Fear has funny ways of manifesting in our jobs and careers. At first glance, it doesn’t appear as fear at all but something else entirely. Take employee engagement in organizations, that murky measure of ‘something beyond satisfaction that describes an employee’s discretionary effort,’ according to Aon Hewitt. Depending on who you talk to, it is the missing ingredient for business success or, just more mumbo jumbo from consulting firms and authors of management literature looking to make a buck. I happen to believe employee engagement is important. After all, a disengaged employee is an ineffective employee and more importantly, he or she is suffering in a job they’re not happy with which can have negative implications, inside and outside of the workplace. The numbers vary slightly depending on who’s survey you look at, but the latest Gallup poll measuring the engagement of US workers says that nearly 70% are not engaged in their jobs.

Companies shell out millions (reportedly $720 million in 2012 alone) attempting to measure and improve engagement. Companies make millions touting programs designed to keep employees engaged (it’s estimated disengaged employees cost the American economy $350 billion/year). The fact remains, for the 15 years Gallup has been measuring engagement, two-thirds of US employees aren’t happy with their work. What gives?

An Outdated Script

The experts tout a long list of factors tied to engagement – poor leadership, bad management practices, a lack of work/life balance, mismatched expectations, lack of development opportunities, a disconnect between an organization’s mission, vision and values, employee benefits and compensation – and there’s more depending on whose model of engagement you’re working with. The truth is, there’s not a lot of agreement on the definition of employee engagement, which is part of the problem. More importantly, though, it seems the problem may be rooted in employees themselves. Measuring employee engagement is mostly one dimensional in that it only looks at what employees expect from their employment experience. It fails to incorporate the beliefs and expectations an employee brings about what his or her employment actually means.

Too many of us are working from an employee / employer script that is outdated and irrelevant for the 21st Century. Bottom line, we continue to seek stability from our employers, even though it’s one thing that’s not in the contract (anymore). We believe it is the responsibility of the company we work for, the team we are a part of, the manager we report to – to ensure that we’re engaged in our work. After all, a stable job is one we can stand to return to day after day. As employees, we’ve become complacent in our own happiness and fulfillment at work. We’ve outsourced our engagement to others and created impossible expectations for those we work for by holding them accountable for making our work meaningful. How can anyone other than you know what gives you energy in your work?

Taking Ownership

Complacency is born out of fear and in our careers complacency takes many forms. We look to our jobs to provide us with long-term security as well as short-term motivation. Because this script is antiquated and constantly broken, we lose confidence in our abilities to manage our own careers. So many of us strive for control in our careers, but control is an illusion so we grow weary and tired. Without the guarantees of yesterday’s workplace – loyalty and longevity rewarded with a job for life, many of us (maybe 2 out of 3!) check out of our jobs and careers, living in fear of what might happen rather than dictating our own terms. For most, it’s easier to hide behind the fear of the unknown than it is to take ownership for our own engagement – we cower to the boss, hold our opinions back, look the other way, toe the line.

It’s time we regained our voice. It’s time we took responsibility for finding meaning in our work. As employees, we have more power than we know. It’s time to be fearless in our job, in our career. There is no script anymore. Only when we accept accountability for our own engagement, do we begin to see real meaning and fulfillment in our work. Company leadership won’t do this for you, your boss won’t do this for you. It’s up to you. Stop being complacent, define what you want and start taking action. If after you define what you want, you work for it, you make a strong case for it and you don’t get it – it’s time to move on. Not shuffle back in line defeated and demoralized.

As employees, many of us are afraid to have a dialogue about what it is that we want from our work. We fear reprisal, rocking the boat, not being a team player, overstepping our bounds, poor marks on our performance appraisal. But if we don’t engage in this dialogue, how can we ever expect to have meaningful work? As a manager, there’s nothing that would be more helpful than having my employees come to me with a clear set of goals, expectations, and ideas on how they can get more out of their work. That makes my job that much easier. Of course, as employees, we don’t have carte blanche. We have to be reasonable, thoughtful, creative and pragmatic in our proposals. In some cases, we have to make small tweaks in order to get closer to doing the work we want.

Finding Our Voice

Creating meaningful work for yourself is easier said than done, I know. I once lost my voice because I was scared. My fear was rooted in being seen as someone who was unreliable, incapable, who ruffled feathers, was difficult to work with, didn’t do what he was told, didn’t adhere to the hierarchy. I felt that I had to earn the right to speak up on my own behalf, and I wasn’t high enough on the ladder. I was waiting for permission to take ownership of my own experience, but no one was watching, waiting to give me permission. It was always up to me. I kept looking for permission, kept looking for someone to do something on my behalf. It never came, and I grew increasingly frustrated and disengaged – eventually leaving for what I thought were greener pastures.

I learned a difficult lesson, and one I think applies to the 70% of us who aren’t engaged in our work. We have to stop looking for someone else to make our experience what we want it to be. We have to take accountability for creating the experiences we want in our work. We have to get clear about what gives us energy and what zaps it. We have to take responsibility for steering our jobs and careers towards the light. As much as we want it, no one else is going to do this for us. Your engagement is up to you – not your boss, not your coworkers, not your clients. Stop waiting for the next “engagement” survey to come out to find your voice.

When do you earn the right to take accountability for your experience as an employee? It’s not something that is earned, it’s something you are entitled to as soon as you enter into an employment agreement. But it’s up to you to exercise your right to meaningful and fulfilling work. If you’re unhappy, dissatisfied or disengaged in your work, it’s time to take back responsibility for your experience and create a job you love.