Engaging The Unengaged: Part 1– Some Facts


In his book Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul ) CEO Howard Schultz writes,  Like crafting the perfect cup of coffee, creating an engaging, respectful, trusting workplace culture is not the result of any one thing. It’s a combination of intent, process, and heart, a trio that must constantly be fine-tuned.”

Employee engagement is now a critical factor in moving employees to “go the extra mile” in terms of their work effort. However, studies suggest that businesses seem to be at a critical tipping point in their ability to maintain engagement over time.

An illuminating new Gallup poll found that only 30% of all full-time workers in America are involved in, enthusiastic about, or committed to their work. In other words, engaged – and  70% of  all U.S. workers are not reaching their full potential. According to the study, one significant causal factor for employee disengagement is that employee’s hearts are not into their work.  About 18% are “actively disengaged,” meaning they’ve gone beyond just checking out mentally and could even be harming workplace relationships and colleagues’ accomplishments through emotional contagion.

This goes to the essence of engagement –  “Employees are engaged only to the extent that they are emotionally available to be so,” which ties directly to their willingness to go the extra mile for their company. This may seem obvious, but it is not—at least not to managers who are still focused on conventional managerial tactics as the solution in their attempt to create engagement. Traditional managers tend to apply pressure when they perceive disengagement, ignoring the reality of emotions and their effect on people’s abilities to be engaged.

Depending on the emotions that are triggered at work, employees will either be less available or more available to be fully engaged in their work.  The feelings themselves determine the path that will be taken.   Emotions are always present…and until the emotional component is addressed, employees cannot fully engage. This is the major missing link in many efforts to engage or re-engage workers.  Too many organizations and managers still go to the old employee perks goody bag to solve long-term problems with questionable short-term solutions. This is not to say that these incentives are wholly ineffective, but without substantive changes in employee relationships and cultural environment, they offer little more than temporary distraction from deeper problems.

Gallup estimates that disengaged employees cost U.S. businesses between $450 to $550 billion each year due to high absenteeism, turnover, quality-control issues and lost productivity.

What exactly is engagement?

According to Scarlett Surveys, “Employee engagement is a measurable degree of an employee’s positive or negative emotional attachment to their job, colleagues and organization that profoundly influences their willingness to learn and perform at work”.

Gallup defines “engaged” employees as those who are involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and contribute to their organization in a positive manner.

Using the term ‘sustainable engagement” Towers Watson describes engagement as the willingness of an employee to “go the extra mile” (discretionary effort) and the intensity of their connection to their organization.  Engagement, as traditionally defined, is not enough to give employers the “sustained” performance lift and efficiency they need in today’s high-pressured, technological and global workplace.

 The need for security

These studies continue to show that financial and professional security is a major concern. Roughly four out of 10 respondents prefer a guaranteed retirement benefit rather than smaller salary increases or bonuses. 54% percent often worry about their future financial state, and 56% agree retirement security is more important today than just a few years ago.

Stress and anxiety are natural outgrowths of these legitimate concerns. It becomes very difficult to focus and replenish ones’ energy when chronic anxiety about job security is the norm.  With employee cutbacks that reset the stage for the American workforce as a result of the 08/09 recession, most non C-suite employees have been asked to do more with less.  The  Gallup poll also reflects that outcome – with almost four out of 10 respondents (38%) are bothered by excessive pressure on the job.

While employee retention depends far more on the quality of an  employees’ relationship with their managers – trust in senior leadership and their ability to manage stress on the job is at a low-point. Just under half of the respondents agree their organization’s senior leaders have a sincere interest in employee well-being.  Fewer than half of the respondents believe their direct supervisors have enough time to handle the people aspects of their jobs. Low trust + low touch + high pressure   = unprecedented stress levels and growing alienation from position, manager and organization.

As indicated in the Towers Watson study the root of the problem lies in two critical areas that have become essential to sustainable engagement: the first is effectively enabling workers by providing internal support, resources and tools and second; creating an environment that’s energizing to work in because it promotes physical, emotional and social wellbeing.  When it comes to actions that can support both enablement and energy, few things can have as much immediate impact as an effective relationship with one’s direct manager.

Drivers of Sustainable Engagement

As I’ve mentioned in many of my articles – business transactions are done through people not machines – and this no more clear than the results indicated in the Towers Watson and Gallup studies. The drivers of sustainable engagement fall into two areas: culture and the relational aspects of the work experience.

Creating an organizational culture that encourages employee engagement is essential. A leader’s ability to lead the company in the right direction and openly communicate the state of the organization is key in driving engagement.

While policies, programs and other cultural issues play a major role, they are secondary to the importance and role of relational dynamics.

A Dale Carnegie and MSW ARS Research, Inc. study of the functional and emotional elements that affect employee engagement revealed three key emotional elements that drive employee engagement:

  • Relationship with immediate supervisor
  • Belief in senior leadership
  • Pride in working for the company

All roads lead back to workplace relationships and the people side of business. It is the personal relationship between an employee and their immediate supervisor that is the key ingredient in enhancing employee engagement.

In study after study the message is clear – but what will it take  for organizations and leaders to make the changes necessary to re-engage  the workforce?  We’ll take a closer look in Part 2 at one critical part of re-engagement – relationships.

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. 

George Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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2 thoughts on “Engaging The Unengaged: Part 1– Some Facts

  1. Hi Charles, thanks for the thoughtful response. Employee engagement surveys do have value, as long as they’re surveying the appropriate dynamics…for instance, emotional intelligence and relational factors. Looking forward to hearing from you again.


  2. Pingback: Nailing Employee Engagement | Gibson

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