How to address rampant employee disengagement
By: Trevor Wilson
Take a look at the chart below. What do you see? It represents the engagement of the U.S. workforce over the past 12 years. It shows the percentage of the workforce actively disengaged, not engaged and engaged at work. Give yourself points if you noticed that since the millennium started, the percentage of workers engaged at work has rarely gone above 30%. You may also notice that the vast majority of workers (70%) are either not engaged or actively disengaged at work. Should that be a cause for concern? Absolutely!
The actively disengaged are employees who are physically present but psychologically absent. These are the approximately 20% of the workforce who are not only unhappy with their work situation, they also insist on sharing this unhappiness with their colleagues, thus poisoning the work environment for everyone else. A friend of mine is a living case study of a disengaged worker. He proudly displays a large coffee cup on his desk that reads “some days the best thing about my job is that the chair spins.”
While there is no doubt that dealing with the actively disengaged is a major part of addressing disengagement, the more important group to look at is the 50% of workers who are not engaged. Gallup, which conducted this survey, estimates that the millions of disengaged or not engaged workers cost the North American economy between $450 and $550 billion each year in lost productivity.
The disengaged and not engaged employees are those who show up every day to collect their paycheck; do a sufficient amount of work to justify their employment, and leave every day at 5 p.m. on the dot. Less than a third of Americans are engaged in their work and even fewer are actively engaged -- enthusiastic, energetic and passionate about what they are doing. This small portion is the group that’s likely to exhibit discretionary effort, going beyond what is expected of them in their job description. That’s something required today in the age of doing more with less.
Engaging employees is an issue I have been working on for more than three decades. It started in the early 1980s when there was a startling statistic being bantered around that scared the heck out of me: More than 90% of people surveyed actually hated their job!
I was in my undergraduate studies at university at the time and promised myself I would never enter that group. My plan was to apply for graduate school and stay there until I figured out what I really wanted to do. After a few years I came to the end of the runway (and bank account) and was forced to enter the big, bad world of full-time work. Imagine my horror when I landed a job overseen by someone I absolutely hated working for -- what we call a “boss-hole” (see definition below). In other words, I wound up in the heart of the 90% group.
I am convinced that today, with universal access to information about available jobs thanks to the internet and the lower social stigma associated with frequent job changes, the percentage of people who hate their job has declined significantly. However, the figures in the chart above convince me that the percentage of people who hate their jobs is still more than 50%.
Recently I took my decades of work on employee engagement and put it in a book called The Human Equity Advantage. Human equity may be the answer to turning around employee engagement. This new management model seeks to optimize the unique assets each employee brings to the workplace; the intangible strengths that are often unrecognized and thus under-utilized within organizations. I firmly believe recognizing and leveraging human equity in the private, public and public sector can reduce the incredible waste of talent and human capital that contributes to rampant employee disengagement and non engagement.
This all starts with effective leadership and management. We have all heard the truism that people choose to join an organization but end up quitting their boss. Last year the Conference Board business membership and research association issued an important report on leadership, which included the following quote:
“For years, major companies around the world have devoted significant attention and resources to management competencies and developing leadership readiness, defined as sufficient leadership strength to meet anticipated challenges. In recent years, however a combination of forces -- including growth, competition, demographics and organizational change have put increasing pressure on companies’ efforts to evolve the role of the leader in order to attract, retain and develop the best talent.”
In other words the leader and manager are a key part of the solution for employee engagement. Many organizations think the answer is some type of “Let’s Get Engaged” Human Resources program that includes “sheep dip” training of every employee hoping to get them more engaged. Actually, the real solution is to pay attention to the day-to-day behavior of leaders and managers and how they treat their employees.
In 2007 Robert Sutton wrote a book with the not so politically correct title The No Asshole Rule. In the book, Sutton introduced the idea of a group of mean-spirited leaders in most organizations who have enormous impact on employee engagement in the work environment. This group now commonly called “boss holes” regularly abuse their power to get their way, using fear to motivate and manipulate their employees.
The formal definition of this group, according to Sutton, is “those who persistently leave others demeaned, disrespected and de-motivated and have a persistent pattern of contempt for those with less status and power.” The most interesting thing about this group of leaders is that once you have identified who they are you can calculate exactly what they are costing you in terms of employee disengagement and non-engagement.
For a quick way to identify your organization’s “bossholes,” the real source of employee disengagement and non-engagement, seek out the Boss-Hole assessment in The Human Equity Advantage. Find out how many of your leaders are part of the top 10% and how many are temporary bossholes, borderline bossholes or truly certified bossholes. This can be one of the most important things you can do to seriously address rampant employee disengagement.
About Trevor Wilson
Trevor Wilson is the CEO of TWI Inc. and creator of the human equity management model. He is the global diversity, inclusion and human equity strategist who regularly speaks at corporate functions. TWI’s clients include some of the most progressive global employers in the world, including Coca-Cola, Ernst & Young, BNP Paribas and Home Depot. TWI’s trademarked human equity approach was instrumental in catapulting Coca-Cola’s South Africa division to the top performing division worldwide.