridge.

  1. No Respect for Quality:  When the journey of life is looked at with an ulterior motive, ( means to an end)   quality is the first casualty. A Japanese company had placed an order for a fibre optic cable which was to be placed on the ocean bed of Pacific Ocean. When the material was supplied, the Japanese company refused to accept the consignment. When the American vendor insisted that the cable is meeting all the technical specification, the customer replied, ‘ but it does not look aesthetic” When asked how does it matter when being laid on ocean bed the Japanese client replied, “ whether it matters to others in not very relevant, it matters to us.”  No wonder you see a touch of quality in not only the  Japanese products but also in day-today activities like  Ikebana, Tea Ceremony etc. Dr. Flossy one of the Sr. professors in anatomy has recently retired after a long stint in St. John’s College. Post-retirement  she is teaching at a medical college in Vijayawada. She said most of the private medical colleges have an appendage of ‘Institute of Medical Sciences’ in their name. Most of these colleges do not have any provision for research, even the title says so, the reason , it takes investment and research does  not provide ( quick or any?) return on investment. There are private medical colleges which charge more than a crore as  donation for a medical seat. Do they have the ability and resources for world-class research but intent? An emphatic no!

Is the problem with the system and the politicians? Last year it was revealed that the Chemistry paper of the CET exam was leaked twice and the students had to undergo hardships. Under tremendous pressure, the government relented  for  a CBI enquiry . Later on it was found out that all the papers were leaked. Unless the students and the parents were a part of this nexus how could such things happen?

  1. Abstractification: Recently Claude Monet’s painting was sold for $ 81.4 million. The super-rich buy the Monets, the Husseins, the Picassos for astronomical prices. The masses also start feeling that just because the painting is expensive,  it must be great. So we look at everything from a  ‘numbers’ perspective. The painting are bought more from an investment rather an artistic perspective. Financial  newspapers devote  columns  to tell you how art can be a great investment. We are not looking at a painting from an artistic perspective. But even to do that do we have any artistic upbringing?

4. Comommodification: I asked a student the reason in opting  for a 1- year MBA program by shelling out Rs. 18 lakhs at a premium MBA college in Hyderabad. He replied, “I shall recover the cost within 2 years.” A senior professor shared his anguish about the loss of teaching standards when he said, “earlier the students used to respect the teacher for the latter’s  knowledge and wisdom; I could take them to task but now the scene is different. Now they are no more students but they are customers and I have to keep my customers happy.” ( Negative side of CRM!)

A professor in a private MBA college in Pune shared that nowadays the students are not bothered about 75% attendance, as the principal once said “I do not want my students to get detained  for lack of attendance;  because I need them to run my institution. Getting students paying hefty fees is indeed difficult, getting teaching staff is relatively easy.” It is not that the degrees have become commodities; man has started looking at himself as a commodity.

Just think about the way  people change their mobiles, upgrade their cars, even without using them fully, realizing their full value. It is like one commodity (man) using the other commodity( the mobile) But somewhere in between we have overlooked the fact the roles of the slave and the master have interchanged.  And when one becomes a commodity, one drinks labels: whether it is the mobiles, the luxury goods, books, movies ( Bahubali, Kabali!!)  the new restaurants, we want  to be the first.  Consumerism has been defined as ‘buying things which we do not like; to impress those whom we do not love;  with the money  which we do not have.

During the agricultural era, a farmer or an artisan could produce commensurate with his efforts. That means his gains were decided  by his efforts. But in an industrial age the focus has shifted from the human skills and efforts to the one who has capital. When there is a disproportionate gain from one’s efforts it gives rise to unlimited greed. You must have seen a number of people who trade in stocks or investment bankers  make a killing from the stock market boom. Property prices in metros  like Bangalore reach astronomical levels. Due to quick appreciation; people look out for easy money. And when such money comes without commensurate efforts; it leads to increasing human greed. More greed leads to more alienation and thus to a vicious circle.

We have been conditioned to get well adjusted to the system like the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) So we go on getting adjusted ( like a square peg in a round hole) irrespective of our preferences and passions in life. But the more we try to adjust, the more we get alienated and disengaged.  To summarize,  it is not only the routine and the monotonous nature of our jobs that disconnects us but also the way we have converted ourselves into commodities which is the fundamental cause of our disengagement.

To live a sane life, man has to find  an inner meaning and connect with himself. Or else, as  Adlai Stevenson has succinctly said, ‘We are not in the danger of becoming slaves any more, but of becoming robots.’

Rajan Parulekar||


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