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November 10, 2003
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Hosting an "Engagement" Party

The HR Doctor recently received a media survey from a local NBC-affiliated television station. It was part of a campaign to encourage more advertising on television as a more viable approach for employers than placing job ads in newspapers, on radio and in other outlets. The highlight of the media-comparison survey was that the average adult in America now spends 253 minutes a day watching television! That’s more than four hours out of our precious lives each day!

A distant second place in the media scramble went to radio. The average adult listens to radio 128 minutes a day. Time spent surfing the Web (45 minutes per day) has now eclipsed time spent reading the newspaper (30 minutes per day), according to this industry survey. In last place was magazine reading, which kept Americans paying rapt attention for an average of only 19 minutes per day. Probably a significant portion of this magazine statistic involved TV Guide!

While these numbers were shared with pride and trumpeted by television executives in an effort to encourage more advertising, the HR Doctor found a very troubling side to the victory of television as a major and growing factor in our lives and in our communities.

Several years ago, an author named Tom Heymann looked at how Americans spend the precious moments of their lives and, among other things, concluded that the average American spent only four minutes a day in quiet, private, uninterrupted discussion with his or her child.

The HR Doctor finds the contrast between four hours a day and four minutes a day to be sad, and perhaps at the very core of why we see some of the trouble in society that occupies so much of local governments’ time and resources.

Is there any connection between Heymann’s article and human resources or public administration? The answer is a resounding "yes." The disengagement reflected in the survey numbers mirrors the same phenomenon in the workplace. Supervisors often retreat from their responsibilities of positive engagement with subordinates and colleagues. Is the HR Doctor wrong? Before you say "yes," how about checking the percentage of performance evaluations that were not completed on time in your organization, which may reflect nothing more than a cursory "check the boxes" five-minute effort.

Poor behavior at work, including sexual harassment, bullying, and discriminatory or threatening behavior, is often overlooked by supervisors or written off as "that’s just Oscar. Everyone knows he’s harmless! Ignore him and he will go away." Disengagement fosters trouble not only in elementary school, but also later in the workplace.

Disengagement means that we don’t pay as much attention as we should to nurturing and preserving family relationships. This may well be a major contributor to divorce and dysfunction in family relationships. When one relationship element fails, it can often trigger a cascading failure in other areas, including individual financial affairs and personal health. If we think we can do well without positive constructive relationships with others in a complicated world full of challenges, we are wrong - as individuals, as communities and as a nation. The bottom line is that we cannot go it alone; we cannot disengage from positive relationships with other people and expect our own lives to prosper as a result.

For all the complicated and increasingly expensive costs of running departments, like a fire department, or a sheriff’s or a police department in local government, for all the workers’ compensation costs, and occasional behavioral lunacy that goes on in those operations, they offer one extremely valuable lesson for the rest of us to consider. That lesson is that they form, within their own ranks, a family full of positive engagement.

When a member of the fire department is critically ill, he or she will have a hundred friends looking out for their comrade. That kind of positive engagement is the cure for many of the troubles plaguing the society, and you don’t need to be a fireman or police woman to foster positive engagement.

Start in your own family relationships and your work relationships. You might consider inviting all your coworkers to an "engagement" party. Instead of bringing gifts, let them all bring ideas and experiences about how to improve their lives and the lives of their communities through positive engagement with one another.

Let them bring challenges for others to take up to create more positive uses than watching TV for a good part of that 253 minutes a day of the little length of life we each have.

Happy engagement and all the best,

Phil Rosenberg

The HR Doctor •


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