The number of employees who are considered ‘engaged’ in their work is pretty horrifying. Gallup’s study of almost 200,000 U.S. employees indicates that a mere 32% are “involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace.” On the surface this number is pretty bad, but it’s actually much worse than you think.


Employees who are not engaged show up and kill time. These employees do the absolute minimum required for their job with very little effort given to going above and beyond for customers. They are less vigilant and more likely to miss work and change jobs when new opportunities arise. They are constantly thinking about lunch or their next break.

Employees who are not engaged show up and kill time.

One employee like this is harmful enough. Now picture 68% of your office workforce performing their duties with such little effort or care. No organization can afford to have two-thirds of its employees wandering around on autopilot. And unfortunately, it gets worse.


Active Disengagement

It turns out that the unengaged 68% aren’t just simply ‘checked out.’ In fact, 17% are ‘actively disengaged,’ a designation used for employees who are so unhappy that they undermine the efforts of others and spread seeds of negativity and doubt in your organization, its mission, and its leadership.


Surely My Company is Better Than Average

When I talk about these numbers with my clients, the responses I typically get is, “Not in this organization!” Sometimes rose-colored glasses make it difficult to see the reality of what’s happening in our own companies. It’s also easy to assume that these numbers are highly skewed by large numbers of dissatisfied employees serving fast food or standing on assembly lines. There is some truth to that – manufacturing workers do have lower engagement levels than other industries (25%), but office workers (33%) and professionals (34%) aren’t much higher than the average.



Other Factors Affecting Engagement

“But my highly educated workforce isn’t like that!” I hear you say. Surprisingly, education has little effect on engagement levels, at least not in the way you might expect. College grads actually show the lowest level of engagement (31%) when compared with other educational groups.


The search for some way to redeem our own organizations goes on, but it isn’t pretty. Other factors show differences in engagement, such as men (30%) vs. women (36%), size of company (smaller is better), and even differences by state (Louisiana, Alabama, and Kentucky lead the nation), but nothing really leads us to believe we’re immune from the disease of disengagement – even baby boomers (35%) are only marginally better than millennials (31%). That’s right, we can’t even blame this phenomenon on the millennials this time.



Executives and Managers

One significant area of difference is observed when we separate executives (45%) from frontline managers (29%). It’s hardly good news though because Gallup suggests the lack of engagement among frontline managers is likely to be wreaking havoc on engagement among all frontline employees.


So What Do We Do About It?

As you might expect, engagement (or the lack of it) can be traced back to a series of root causes. However, it’s more productive to work on improving the steps that are most likely to increase engagement, rather than worrying about a specific diagnosis.

Consider the following guidelines:

  1. People want to do work that matters. This statement has several implications, including the need to be clear about what your organization’s mission is, why it matters, and how an individual’s role contributes to that mission. A lack of clarity at any point here creates a disconnect between the work being done, and some sense of meaning.
  2. People are people. If only employees were simply task-performing robots – am I right?! Well, the human side of business is alive and well when it comes to creating engagement. Building meaningful relationships, developing trust, providing encouragement, and encouraging workplace friendships can all contribute to improved levels of engagement. When employees feel like they’re all in this together, they will at least help their friends, if not the company.
  3. People want to participate. ‘When people weigh in, they buy in,’ says management guru Patrick Lencioni. Involving people in the decision-making process, even if the decision doesn’t go their way, is a key step in creating engagement.


Your Most Powerful Weapon in Driving Engagement

Although engagement is clearly a concern in the C-suite, it’s not likely to be solved there, at least not directly. Your most powerful weapon in driving engagement is your cadre of frontline managers.


In all but the smallest organizations, an individual team manager has far more impact on an individual employee than the CEO, or any other executive. For many employees, their direct manager is the company. Perhaps it’s little wonder that it’s been said, “People leave managers, not companies.”

People leave managers, not companies.

As a result, your frontline managers are uniquely qualified to connect employees with the larger mission of the organization, to involve individuals in decisions about what and how work is accomplished, and to provide motivation, encouragement, and feedback.


Frontline managers are also in the best position to identify unengaged and actively disengaged employees. Though it is worth noting that they themselves need to be engaged enough to care about doing that.


Next Steps

While it’s clear that engagement is an issue worthy of executive attention, the best solution is likely to be delivered by frontline leaders who are willing and able to take the deliberate steps necessary to carefully build engagement one employee at a time.