How to Get Disengaged Employees to Go the Extra Mile

Are you losing money because your employees aren't fully engaged? Check out these proven ideas for getting your staff to give you their best.
February 21, 2013

Some employees rest before they're tired. Others perk up in the parking lot at 5 o'clock. Some quit long ago, but have forgotten to tell you. All these employees show up to work every day and give you the minimum effort to stay afloat. Some eventually leave, taking with them their knowledge, experience and on-the-job training. We call these employees "the disengaged." A study shows that disengaged employees cost U.S. businesses $11 billion annually. The global situation isn't much better.

Many business owners and enterprise leaders try to cope with the disengagement by sending employees to accountability training. Accountability training typically focuses on topics such as creating SMART goals, clarifying expectations, empowering employees, establishing regular progress reviews and giving appropriate feedback. But a year later, even though everyone is now well-trained on the accountability cycle, the needle of engagement hasn't moved. Why is that?

That's because leaders need to look behind the curtain at the more prevalent causes for disengagement. Gary Hamel, professor at London Business School and one of the world's top 50 Thinkers, puts it this way: "By far, the greatest untapped source of wealth and potential in any organization is all those people who have chosen on that particular day not to bring their imagination to work, not to bring their passion to work, not to bring their initiative to work ... and the capabilities that we need most of our employees, their imagination, initiative ... are exactly the capabilities that are most difficult to command. You cannot tell someone to show initiative or to be creative ... those are literally gifts that people choose to bring into work every day or they don't."

As Hamel says, the question a manager needs to ask himself is not "How do I get people to serve my company?" but rather, "How do I create the work environment and a sense of purpose that literally merits the gifts of creativity and passion?" Hamel provides several tips, which include dramatically reducing the level of fear in organizations; depoliticizing decision making (so decisions are the result of good ideas, not political power); democratizing information (so information is not used as a political weapon), and reducing the power of traditional hierarchy.

If you struggle with employee disengagement and a lack of accountability, the following tips can help you turn that around.

Take a good look at all the leaders in your organization. Research shows that one of the most important factors that affects employee engagement is the relationship with one's immediate manager. Evaluate all your leaders, from the back office supervisors to the vice presidents—everyone who is directly in charge of others. There is no doubt that people flee bad managers. So, what do good managers do? A worldwide study of engagement shows that the managers who fuel engagement exhibit these specific behaviors: they are personally involved, they delegate and utilize their employees' talents, they don't withhold recognition, they actively foster a sense of community and belonging, and they provide feedback and coaching. Does every manager in your company do this?

Institute a reverse accountability program. This idea comes from Vineet Nayar, CEO of HCL Technologies, a global provider of IT services. The company is recognized as the best employer in India. One of its core values is the belief that all managers are equally accountable to their employees. To put this into practice, all 5,000 leaders in the company undergo a reverse 360 assessment. This gives employees a chance to evaluate their managers, for development purposes. All 80,000 employees worldwide can access the results on the Web. You can hear more about the success of this approach in Nayar's video interview with Karl Moore, associate professor at the University of McGill.

Assess these 12 conditions. The Gallup Organization developed a 12-point gauge of conditions that best predict employee engagement. These are 12 simple but powerful conditions that every manager should consider. They include statements such as "At work, my opinions seem to count" and "In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work."  Would everyone in your shop be able to answer "yes" to these? The full 12-point list is available in Feedback For Real, a Gallup Business Journal article.

Understand what drives people. If you're an old-school manager, you may be thinking that the carrot and stick approach is the best way to control people and push them to be more accountable. As Daniel H. Pink discovered in Drive: The Surprising Truth of What Motivates Us, once basic financial needs are met—that is, once people are paid adequately for what they do—what truly motivates people is Autonomy (the need to direct their own lives), Mastery (the urge to continue to get better at something that matters) and Purpose (the desire to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves). Get to know your people on a human level. Focus not only on knowing their strengths, but also on what their unique drivers are so you can tailor your approach for best results.

Offer a cafeteria of motivators. If tight budgets prevent you from offering the compensation that people require, consider offering other motivators. A recent survey of employees revealed incentives that can work for some people, including a flexible schedule, an opportunity to make a difference in their jobs, telecommuting, more challenging work, academic reimbursement and even having their own private office. All these are low-cost incentives to consider.

Eradicate unfairness. Fairness is treating people equitably without favoritism or bias. A sense of fairness is hardwired in us—nothing demotivates us faster than working in situations where getting ahead is not a function of what you know, but who you know. A recent study shows that the number-one reason people get sick is perceived unfairness at work. The emotional hurt associated with unfairness triggers the same neurophysiologic pathways present in physical pain. (My article "Monkey Business: Fairness in the Workplace" provides seven tips to help you promote fairness on your team.)

Does all this mean that accountability training doesn't count? On the contrary, knowing what constitutes accountability in your workplace is important; however, accountability training on its own is not the panacea for what's wrong with the engagement scores in an organization. For that, leaders need to step back and build a great place to work. They need to pay attention to a fundamental and often overlooked truth about people: How people feel profoundly affects whether or not they will go the extra mile for you. 

Read more articles on leadership and management.

Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

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