You’re Misusing the Phrase “Disengaged Employees”

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Jun 16, 2021

Far too many executives throw around the phrase “disengaged employees” without thinking about what it means, or worse, using an incoherent definition. In fact, most leaders misuse the phrase so badly that they would benefit from abolishing “disengaged” from their lexicon. 

For most people, calling someone disengaged means that the employee has little attachment to their company and their work; they don’t like their employer, nor do they like their work. 

But this is a patently absurd definition because it conflates liking the company with being highly motivated. Have you ever met a college student who hated their professor but was still highly motivated to get an A in the class? Of course you have, because disliking a professor (or company) is not the same as being unmotivated.

Conflating Issues

In the Leadership IQ study “Disengaged Employees Are More Motivated Than You Think” we discovered that 26% of employees are unhappy but motivated. These are the workers who don’t really like their employer but still feel motivated to give 100% effort at work.

Using an advanced statistical technique called k-means cluster analysis, we grouped more than 30,000 employees using their responses on two survey questions:

  • I recommend this company as a great organization to work for.
  • I am motivated to give 100% effort when I’m at work. 

Around 41% of employees had high scores on both questions — that is, they were engaged with their company, and they felt highly motivated. But 26% gave high scores on the motivation question while delivering much lower ratings on recommending their company as a great organization to work for. These are the employees we labeled “unhappy but motivated.”

Let’s look at an actual employee to see the differences between recommending a company and being motivated: 

Picture an achievement-driven individual, someone who, whether in school or on the job, has always pushed themselves to deliver fantastic work, earn straights As, and attain top-performance evaluations. 

Imagine that this person was directed to work from home during the pandemic. As a result of avoiding rush-hour traffic, eating home-cooked meals, eluding office politics, and dodging incessant interruptions, they lost weight, exercised more, increased their productivity, and strengthened their family relationships.

Now pretend that their insecure boss demands a return to the office. Regardless of how much working from home has benefited workers, this boss can’t fathom being unable to stand behind their workers, monitoring their daily activity. 

Once back in the office, is this employee going to recommend their company as a great employer? Probably not. But is their motivation to give 100% effort going to suddenly vanish? 

Remember that this person has been internally motivated to give their best effort since childhood. Even though they’re rightfully mad at their employer, it’s unlikely that they’ll abandon their deep-seated personality traits and motivation. They might exert even more effort as a showcase for potential new employers as they plan their exit from the micromanager.

Separating Issues

A key lesson from both the vignette and the study is the need to separate the issues of recommending a company and one’s motivation to give 100% effort. These are completely distinct issues — and most engagement surveys wrongly confound them.

I also hope you can see how some companies use the “disengaged” label as a way to avoid responsibility. In the vignette I shared, it would be a mistake to label the employee as disengaged; they’re motivated, productive, and high-achieving. They’re mad at their employer, but whose fault is that? The person achieved better work and work-life balance while remote, but because their boss is an insecure micromanager, their employee experience will now suffer.

If we call that person disengaged, it sounds as though something changed inside the individual. But nothing actually changed inside the employee. The company and boss made changes that would likely annoy most people, and those changes might even drive the employee to quit. Yet, the worker is still the same achievement-driven striver they’ve always been. If that person quits, it’s because the company made a dumb mistake and not because the employee lost their motivation.

My advice to every executive and HR leader is simple: Stop labeling employees as disengaged. Separate the issues of recommending the company and employee motivation so you can more accurately assess your workforce. Those unhappy but motivated employees are waiting for you to fix some issues in the work environment. And once you do that, you can expect to see your overall employee engagement skyrocket.