It’s Tough To Be Part Of The Tribe When You Are A Contract Worker

Smart TribesThe latest neuroscience research shows that our very sense of survival depends upon a sense of belonging. When that sense of belonging isn’t there, even in the workplace, fear kicks in. And our primal survival “fight/flight/freeze” brain takes the driver’s seat and kicks our innovative brain to the curb.
Christine Comaford, Smart Tribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together


Do you ever get just a little bit confused, a little nonplussed, at the state of the world, and the state of the modern corporation? I do.

Consider: there is book after book on Tribes, and Leadership, and Communication, and… and yet, the indications are that our organizations are not all that well led, that people feel like communication is not done all that well, and that employee engagement numbers are simply not getting any better. How can we write about such matters so often, and have so many retreats and training sessions and meetings tackling these concerns, and make so little progress? It can be confusing, and just a little, to much-more-than-a-little, disheartening.

The employee engagement one is so tangible – I watch the surveys, and as close as I can tell, we are stuck. The total number of employees who are “fully engaged” is about where its been since I first started paying attention.

Here are the numbers, from Gallup’s Millions of Bad Managers Are Killing America’s Growth:

Click on image for full view
Click on image for full view

The problem is, employee engagement in America isn’t budging. Of the country’s roughly 100 million full-time employees, an alarming 70 million (70%) are either not engaged at work or are actively disengaged. That number has remained stagnant since Gallup began tracking the U.S. working population’s engagement levels in 2000. Talk about a lost decade.

Why is employee engagement stuck? If you estimate that America has one supervisor or manager for every 10 employees — that is, 10 million managers — then 7 million of those managers are not properly developing, or worse are outright depressing, 70 million U.S. employees.

I think I know part of the problem. There really are “two Americas,” to use a phrase from the political arena.

Yes, there is management vs. labor. But here is the new divide – there is “work for the company” vs. “work as temporary worker and/or contract worker in the company.”

Or, to put it simply, “employees vs. contract workers.”

And that divide is growing. Here’s a key paragraph from a recent item (read more about this here, posted by Anne Loehr):

The rise of temporary workers is a workforce trend that’s here to stay. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, temporary workers make up 19% of all new jobs in the U.S,  almost beating out a record high from April 2000. A blog post by NextSpace cites an even larger number, 30%, which includes temporary, contract and self-employed workers. Sara Horowitz, Founder of The Freelancers Union and author of The Freelancer’s Bible also backs this statistic up, stating on her site that 1 in 3 workers are freelancers.

I’ve presented synopses of business books, at least one new title every month, since April, 1998. I think I know the business book themes and trends. Nearly all of the books I’ve read, and the articles I’ve read, on corporate culture, building smart tribes, all-throughout-the-company alignment recommendations, assume people who work for the company. In other words, the “full-time folks.” The people that are accepted as part of the “team.” And, even with these people, the employee engagement numbers are stagnant.

But, for the contract workers, the problem is far greater. How does a company build a solid corporate culture and all-throughout-the-company alignment when such a large and growing percentage of the people are not truly part of the company? And, by the way, in many (most?) instances they are not “accepted as, considered as ”part of the company” by the “insiders,” the full-time folks…

I don’t have the answer to this problem. But it is a problem that I think has been ignored in the books I’ve read. And, since the folks who read such books and talk about them are pretty much the “full time folks,” my guess is that they might be just a little bit oblivious to the “contract” folks around them.

And, in one sense, this is part of the growing income inequality gap around us. If people need to feel a sense of belonging at work, and when they don’t they get angry, or flee, or freeze (the quote above from Christine Comaford), then providing that sense of belonging is genuinely important. In other words, a sense of belonging at work is one of the benefits of being one of the full time folks.

The contract workers sense of belonging? Chances are, that’s not even a consideration… So, the tribe includes the insiders, and the “outsiders” are pretty much out of luck.


Here’s a specific arena where you can see this “Two Americas” at work.  The average “adjunct professor” does not feel much like a part of the Tribe.  Peruse the web site Adjunct Nation, and you can read quite a bit about this workplace reality for these folks.


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