Bringing Back Engagement at Work


“We must become the change we want to see in the world.”
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948)

“I just consider myself lucky to have a job… ” Are you really? It has been four years since the meltdown of the economy and massive job losses. People that do have a job may be the “lucky ones”. They can pay their mortgage, send their kids to school and put regular meals on the dinner table. In a lot of cases, this is true. But are they really that lucky? The objective of this article is to highlight the reality of disengagement, its impacts and solutions to counterbalance the current trend and ensure that more people are indeed, truly lucky to have their job.

In 2001, numerous publications indicated that over 70% of people were either disengaged or actively disengaged from their job. In 2010, Gallup says that 72% of US workers are disengaged and simply “show up” because they have to. One would think that 2010 data should be worst than 2001 when the economy was doing rather well. The fact is, large numbers of people are in a job that does not satisfy them, whatever the employment situation. The question is why? The answer is multifactorial.

Before we engage in the reasons, let’s discuss some of the consequences of disengagement. Typically, disengaged individuals tend to simply not care about their work. If people don’t care, they are unlikely to make the necessary efforts to be fully productive. Disengaged people often do the minimum necessary to get by. They do not try to improve or make things better. They do not innovate or help others find new solutions. Their team work is either nonexistent or sufficiently limited to negatively impact the success of the group. Team efforts may tend to simply focus on moral support or commiseration. In fact, disengaged personnel have the potential to foster a negative, even caustic environment thus making true team work even more difficult. Gallup reports that about 18% of the disengaged individuals have a direct and measurable negative impact on their colleagues’ success. In addition, individuals that don’t find value in their work are more absent.

In the USA, it is estimated that about $370 Billion dollars are simply lost via poor productivity, waste, lack of inventiveness, duplication of efforts and other insidious damages caused by disengagement. According to Social Security data, the average wage index for 2010 was $41,673.83. Considering that benefits usually add about 30%, let’s extrapolate that the average job is worth $54,175.98. This means that about 6,829,595 jobs could be created and maintained by re-injecting the $370 Billion dollars in the economy. This is obviously just a number used to illustrate the enormity of the problem. Those “potential” jobs would not necessarily be created. The reduction of waste could certainly result in the generation of a large number of jobs. Some of the major effects could however be in increased investment in R&D, more effective training and development of the work force, improved benefits, better work conditions, enhanced competitiveness, increased corporate profits and stock value.

So, what makes people disengage?

I bet you already have a list of reasons lining up in your head. The usual culprits keep returning. Wrong job, bad environment, lack of leadership and stress account for a number of disengagements or, as we will learn herein, disillusions. Disillusion? Yes, a large number of people disengage because they are let down. Truly, people should know better than to garner false dreams on work and work environments. Or should they? Is it just a dream to hope for an environment that fosters true contribution and optimal use of one’s skills? How many times have you heard or said yourself during interviews: “We are proud of the way we treat people here.” “We will always ensure that you are stimulated and given responsibilities that best suit your abilities and your ambitions.” “We encourage open communication and sharing of ideas.” “We are different.” “We understand and value the work-life balance.”

How many times have the promises materialized in their fullness? How soon do people realize that they are just another tool in the box, nothing special or unique? How often are individuals given responsibilities that are different from what was initially presented? Can you truly speak your mind without being labeled? A large number of people realize that nothing is different. Workers too often face the fact that they have very little support from management and true team work is rare. Data and many sad events show that individuals become dissatisfied, then angry. Bitterness occasionally takes a hold, only to lead into disillusion and finally disengagement. Is this picture exaggeratedly gloomy and unrealistic? The data shows and continues to demonstrate that over 70% of people are disengaged.

This brings us to the different reasons for people to disengage and/or leave their job.

Workplace environment

According to an article by Leigh Branham, 35% of people leave or are dissatisfied because the workplace is not as expected. Either because of false promises, the necessity for you to get a job, any job, lack of questioning and listening during the interview process, unrealistic perspectives or any other related reason, people soon realize, usually within 6 months, that the environment they were expecting has turned out to be much different. One solution to this is to better plan and conduct job interviews. This applies to both the interviewer as well as the interviewee. Looking back at the last 25 years of interviews in which I was a participant (either active or as an observer), I am still amazed as to how lightly they are taken. Too many standardized and predictable questions to which pre-chewed and “let-me-tell-you-what-you-want-to-hear” answers are given. Posturing and game-playing are legion in the interview process. Not enough time is spent on each side discovering the true nature of the other side. I remember saying to interviewees, “Just be yourself; that way if you get the job or if you don’t, it will be for the right reason. It will be much more painful if in 6 months either of us realizes that we made an avoidable mistake.” Just saying this is obviously rarely enough. And quite frankly, if one needs a job, they are unlikely to “risk” not getting one. It is still absolutely necessary to use the interview process to dig deep enough to discover as much as possible on the people involved in order to make the best informed decision. For that we need to understand who we are, clearly define the scope of the job, identify core values first and then the necessary skills. Skills can be trained, values rarely change. It is important to plan effective questions and be able to ask new questions. For this to work, one needs to listen, really listen.

Once people get in the “right” position or job, other issues may surface to generate disengagement.

Lack of recognition

The vast majority of human beings need some level of recognition. Here are a few numbers from the Workforce Tracker Survey (2010). 78% of workers in the US have expressed that being recognized for their efforts is necessary for them to be motivated to do their job. 69% of people would actually work harder if they received proper recognition for their efforts. Of the people confirming they were looking for a new job, only 24% were satisfied with the level of recognition that was given to them currently. These numbers are stunning, especially considering that individuals who are supposed to give recognition and don’t, also seek such recognition. Is it because supervisors do not get recognized that they in turn do not provide recognition? It happens, yes. The other issue is that managers, supervisors and colleagues often think they do provide sufficient and valuable recognition. The simple fact of saying “good job” to someone is not recognition. Especially if it is said without the necessary specifics that need to come with it. Depending on communication styles and motivations, recognition needs to come in different packages. These are a few of the key rules we discuss in our leadership programs about providing feedback. Recognition has to be genuine, specific to each situation, supported by examples, commensurate to the effort and adapted to the style of the person.

Leadership issues

In addition to unstructured recognition and ineffective feedback, leadership is often lacking in inspiring trust. When leadership behaves as if the only thing that counts is their own growth and benefit, it is difficult for trust to settle in and thrive. When feedback is given for what may seem to be the sole purpose of pushing for more results or manipulating people, trust is clearly not created. For years articles and statistics have demonstrated that people do not leave organizations, they leave managers.

Since the beginning of 2010, the Harvard Business Review (HBR) published 34 issues. Out of the 34, 10 address leadership or people management as the main highlighted cover topic. This is roughly 29% of the thousands of pages published in a period during which innovation, competitiveness, green behaviors, profitability, recession, new strategies, change management and many more topics are top of mind and critical in our economic and competitive success. When considering that people create and make products, market them, sell them, service and repair them, it sounds pretty normal that people are considered the most valuable asset of companies. With this in mind it sounds reasonable that HBR allocates about 30% of its efforts on the workforce. Then why is it such a challenge for many corporations to do the same? Simply showing that 30% of operational expenses go to salaries is not demonstrating that the correct efforts are deployed to ensure this investment is managed responsibly.

According to Towers Watson, about 29% of employees said or thought that their managers were sincerely interested in their wellbeing.

Reviewing the AFL-CIO’s annual Executive Paywatch report, CEOs made 380 times more in compensation than the average worker in 2011. That year, CEOs saw their compensation increase by 13.9% compared to the previous year whereas the increase was 2.8% for the average worker. What kind of message are we sending to the mass of people that are actually taking action in helping create the true value of a corporation?

A feeling of not belonging

With the race towards a return to increased profitability, many corporations employ a number of short term tactics. Hiring part time employees through an agency is one way to increase the “hands on deck”. The immediate result is an increase in potential productivity with no additional fixed cost to negatively impact the analysts’ perspective. This creates jobs and has the true potential to bring positive results. One valuable outcome is to identify rising stars or solid potential full employees. However when the “outsiders” are not invited to team meetings or activities, are not trained properly or are not kept informed of key elements impacting their efforts, these people tend to feel “cheap”, “used” and unimportant. They may truly feel like outsiders. They are not able to do their job properly. Whereas some of the part time workers may enjoy the relative anonymity, in other it often results in limited engagement. While the employees should work diligently to benefit their teams and employers, they often spend precious time and effort seeking permanent employment someplace else. But more importantly, this also affects the permanent employees. The workers that “belong” often come to the conclusion that there are “classes” of employees. They hear leaders speak of team work and concerted efforts only to see team members being shunned from their team.

That is just one example, chosen in part because it is more blatant and frequent in times of reduced long term investments in human resources. Internal competition often creates factions within companies making workers cringe or at least question when management talks about being one big family, working together for the benefit of all. Blatant favoritism does not help the “non favorites” to belong. Lack of communication of information that has or may have an impact on people’s efforts does not encourage workers to feel like the company cares about them or their efforts.

Data from Towers Watson tells us that 31% of workers believed that management communicated openly and honestly while “only 3% thought their managers treated them as key parts of the organization”.

Individualism and lack of team work is another problem often identified as a separate issue. I prefer to include it in belonging because at the root, it is the same predicament. Tim Sanders wrote the book Love is the Killer App in 2002. Here, love is the ability to help others grow. Tim discusses the incredibly powerful impact of human relations on business success. Unless we are sociopaths, we all need “love”. We need to be surrounded by people who care and are willing to help. Work should be a place that offers such an environment. It should be a place where a team strives to ensure that each individual is able to use all their talents and constantly develop. It does not mean that we are simply nice to each other and never say bad things. In any team, people confront each other and disagree. They argue points and may be harsh with some of their comments. But if people confront with the express and true intent to make things better for the team, the result is growth for all. Humans are pack animals. We thrive and gain strength in working with others.

Stressed, overworked and unhappy people

In her article titled The Overworked American, Juliet B. Schor describes how workers today work as many hours as they were in the 1920’s. We are spending at least as much time working as we are at home, taking care of our other responsibilities. It has been estimated that Americans have a total of 16 hours a week for true leisure. That is basically 1 full waking day per week if one sleeps 8 hours. But we don’t sleep 8 hours… more studies show that Americans increasingly suffer from sleep disorders. There are more ads on TV for mattresses and sleep numbers than ads for beer… not really but still.

To increase profits and productivity we have adopted the strategy of doing more with less. As a results, close to 50% of Americans say that their job is stressful to a point of being difficult to bare.

According to OECD data, about 48% of Americans will have some kind of mental illness in their lifetime. It is the highest of the industrialized countries surveyed. Considering that the US workers also spends the most time at work than all others, the link between work, stress and bad health need more attention.

Fortunately, many corporations and small businesses have understood the problem. They encourage workers to work less, spend more time exercising, more time with their families. Some encourage flexible hours and remote work. First Tennessee Bank for example, allowed some of its branches to offer flexible hours. As a result, customer-retention rates increase by 7% compared to branches that did not offer flexibility. Even more important, employee retention was twice as much in branches that offered flexible hours.

In 2009 Morgan Redwood reported that in the UK, companies that helped and supported better work-life balance noted an increase of 23% in annual net earnings per employee. The ability to manage their private life rendered the workers more effective, reduced their absenteeism and significantly improved their productivity.

Happy people are more productive. The main title of the January-February issues of HBR is “The Value of Happiness – How Employee Well-Being Drives Profits.” It is fascinating. One articles states that happier employees are 31% more productive resulting in 37% more sales and a stunning 3 fold increase in creativity.

We all need to make a contribution. It is part of our social nature. It is what drives many of our actions. Why are authors writing and publishing books? To be famous, recognized, prove their worth or knowledge and make money; all of the above apply in many cases of course. In the majority of cases however, the drive to write, publish and share is to make a difference, to contribute to something. This applies to all walks of life.

Over 9 Million people have seen the video on Motivation narrated by Dan Pink. Among the many aspects discussed, the need for autonomy, mastery and purpose are discussed and demonstrated. Having a purpose drives people to do better, to push their limits and innovate. It helps them contribute to the success of the team and the company. It gives people significance.

Disengaged individuals rarely have a purpose. They are not driven to contribute to their work environment and colleagues. Not only is this robbing the company and its clients of new ideas, improved services, quality products, effective communication and a plethora of other necessities; it is robbing the person at their core. It is a terrible waste.

We have highlighted earlier that about $370 Billion are lost in productivity every year in the US due to lack of engagement. When I was the Director of Training and Development in a pharmaceutical company, we estimated that the cost of a new hire was $250,000.00 the first year. At one point, for reasons that we cannot address here, we lost 50% of the 60 people we had hired after only 18 months of bringing them in. We had to replace these people. The estimated cost of hiring new people, lost opportunity, time for new hires to be fully functional and other factors, was roughly $8 Million. What would have happened if those people remained engaged and stayed with the company? That, we cannot truly know. But we could certainly feel and see what it cost in efforts, frustration, customer retention and team morale.


1. Improve the quality of hiring

As mentioned earlier, both hiring managers and people seeking employment need to better define their needs and ask questions that will help them determine as closely as possible, what the other side has to offer and how it will be offered. In a recent survey we completed, preliminary results show that 74% of respondents indicate that “Engaging people in a dialogue” happens either sometimes or rarely. At the same time, the same people say that this ability is important or absolutely important in 94% of cases. When looking at the “Ability to ask insightful questions”, we are told that the skill is expressed rarely or sometimes in 65% of cases. 96% of these people tell us that this ability is important or absolutely important. Planning and conducting interviews is not difficult. Structures are in place to guide us. People just need to give it the proper attention. A few hours can save millions of dollars in productivity.

2. Ensure that leaders are able to provide guidance, feedback and recognition.

In too many cases, supervisors do not spend the necessary amount of time coaching and developing their teams. An increasing number of hours are allocated to management issues such as budgets, forecasts, resources allocation, organizing or attending meetings and other similar activities. While these managerial activities are indeed necessary and often quite important, the problem resides in the time allocation ratio between these activities and leadership/guidance efforts. What do you think is a productive ratio? Should we spend and equal amount on each? Or do we need to invest more in guidance and coaching time? What is coaching/leadership? When guidance comes in a memo outlining the sales to objectives, the success or failure to do so and a list of measures to compensate, this is not coaching. It is not even close to expressing leadership. Managers and supervisors need to spend time effectively communicating with their people, providing reasons for certain decisions. While it is true that not everything can or should be shared, the more people understand decisions, the more they are likely to follow through with optimal action. It is also important to recognize that actions may not be the same for all people in a team. The information may not mean the same thing to all. Each individual will not react equally to another. Leaders that understand their people, their differences and their specific needs are better able to adapt their interventions more effectively. Coaching is one of the buzz words of the new millennium. We have engaged in more training programs on coaching in the last 5 years that ever before. What is your view of coaching? Is it too much of a touchy-feely type of thing? Very few managers are trained psychologists and quite frankly, they are not expected to be therapists. Effective coaching applies methods that are meant to develop people and ensure they use their full potential. The result of better and more adapted coaching is more often than not, increased productivity, and happier people…

3. Better understand motivation and apply its principles in the work environment.

Motivation is one of the least understood concepts in business; and that, in spite of numerous studies and proven methodologies. It was mentioned earlier how First Tennessee Bank allowed some of its branches to offer flexible hours. Customer-retention rates increase by 7% compared to branches that did not offer flexibility and employee retention was twice as much. One of the reasons to explain this is that people are self motivated. There are 4 key motivators according to our research and methodologies: Social, Prize, Task and Conformity. The task motivation may be one reason for First Tennessee’s success. Individuals that are able to determine the optimal environment to accomplish tasks usually feel better about the quality of the outcome. In addition, people were able to perform their job in an environment that actually allowed them to do so at the same time as taking care of their family. Therefore, Social motivation may also have played a role. Remember, people were offered to work flexible hours and that motivated some of them. The point is that motivation is different from one person to the other. If, as in most cases, we offer only one form of motivation (Prize for example in the form of monetary incentives), we only satisfy a portion of the workforce.

4. Invest in the development and maintenance of effective team work.

Imagine any of the professional teams that won their respective overall titles (championship) and ask yourself, could they have done without the whole team working together? Beckham cannot play by himself and win against 11 opposite players; nor could Gretzky, DiMaggio, Favre or any other. A team is made of different people with different skills and varied personalities. Each member has to contribute to the best of his/her abilities. Each member has to recognize and celebrate the contribution of the others. They all need to work together on a common goal. Each member of a team is more engaged when their contribution is valued at its just level and when investments (time and/or other resources) are made in their personal development.

5. Reduce undue stress and contribute to healthy work-life balance.

Encouraging people to have that well documented work-life balance is not enough. Corporations, teams and small companies need to live it. Have you ever seen company posters and newsletters clearly stating that work and life should be balanced only to observe these companies actually turn around and have no quandary asking people to stay in the office until 9 or 10 pm with uncanny regularity? We have witnessed top managers clearly stating that the most important thing any sales person could do is find the right customer, even if it means less of them on a given period just to turn around at the end of a quarter, insisting that numbers are hit at any cost. Stress more often than not comes from uncertainly, mixed messages and the inability to perform a role in a somewhat predictable environment. Companies and leaders need to understand that affective1 learning is the most powerful tool to teach people how to behave. It is our actions that speak, not our words.

6. Foster an environment of trust and respect.

It is absolutely true that not all things should or can be shared with all people. This being said, we often underestimate the ability for people to handle the truth. According to our methodology, trust comes from the balanced combination of communication, listening and understanding. People have to receive the information they need to accomplish their work. Individuals and teams need to be listened to. And both communication and listening have to aim at a better understanding of reasons, motivations and necessary actions. Ask yourself: What causes me to trust? What do I need to be able to trust? What will I do to foster trust?

7. Provide the opportunity for each person to contribute.

I mentioned earlier that each person is motivated by something different. A person mainly motivated by the quality of their task will require the ability (environment) to accomplish such a task in the best possible way and in order to be internally proud of the finished product. If, as a manager, I only encourage individuals to accomplish a task based on the bonus they will receive, I may be in fact, de-motivating that person. The individual may not be motivated by the bonus. If their purpose is to continuously do better, we need to encourage that. If the motivation of a person is to help the team, we need to provide the opportunity to do so. If the team contribution is not necessary to the objective, we need to either find a way to also make it so, find another socially oriented purpose for the individual or reconsider the role of that person altogether. Watch Dan Pink on YouTube on this:

8. Incentivize according to individual needs and values

Money is NOT a motivator. 3M has shown it in the 50’s and studies continue to support the data. Money is necessary in our lives. We need it and seek it. Money is a tool to provide shelter, food, pleasure, prestige, independence, etc… Because money is the way to get to the real need, it has been generally accepted that money is the most simple and effective way to incentivize people. The best way to use money is to make it irrelevant. If people are paid or compensated sufficiently to make money a non issue (people can pay their bills, have a home, enjoy some vacation, take care of their children, etc… ) people become more productive and increasingly happy at work. Once again, money is just a means to an end. If we help people get to the end, we truly help them be productive. I remember one very specific situation. At one point, to ensure that contract obligations would be fulfilled, the corporation needed to make more customer calls. Management came up with a nice little competition. For every additional “x” number of calls made, people would get “y” amount of dollars; simple enough and based on a monetary reward (Prize). One of the sales people came to us and said approximately the following: “I am tired of those schemes to make me work harder. On one hand we are asked to make quality calls and now, quantity is the key word. Why not just explain the situation, discuss how we can balance quality and quantity and let me figure out how and how much I can do. After all, this is my job, I don’t need a stupid competition to make me get up in the morning and perform.” Many may react and say that this person is clearly competition averse and probably not be in the right job. That could have been the case, but not here. This was one of the most effective sales people in the team and in addition, she had an Olympic gold medal at home, sitting next to numerous international awards, to demonstrate that competition was not an issue. That person simply wanted to communicate, understand and be listened to.

Incentive programs need to be better adapted to individuals, their needs and motivations. Incentivizing also means that we need to help people find a purpose in their work.

So, many of us are truly lucky to have a job, a job to which they can relate and that helps in making a valuable contribution. Others don’t seem to have the same perspective. Disengagement at work is one of the most costly realities we have to face. The dollar cost is tremendous. What about the people cost? What about our ability to innovate, to be competitive and to adapt to an ever changing environment? Solutions are available. Most are simple and relatively easy to implement. Making people happy at work is not a touchy-feely concept; it is a sound business strategy.

Philippe Glaude, M.Sc.

Aseret Congruence LLC

1. Affective: Caused by or expressing emotions or feelings. Affective learning refers to internalization of skills or behaviors through observation and the feelings that are generated by such observations.


More From
The Blog