Dealing with the disengaged

By Chris Helm

Chris is fascinated by how people and businesses connect their aspirations together to create mutual benefit.

So it’s that time of year again – the annual (or bi-annual) engagement survey has been sent round and everybody is eagerly anticipating the results.

First result, the engagement score is up (celebrate wildly); second result, people want to be paid more (avoid eye contact and move on quickly); third result, 30% of respondents on the graduate scheme wanted more training. Cue the big response – put heads together, free up budget, form a working group and get ready to deliver more training. But why? Most businesses react in this way as they’re looking to show that they’re listening to employees and trying to improve engagement rates. But how many people who work in businesses (except those in HR and those who run the business) do you know that care about the engagement score? Chances are it’s a pretty low number.

Granted, everybody wants to be listened to, but in that respect engagement surveys are a pretty poor way of getting anything worth listening to. Typically, the people who spend the most time filling them out are the people who are having a shitty day, week or even month or those who’ve just had a run-in with their manager. The information you get tells you little about the things that are working well and motivating people to deploy discretionary effort and actively be more productive.

The picture above shows a simple way in which we can classify the engaged populations in any organisation. The strategy for each is simple:

  • Actively engaged – work closely with them to identify the environmental and cultural factors that are contributing to the high levels of engagement. Reward great performance accordingly.
  • Slightly engaged – identify what’s holding them back. Struggling with a certain aspect of work? Clearer goals needed?
  • Slightly disengaged – there’s generally something that’s tipped the balance in the wrong direction. Identify if it’s an endemic factor and endeavour to remove it. Otherwise, train managers to work more closely with staff to create personal pull/motivational factors.
  • Actively disengaged – help them to see the door. Often, disengaged employees have made a bad choice of job or career. But the sad truth is that most people won’t admit it to themselves and seek for someone else to blame or something to push back against rather than facing up to their own poor decisions and moving on. Let them know that it’s okay to leave or to look for a new job and that you’re happy to help them work out how if they need a bit of a hand.

Curt Coffman of Gallup says, “Engaged employees produce more, they make more money for the company, they create emotional engagement with the customers they serve, and they create environments where people are productive and accountable.”

But most engagement surveys typically get you information about what the actively disengaged population are thinking and feeling. And putting all your effort into fixing their issues doesn’t fix the problem, it just sets them off looking for something else to moan about. Research shows that when someone is actively disengaged, they spend more time working against the aims of the business than they do working for it. If businesses spent a little more time listening to the highly engaged people and less time pandering to the whingers, there would be a lot more engagement in engagement surveys!

So here are some top tips for finding out what the actively engaged folks think:

  • Conduct stayers interviews
  • Train team leaders to recognise high engagement and identify the conditions that create it
  • Find the hot spots – look for teams and departments that consistently perform well, have lower absence and attrition rates and higher profit margins. The chances are, there are some identifiable and replicable conditions staring you right in the face.

So what are you waiting for? Put down that engagement report and start talking to people.


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