Is Employee Engagement Really As Bad As the Surveys Say It Is?

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Jan 21, 2015

Why is it that 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 variation on a theme, something along the lines of:

Less than 15 percent of employees across the globe are engaged in their work. The vast majority of employees are psychologically absent from their workplace, and are unlikely to be making a positive contribution.”

We all should be concerned about engagement, but …

I understand why the authors of these various articles reference these numbers. They are trying to emphasize the huge employee engagement problem that exists today.

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

Engagement (or the lack thereof) is something that every organization should be concerned about. These articles usually go on to prescribe a few solutions to fix the “huge employee engagement crisis” we have on our hands.

But, is employee engagement really that bad?

Myths versus facts

These “scare quotes” are designed to do exactly that: Scare you into hiring a consultant to help prevent all your employees from bolting. But these numbers are misleading.

Polling companies arrive at these frightful figures because they make engagement a binary equation: You’re either fully engaged or fully disengaged. 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 take the other 85 percent who score 1–4 (and a “4” is not necessarily a bad score) and say they’re disengaged! Voilà — scary numbers.

Let’s apply some common sense here. Do you really think that over three-quarters of your workforce could care less about what happens at work?

That goes against basic human nature, and regresses to the prevalent thinking decades ago that workers will try to do as little as possible, and may even throw in some subtle sabotage in the process.

We’re not opposed to surveys and polling. Quite the contrary; that’s a big part of what we do at DecisionWise. But employee engagement surveys should be precision tools, not blunt instruments, and the results should be applied with restraint. Otherwise, we’re likely to make critical business decisions based on a faulty interpretation of what’s really going on with our organization.

The employee engagement spectrum

Engagement isn’t binary. It’s a continuum, a spectrum. There are many levels, and they change over time.

For example, if you ask me how engaged I am in my work while I’m about to hit hour 13 of a 16-hour flight, I’m likely to skew your engagement scale. At that moment, engagement for me won’t even register.DecisionWise-Employee-Engagement-Benchmark

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

We break down the results into four categories, based on what we’ve gathered from over 14 million employee engagement survey responses:

  • Fully Engaged (23 percent of respondents to our surveys) — These are the most enthusiastic champions of the organization, whose excitement is palpable and contagious. They are constantly learning and taking calculated risks; feel that they are able to stretch beyond their comfort zone; take personal gratification in the quality of their work; feel that while work can be stressful, it can also be fun; and love their jobs.
  • Key Contributors (49 percent of respondents) — They meet performance expectations, do what they know well without taking many risks, respond well to leadership, don’t often feel challenged, and while they don’t necessarily love their jobs, are actively contributing and involved in the day-to- day. We call these people the “strong-and-steady.” They make up the bulk of the workforce, and they generally perform. But the majority of their work is transactional, rather than transformational. They get things done, but they typically invest limited time in innovating, improving processes, or breaking from the status quo. It goes back to the old joke about the difference between the chicken and the pig in a bacon-and-egg breakfast: The chicken is involved; the pig is committed. These employees are involved, but they are far from putting their all into their work.
  • Opportunity Group (24 percent of respondents) — They generally feel underutilized, spend a lot of work time taking care of personal needs, do enough to get by and not get in trouble, seldom speak up, work mainly for the pay, and are basically marking time. In our interviews and focus groups with these individuals, we have found that many in the Opportunity Group are actually potential top performers who are burned out. It’s often difficult to identify these individuals, as 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 name implies, there is a huge opportunity to sway this group to a higher level of engagement. However, if nothing is done, they will leave the organization, either physically or psychologically.
  • Disengaged (4 percent of respondents) — They are bored and frustrated; say negative things about the work, the company, and its leadership; tend to blame others for their failures; and rather than quit, tend to stay on and, consciously or unconsciously, sabotage things. They are often the most vocal and negatively contagious group within the organization. They can be cancerous and toxic. Many leaders discount this group because of their small numbers. Yet having even one of these individuals on a team can have a significant negative impact. On the other hand, because these individuals tend to be quite vocal about their dissatisfaction and disengagement, management teams often spend a great deal of unproductive time addressing their demands.

Be concerned, but the sky isn’t falling

People tend to move in and out of these four categories of engagement depending on the environment, incentives, and where they are in their careers and lives. It’s a complex, fluid model that more closely resembles the makeup of a team or organization than the alarming (and inaccurate) statistics being thrown out as scare tactics.

It also means that any claim that 85 percent of your employees are job hunting is a myth. Our research shows that, in fact, even during the recent employment challenges across the world, less than 11 percent of employees were actively seeking new employment.

Why? 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.

So is there cause for engagement concern? Our answer is a clear “yes!”

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

This blog is taken from our recently released book, MAGIC: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Employee Engagement.

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