A workforce that is engaged, diverse and inclusive can build a strong work culture that drives innovation and offers major bottom-line benefits, Romila Singh, a noted University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee organizational behavior and strategic management researcher, told attendees Aug. 26 at the Groundbreaking Women in Construction conference. The event, sponsored by ENR in partnership with construction law firm Peckar & Abramson, attracted about 1,000 construction professionals.

Diving deeper into data and lived experiences, Singh said that engagement is neither static nor tied solely to the nature of a job.

Gallup polls showing historic levels of employee engagement in May, followed by a historic low in June, and another historic high in July, demonstrate that “this is not something that is constant,” said Singh, associate professor at the school.

“What happens in our workplaces is affected by what happens in the larger society,” she added, pointing to “upheaval caused by the movement for racial justice” as the reason for the drop in June.  “Organizations are not immune," said Singh. "As [they] begin to address that, you can see the changes in the employee engagement numbers.”

Low engagement, as well as a large number of actively unengaged employees, can have significant impact on an organization's culture and fortunes. “Actively unengaged employees aren’t just unhappy at work," she said. “They’re resentful. They are acting out.”

Unengaged workers cost U.S. companies between $483 billion and $605 billion each year, according to a 2017 Gallup report of the state of the American workforce. “What’s more, their behavior can influence the behavior of those near them, passing on a contagion of disenchantment, disengagement, toxicity,” Singh said.

While Singh said engaged employees offer an appealing picture of optimistic team players eager to learn, surpass expectations, and give credit and accept blame when warranted, employers need to be attuned to a hidden danger. “You can have employees who are engaged and highly satisfied with the work, but also burned out,”  she said.

The coronavirus pandemic can exacerbate the problem. “You cannot operate in separate dimensions." said Singh. "You have to address both engagement and burnout.”

Research Results

In her own studies of workplace engagement–in joint research with Nadya Fouad, faculty member at UW Milwaukee in the counseling psychology area of the Dept. of Educational Psychology–Singh focused specifically on retention of engineers in a survey that analyzed responses from over 1,100 practitioners to determine factors that influence lack of engagement.

“The profile that emerges from all this data is that men are marginally but statistically significantly more engaged, more empowered, satisfied with their jobs and their careers,” and less likely to leave, said Singh. “They also express being more psychologically safe and [have] fewer experiences of undermining than their female counterparts.”

For Singh, an effective way to promote empowerment is to address both structural and psychological conditions so that employees “feel a sense of ownership” as well as meaning, belonging, and competence, said Singh. Focus on work tasks leads to increased employee job satisfaction, lowered attrition and improved performance.  

These factors also influence how and whether innovation occurs in a modern workplace. No longer embodied by a “lone genius toiling away,” innovation today requires a team effort and is “driven by diversity,” said Singh.

According to the researcher, this type of diversity needs to go beyond mere representation.

“Diversity and inclusion without belongingness means nothing,” said Singh.She pointed to a Deloitte survey of almost 9,000 business leaders in which 93% said a sense of belonging drives organizational performance and reduces turnover and employee sick days. 

Conversely, “one single incidence of micro-exclusion can immediately drive down your performance by 25% on a team project.” she said.

Threading those components together requires “psychological safety as the scaffolding to make it happen” at the team level and the larger organizational level, said Singh. “For it to manifest across the company you need to change the culture.”

Stressing the importance of culture as a retention tool, Singh pointed to a 2017 survey of construction professionals that showed culture was the most-cited reason for those considering leaving their positions.

“If you fail to harness the culture around innovation, around productivity and around psychological safety, you will not be successful in any of your business outcomes,” she said.