Employee engagement isn’t as bad as the surveys say

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How come every other article I read on employee engagement begins by quoting alarming figures on the state of the global workforce?

They all seem to be a variation of this:

Less than 15 percent of employees worldwide are engaged in their work. The majority of employees are psychologically absent from their workplace and are unlikely to make positive contributions.”

We should be concerned about engagement, but …

I understand why the authors of these articles dwell on these numbers. They want to emphasize the huge employee engagement problem.

I don’t blame them and don’t disagree.

Every organization should be concerned about engagement. That’s obvious. But these articles usually go on to prescribe solutions to the “employee engagement crisis.”

Is employee engagement really that bad?

Myths versus facts

These quotes are meant to scare you into hiring a consultant to prevent your employees from bolting. But this 15% number is misleading.

Polling companies arrive at this disturbing 15% because they make engagement binary: You’re either fully engaged or fully disengaged. Bu they might measure employee engagement on a 1-5 scale, with five equaling full engagement.

If 15 percent of your workers score fives, the polling company will say the 85 percent who scored a 1-4 (4 isn’t necessarily a bad score) are disengaged!

Voilà. Scary numbers.

Let’s apply common sense. Do you really think more than three-quarters of your workforce couldn’t care less about work?

That goes against human nature. It regresses to the thinking of decades ago. That thinking assumed that workers will try to do as little as possible—and may even indulge in sabotage.

I’m not opposed to surveys and polling. It’s a big part of what my company, DecisionWise, does. But employee engagement surveys should be precision tools, not blunt instruments. We should apply the results with restraint, or we’ll make critical business decisions based on a faulty interpretation of what’s going on.

The employee engagement spectrum

Engagement isn’t binary. It’s a continuum, a spectrum of levels that change over time.

For example, if I were a steward on a trans-Pacific flight, and you asked me how engaged I was in hour no. 13 of a 16-hour flight, I would likely skew your engagement scale. At that moment, engagement won’t even register for me.

But that’s not how I view my job; I love what I do. It’s engagement over time that makes the difference.

Recently my company, DecisionWise, updated our three-year rolling database that includes results from more than 14 million employee engagement survey responses. We broke the results into four categories.

Our results told a far different story about engagement than the usual narrative of the major engagement pollsters. Here’s what we found:

1. Fully engaged (23 percent of respondents to our surveys)

These are an organization’s most enthusiastic champions. Their excitement is evident and contagious. They love their jobs, constantly learn, take calculated risks, stretch their comfort zones, take gratification in the quality of their work. They feel that work can be stressful, but also fun.

2. Key contributors (49 percent of respondents)

These workers meet performance expectations, do what they know without taking many risks, respond well to leadership, don’t often feel challenged, and while they don’t necessarily love their jobs, contribute and are involved.

We call these people the “strong and steady.” They make up the bulk of the workforce. Their work is mostly transactional, rarely transformational. They get things done, but invest limited time in innovating, improving processes or departing from the status quo.

It’s the difference between the chicken and the pig in a bacon-and-egg breakfast: The chicken is involved, but the pig is committed. These employees are involved, but far from putting their all into their work.

3. Opportunity group (24 percent of respondents)

They generally feel under-used, spend a lot of work time attending to personal needs, do enough to get by, don’t get in trouble, seldom speak up, work mainly for the pay, and often mark time.

In our interviews and focus groups, we’ve found that many in this group are potential top performers who are burned out. These persons are often difficult to identify. They disengage and suffer in silence, checking out mentally and emotionally. They don’t make noise, but their contributions are limited. They are the undecided vote.

As the group name implies, there is a good chance of swaying this group to higher engagement. But if you don’t do anything, they will leave you either physically or psychologically.

4. Disengaged (4 percent of respondents)

They are bored and frustrated, blame others for their failures, and say negative things about work, company and leadership. Rather than quit, they stay and sabotage things, consciously or unconsciously.

They are often an organization’s most vocal, negatively contagious group. They can be cancerous, toxic. Some leaders discount this group because it’s small, yet just one of these individuals can significantly harm a team.

Because these individuals voice their dissatisfaction, management often spends a great deal of unproductive time addressing their demands.


Be concerned, but the sky isn’t falling

People move in and out of these four categories depending on the environment, incentives and where they are in their careers and lives. It’s a complex, fluid model that better captures the makeup of an organization than the alarming (and inaccurate) statistics.

Any claim that 85 percent of your employees are job hunting is a myth. Our research shows that even during the recent deep recession, less than 11 percent of employees sought new employment.

Why this employee loyalty? A tough global economy over the past decade may be a factor, but more important is the reality that under-engagement does not mean destructive disengagement. Jobs evolve. Opportunities change. People advance.

Is there cause for concern? Yes.

Is the sky falling? To claim 85 percent of the workforce could care less doesn’t make sense. If that were the case, you would have been out of business long ago.

Tracy Maylett is the chief executive officer and president of DecisionWise, a management consulting firm specializing in leadership and organization development using assessments, feedback, coaching and training. This article is from his recently released book, “MAGIC: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Employee Engagement.” 

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