Avoiding Employee Disengagement

Employee Engagement

A recent Gallup study reported that organizations with above average employee engagement experienced 147% higher earnings per share compared with their competition in 2011-2012.  (Gallup also estimates that active disengagement costs the U.S. $450 billion to $550 billion per year.)

It’s no surprise that a highly engaged workforce produces such significantly better results.  Highly engaged people are happier, more positive, more creative and more productive.  And it should also come as no surprise that the latest research on brain neuroscience and positive psychology confirms that people who are happier are more engaged.

Many organizations recognize the importance of improved engagement, but the results of their efforts to improve engagement are generally poor because they are misguided.  This is also confirmed by the same Gallup study, which reports that, despite efforts to improve engagement, 70% of American workers are either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged”.  The truth is that the key to high employee engagement is to avoid disengagement.

Although companies like Google succeed in keeping their workforce engaged by offering perks such as gourmet meals and workout facilities, those by themselves won’t make much of a difference.  (Besides, most companies can’t afford to provide those perks, anyway.)

The results from employee engagement efforts generally are poor because most programs are attempts to do something to or for employees as a means of boosting engagement.  It’s analogous to a doctor treating someone’s symptoms rather than addressing the underlying problem.  The pain goes away for a while, but the problem doesn’t go away.

If we were to assess the level of engagement of new employees (as opposed to all employees), we would find it to be extraordinarily high.  And therein lies the answer to having an engaged workforce.  The key to high employee engagement is to prevent employees from becoming disengaged, thereby keeping them at that initial high level of engagement.

People generally become disengaged in response to how they’re treated by those who have some control or authority over them – their leaders, managers, and supervisors.  And while it may be true that a leader with passion, vision and purpose can leverage the enthusiasm and involvement of employees who are already engaged, simply having vision and passion will do little to spark a disengaged workforce.  The foundation must be laid first.

  • Hire the Right People – Creating and maintaining an engaged workforce begins with having the right people on board to begin with.
  •  Avoid Disengagement – Employee disengagement occurs when a person’s needs are not met – security, social, self-esteem, and self-fulfillment.
  •  Leverage Existing Engagement – Employee engagement is enhanced when the organization and its leaders earn the respect and trust of the workforce.
  • Oversee Follow-Through – Professing one thing but doing another demonstrates a lack of integrity, so the organization and its leaders must stay true to the values and behaviors agreed upon.

If you really want to have a highly engaged workforce, develop a strong culture, hire people who are aligned with that culture, eliminate behaviors that cause people to disengage, and hone the skills of your leaders.  If you cause all that to happen and ensure good follow through, you will have a loyal, creative, productive and highly engaged workforce.  Oh,… and let’s not forget happier people and a whole lot more profit!

If you’d like more insights on this, please call me 503-928-7645.  I’d be happy to answer your questions.

By the way…

If you'd like help evaluating or implementing any of these concepts, please give us a call. We specialize in uncovering blind spots and developing strategies. 503-928-7685


  1. Debbra Griggs says

    I’ve been working for over 30 years in high-tech in small, medium and large corporations mostly as a middle manager. What I have observed are the things that keeps employees and myself engaged is EMPOWERMENT; respected, feeling valued, inclusion in improvement efforts and decisions, and NOT micro-managed (Micromanagement sends the message that they have a lack of trust which results in lack of self-initiative).

    I believe that 95% of people want to do a good job but disengage out of frustration when no one is asking or listening to them.

  2. says

    Your point is a good one. If you have to work to engage employees you have already lost them. A small business owner I met recently summed his approach up this way: “Happy employees, happy customers.” The big box retailer COSTCO ranked at the top of the 10 biggest retailers in the US according to a Consumer Reports survey in 2012. At the same time a GLASSDOOR.COM survey of company employees found that of those ten retailers COSTCO had the most satisfied employees. If employees can easily answer the WIIFM question (what’s in it for me) in a positive manner they will be engaged.

  3. Gracie Mak says

    Yes, prevention is better than cure. When top management understands the importance to keep the employees highly engaged and happy, they in turn will “own” the business, keep the customers happy and bring in the profit. Trust is key and trust build on sincerity and genuine care with follow through to meet employees’ need is invaluable. Employees will respect “no” for an answer and still stay engaged if this is done with well thought out and proper follow through. Open communication is respect.

  4. Nazlin says

    Hi Michael

    Very well written article.
    Large corporation has complex structure and issues- when you have a huge diverse workforce and designed initiatives and a legacy of culture- it is challenging to bring new culture/ change culture (eg. from hierarchical to a flat/ matrix organization) to meet the scale of demand and sustain with high profitability- would like to get some insights from you on this topic.


    • says

      Hi Nazlin,
      Thanks for your comments. I agree. Changing culture at a large organization is pretty difficult. It can be done, but not directly. It needs to happen indirectly.
      Let me explain. One way to change culture is to get a handful of leaders to change their leadership style (values and behaviors). Once they do that and start getting better results than the rest of the organization/teams the case can be made for having everyone act in the same manner.

      Another way to make a change is to change one thing – something that matters to people – and then use the momentum from that change to facilitate a more widespread change in culture. A great example of that is in the book, “The Power of Habit”. The author (Charles Duhigg) relates the story of how the new CEO of Alcoa changed the entire culture of the organization by first having them improve worker safety. It’s worth reading.
      Hope that helps.

  5. says

    There will always be multiple ways of categorising human needs, as we are trying to map something verbal onto something instinctive and largely hormonal. Maslow’s list is a starting point, but it’s not simple to operationalise it in the workplace, so we use a model with rather more items.

    Whichever model you choose, we suggest it should be comprehensive enough to guide leaders, managers and other staff in how to develop practices and behaviours that work at a human level and so do not cause upset. Achieve that and engagement will become a non-issue.

    Which, of course, is where it should be – lack of engagement has to be a symptom, not a cause, and sprinkling new added engagement all over a workplace with underlying problems is unlikely to be a sustainable solution!

    • says

      Great insights, Piers.
      In a conversation I had recently with David Zinger (Employee Engagement Network), he promoted (like you did above) the idea that engagement efforts should be integrative rather than additive. In other words, throwing programs at the issue is ineffective.
      Thanks for your comments!

  6. says

    we are back to Maslow’s hierarchy, are we not?

    I like Tony Robbins labels for the top two ‘human needs’, which he calls
    1 – a need to grow and learn
    2 – a need to contribute to something bigger than self

    when these are met, engagement is alive
    Speaks to genuineness and authenticity, the flavour of the key success words of the past decade

  7. says

    You win the prize! We are EXACTLY back to Maslow’s hierarchy. (Which, by the way, also suggests the order in which issues need to be addressed.)
    And thanks for sharing the Tony Robbins insights as well.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

one × = 7