Can We Recover From the Disease of Disengagement?

Employee engagement is at an all time low. Here's what it means for corporate culture and what you can do about it.
Business and Workplace Author, Speaker, and Consultant, AlexandraLevit.com
February 16, 2012

There’s a reason why employee engagement is the new buzz phrase in HR circles. The epidemic is out of control.

Gallup has been in the employee engagement business for more than 10 years, but its latest research report shows that we have reached a crisis point. In American organizations, an astounding 71 percent of employees are either not engaged in their work or actively disengaged.

The disconnect runs deep

And it gets worse. Recent research from RogenSI and Maritz states that 91 percent of employees are experiencing unstable motivation, and 23 percent of employees are showing five or more symptoms of clinical depression. Only 14 percent of employees feel their companies’ values align with their own, and a mere 12 percent feel their company actually listens to them and cares about them.

And the disease is catching

Fortunately, experts like Terry Murphy, managing partner of Performance Transformation, and Kevin Sheridan, senior vice president of HR Solutions and author of the bestselling book Building a Magnetic Culture, think that recovery is possible. But we have to act now.

“Since misery loves company, disengaged employees often seek out other employees and drag them into the malaise of negativity. Managers should be aware that these vampire-like employees can quickly suck positivity from co-workers if given the chance,” says Sheridan. “And if, for whatever reason, you tolerate underperformers and people you are fundamentally uneasy about trusting, you and your organization will suffer the costs.”

Every manager can make a difference

As for what you can do to improve the level of engagement in your organization, Murphy suggests taking the following steps with each disengaged employee. Small-business owners may find this approach easier than big-business managers do because they often have more daily and personal one-on-one contact with their employees.

  • Express authentic empathy for the disengaged employee.  Be fully present and conduct a dynamic conversation to gain insights into their concerns, desires and disappointments.
  • Co-create a professional development plan with the employee, emphasizing that the process is to be framed by their needs and desires and not purely for the good of the company.
  • Meet to review their progress every three to four months.  Provide encouragement and honest feedback.
  • Throw out annual performance reviews and use the new plan as a continuous feedback loop on performance.  Performance reviews are judgmental in their very nature, whereas you now have a positive and supportive approach that empowers the employee.
  • Require feedback on any new strategies, programs or initiatives in your domain.  Hold the space for employees to challenge your perspective, leaving your ego at the door.

In his book and on his upcoming webinar, Sheridan recommends that managers keep in mind the 10 major employee engagement drivers: recognition, career development, strong leadership, clear strategy and mission, focused job content, senior management relationship with employees, open and effective communication, co-worker cooperation, availability of resources and, of course, organizational culture.

Spread good vibes

“Also, encourage all employees to get to know the people who are engaged,” Sheridan says.  “Since engaged employees aren’t negatively affected by others, it’s a good idea to use them as mentors. At the end of the day, success is about people. If you employ amazing people and engage them properly, everything else will fall into place.”

Alexandra Levit is a former nationally-syndicated business and workplace columnist for The Wall Street Journal and the author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to SuccessMoney magazine’s Online Career Expert of the Year, she regularly speaks at organizations and conferences on issues facing modern employees.

Illustration by Russell Christian