Redefining What It Means to Be Disengaged
Leaders, HR professionals, and OD practitioners – lend me your ears! …Or your eyes as it were. We need to have a talk about the ‘actively disengaged’ employee label.
Businesses love labels. They love to categorize, collate, and quantify everything, including their employees. The problem with labeling employees is that doing so dehumanizes them. It ignores all of the complexities behind their behavior or work performance, or even their level of engagement. In terms of employee engagement, workers have traditionally been given one of three labels depending on how engaged they are: engaged, disengaged, and actively disengaged.
Gallup defines an engaged employee as one who is committed to, involved in, and enthusiastic about their organization (Gallup’s analytics put about 33 percent of U.S. employees in this category). Disengaged employees are essentially going through the motions during their workday and don’t really go above and beyond (roughly 50 percent of employees are considered disengaged). And finally actively disengaged employees – those who exhibit behaviors or attitudes considered detrimental to the organization’s success – make up a little under 20 percent of Gallup’s sample population. I’d like to give some some much-needed clarity on this final engagement category because it is very often misrepresented by the literature surrounding it and misunderstood by those who apply it.
Actively disengaged employees are usually described as organizational pariahs who should be given a swift boot out the door. I’ve heard some OD folks call them ‘terrorists’, which I think is a bit much. Aon Hewitt published a white paper several months ago calling them ‘workplace prisoners’ who don’t say positive things about their employer or strive to do any more than the bare minimum, yet they have no plans to leave. And we’ve all probably heard the rowing team analogy that describes actively disengaged employees as trying to sink the boat, which, again, is sort of a mischaracterization. Here’s the thing: unless you inadvertently hired a sociopath or a criminal, nobody is ACTIVELY trying to destroy your company just for the fun of it. In my experience, I have worked with many employees who finally became so fed up with their boss or the company itself, that they threw up their hands and said, “You know what, I don’t care anymore!” That doesn’t make them bad people, or terrorists, or even bad employees; it simply makes them human beings reacting to a negative situation that, nine times out of ten, is outside of their control.
The flawed model of employee engagement that continues to be circulated today is that employees are responsible for their own engagement, or that it is a two-way street. In a perfect world, yes, employees would be able to bring their whole selves to work, love every minute of it, and, if they have any ideas for improving their work lives, they would freely approach management with suggestions and those leaders would implement changes to better engage their workforce. Unfortunately, the business world does not currently work that way. Employees are reluctant to share what’s bothering them because they know these concerns would fall on deaf ears, or worse, they would be labeled troublemakers or complainers. That’s the real issue with calling employees actively disengaged. Managers have carte blanche to slap that label on employees they feel are rocking (or sinking) the boat because the contemporary employee engagement model reinforces the notion that these employees are somehow defective and that their leaders should accept no culpability.
Some organizations take an extreme approach to handling disengagement that is both ineffective and a little creepy. Buffer, a social media advertising service, has what it calls a “no complaining” culture in which any form of negative expression is frowned upon. The problem with such a culture is it creates a slippery slope that allows managers to dismiss any employee concerns and punish those who speak out about their experience. The thing about complaining in a modern organizational setting is that it gives employees at least some sense of relief or catharsis to vent their frustrations when leaders won’t address their needs or expectations. Even if it seems petty or passive aggressive, employees actually derive a psychological benefit from complaining, which we will discuss later in this chapter.
A culture of forced positivity is one of the primary tenets of The Stepford Employee Fallacy. Employees are expected to always be positive, happy, and smiling regardless of how they are treated. Trying to ignore or penalize negative feedback is, at best, a naive attempt to give the appearance of an engaged workforce. If employees aren’t complaining (or can’t complain), then you’ve solved your disengagement problem, correct? Not quite. Disengagement, in all its forms, is merely a symptom of an underlying condition that leaders need to remedy: a negative employee experience.
I have seen how the present approach to employee engagement works from both an employee’s perspective and a manager’s perspective.
Years ago, I worked for a company that wanted to create a culture of engagement and employees were pressured into completing “anonymous” surveys to share their thoughts about working there. I asked a few of my colleagues whether they participated and they either said, “No”, or “Yes, but I didn’t give honest answers.” I asked why and the response was always the same: “Because they know who wrote which answers and they’ll find a way to punish you for being negative.” It was true. This particular company didn’t foster a culture of engagement; they forced it. They beat employees over the head with it. So the employees who were unhappy or disengaged just kept their heads down and stayed quiet, because those who did speak up were eventually forced out.
As a manager at another company, I was having a conversation with one of our executives about recurring meetings we had with our staff to discuss any roadblocks they were experiencing or changes we could make to our department. She agreed that we should continue the meetings as long as they didn’t “turn into a bitch-fest”. And that kind of attitude is not uncommon among managers. They view any kind of dissent or dissatisfaction as “bitching” and the offending employees get slapped with the actively disengaged moniker. Well-meaning experts say that employees need to be constructive in their feedback and offer solutions. That’s fair, but even if employees know what the solution is, I have seen that, more often than not, change never comes. Or when change does come, it’s too little too late and the employees are so disenfranchised at that point that recapturing their engagement becomes nearly impossible. Look at the tools employees use in their jobs as an example. Far too many technology projects result in systems that are barely usable, leaving employees frustrated and unsupported by managers who still expect them to be engaged and crank out quality work. I’ve seen employees break down in tears at their desks or had them confess to me they feared losing their jobs because a system so inhibited their productivity.
The point is, employees do not wake up one day and decide that they want to sabotage your company’s success because it seemed like a great idea. There is a reason why they say negative things about the organization to their coworkers, friends, and family. There is a reason why they withdraw effort or are apathetic. There is a reason why they are actively disengaged. It’s because they are human, and humans are complex, emotional creatures.
BEHAVIORS AND COGNITIVE BIASES
The following paragraphs will explore some of the human behaviors that are interpreted as active disengagement, shed light on what causes these behaviors, and provide guidance to leaders for being more empathetic and open-minded in addressing them.
When you think of passive aggressive behavior, what comes to mind? Eye-rolling? Silent treatment? In an organizational setting, passive aggressive behavior manifests among employees in these ways and more, including slowed productivity, taking long breaks, or ignoring managers. At face value, these are all certainly counter-productive and would fall under the actively disengaged label. But if we look at the “Why?” behind these behaviors, things become far less cut and dry.
In a 2015 paper they published for Personnel Psychology, researchers from several universities concluded that employees who experienced hostility in the form of verbal attacks or intimidation actually countered the stressful effects of this abuse by retaliating with passive aggression. Research participants reported lower levels of psychological stress after they retaliated against a hostile boss by withholding effort or otherwise being passive aggressive in carrying out their work. It’s a way of restoring equilibrium in the power relationship between employers and employees. The findings from this research validate the work of Janet Yellen, U.S. Federal Reserve Chair, and her husband who jointly wrote a paper in the 1990s called The Fair Wage-Effort Hypothesis. They theorized that workers will exert or withdraw effort in proportion to how fairly they are paid. If they are paid below average wages, they will only exert partial effort as a way to compensate for the real or perceived inequity. I would say this hypothesis has been proven by research and that it extends beyond wages to any other factor comprising an employee’s experience of working at an organization. I call this principle The Experience-Effort Correlation.
Figure 3.1 illustrates how the The Experience-Effort Correlation works. The better the experience leaders create for their employees, the greater the effort employees will exert. So an employee who is being paid well below market average wages and is mistreated by his boss has a negative employee experience and will put forth a negative effort by engaging in passive aggressive behavior. The negative behavior is caused by the negative experience. Conversely, an engaging work experience prompts a high level of effort.
Figure 3.1 The Experience-Effort Correlation
Many managers have been trained to think that they shouldn’t care whether or not their employees like them. They are encouraged to make unpopular decisions and ignore employee opinions. “I don’t care if my employees hate me”, they say. “I care about results!” But leaders, you should care if your employees hate you. In fact, you should be deeply troubled if your employees hate you. As humans, when we perceive another person as an enemy or antagonist, we are far less likely to buy in to a proposed change or engage as a partner in action. This is due to a cognitive bias called Reactive Devaluation. That’s why so many change efforts fail and why such a large population of the modern workforce is actively disengaged. The relationship between managers and employees accounts for the largest variance in engagement scores, according to Gallup. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance for leaders to build open, trusting, and empathetic relationships with their employees. Otherwise the resistance from those who are disengaged and actively disengaged will have a dramatic effect on the organization’s overall success. And leaders will only have themselves to blame…except they seldom do.
What happens when managers refuse to accept accountability for creating and maintaining positive relationships with workers? They say these employees have an “attitude problem”. They are actively disengaged and should therefore be transitioned out of the company as quickly as possible. The issue is never that the employee isn’t being paid at least market average wages. No, the issue is that she is “entitled.” The issue is never that the employee is forced to use tools and systems that are slow, unreliable, and counterintuitive. No, the issue is that he is “unproductive.” The issue is never that the manager inflicts nonsensical and time-consuming processes on her employees. No, the issue is that an employee who raises concerns “isn’t a team player.” And then when these same managers need their employees to partner with them on change efforts or to buy in to a new company initiative, they wonder why there is so much resistance. If your employees view you as their enemy, you must swallow your pride and take action to win back their trust.
Another cognitive bias that causes employees to be actively disengaged involves the powerful impact that negative experiences have on the human psyche. Negativity Bias among disengaged and actively disengaged employees as a result of fear-based management practices, high levels of stress, or other unpleasant workplace experiences yields less innovation, less collaboration, and less trust. You’ve probably heard the oft-cited customer experience statistic which states that it takes twelve positive experiences to compensate for just one unresolved bad customer experience. In other words, if a customer has a bad experience with a particular brand, that company would need to offset the damage by creating twelve positive experiences for that same customer in order to regain her trust and loyalty. That is an excellent illustration of how Negativity Bias works. And this principle does not just apply to customer relationships. Employee relationships can be damaged just as easily (or even more so) by a negative work experience, thus requiring a strong effort from leaders to re-engage these individuals. Remember: Your employees are your first customers.
Sir Richard Branson said it perfectly when he described his philosophy on putting employees first:
“If the person who’s working for your company is not given the right tools, is not looked after, is not appreciated, they’re not gonna do things with a smile and therefore the customer will be treated in a way where often they won’t want to come back for more. So, my philosophy has always been, if you can put staff first, your customer second and shareholders third, effectively, in the end, the shareholders do well, the customers do better, and yourself are happy.”
Negative work experiences can come in many forms, and what might seem totally inconsequential or even necessary to a manager could have a lasting impact on the employee experiencing them. A classic example would be the practice of micromanagement. Nobody likes to be micromanaged, especially grown adults, because it makes them feel incompetent or untrustworthy. A supervisor who micromanages might be an otherwise pleasant person, but the damage he is causing to his relationship with employees has a profound impact on engagement. The irony in these types of situations is, although the manager might intend to increase productivity or efficiency, the negative experiences they create for their employees through harmful management practices have the exact opposite effect in the long term.
One of the fatal mistakes managers make in terms of handling employee grievances is taking the traditional “I’m the boss” approach that reinforces the unequal power dynamic between workers and their leaders. For most adults, having a meeting with the boss to discuss workplace concerns usually leaves them feeling unheard and defeated. Picture Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada glaring at you over the top of her glasses from behind her desk, and then waving you away with a dismissive “That’s all.” That type of mindset stems from an outdated understanding of what leadership means. I’ve worked with plenty of managers who seem to have received the same combat training for how to do battle with their employees so that they always emerge victorious. They dig in their heels and refuse to concede when employees have raised a valid concern about something that is affecting their level of engagement. They pull the Boss Card and intimidate their employees into silence. What they don’t realize — because they probably haven’t been taught any different — is that this approach leads to a culture of begrudging compliance. And that’s the best case scenario (read: disengagement). If left un-checked, the management behaviors, decisions, and interactions that trigger the previously discussed cognitive biases will cause active disengagement.
What, then, can leaders do to correct the situation? It’s simple, really: Listen and take action. The problem lies in the fact that neither of these is easy for most leaders to do because they are still stuck in the Dark Ages where a command and control management style reigned supreme. But it is a new era. A leadership style of empathy, humility, and curiosity is the only way to create an engaging work culture.
Listening with empathy, humility, and curiosity means taking off the Boss Goggles and setting your ego aside to have a human conversation with your disengaged employee. Far too many managers are so affronted that any of their employees would dare question them. I say this in the kindest way possible, but they need to get over themselves. Scoot out from behind the desk, sit with your employee or take a walk, and just hear them out.
Here are a few Dos and Don’ts for listening with empathy, humility, and curiosity:
- Do position yourself so that your employee doesn’t feel inferior (facing a boss who is sitting behind her desk feels like going to the principal’s office)
- Do set aside your own biases or preconceived notions
- Do encourage the employee to tell you why they feel a certain way
- Do reflect on a time you were in a similar situation and share it
- Do validate your employee’s feelings by saying “I can see why you feel that way” or “If I were you, I would feel that way as well”
- Do thank your employee for being so candid, and assure them that you will do whatever you can to rectify the situation or otherwise ask if the two of you can brainstorm a solution together
- Don’t interrupt
- Don’t get defensive
- Don’t be dismissive or insincere
- Don’t threaten punishment or other consequences
- Don’t ignore the employee’s concerns and pivot to another topic
- Don’t end the conversation on a sour note
Let’s look at an example of how listening can turn a situation from one in which an employee could become actively disengaged to one in which the manager strengthens their relationship.
I once knew an employee who discovered that he and his colleagues were being paid less than the market average for their positions and, after discussing the situation, decided to raise the issue during his performance review. After telling his supervisor what he had learned, the supervisor said to him, “If you talk about your pay with another employee, you and I are going to have a problem.” From that point forward, the issue never came up again, but the supervisor permanently damaged her relationship with the employee and poisoned his experience of working for that organization.
Aside from the fact that what the supervisor did was illegal and actionable under the U.S. National Labor Relations Act of 1935, she created a negative experience for her employee; one that sowed a bitter seed of disengagement.
Here’s what a manger who was listening with empathy, humility, and curiosity would have said in this scenario:
“Look, you know I want us to be open and transparent with one another. I trust you and I want you to trust me. It’s true that you’re not getting paid what the market pays. We had to bring on more staff to meet customer needs, but couldn’t pay market rates due to budgetary constraints. Right now, I don’t believe we’re in a position to raise everyone’s base pay. But let’s discuss other options, because I don’t want you to feel like you’re walking away with the short straw or that you’re not being rewarded for your hard work. There are some professional development opportunities we could pursue for you; they would look great on your resume and get you exposed to other areas of the company. Also, in about a year you’d technically be eligible to get moved up to the next salary grade. But, based on your performance, maybe we can look into an early promotion. So tell me what you’re thinking. I want to help you succeed.”
Although paying employees below market average is a disengagement factor in and of itself — remember the Fair Wage-Effort Hypothesis and the Experience-Effort Correlation — the supervisor’s hypothetical response above at least showed that she wanted to make a genuine effort to re-engage her employee. That’s the power of truly listening to employees.
This one is a tough pill for many managers to swallow. They don’t want to admit that they are wrong or appear as if they are making any concessions. Again, a lot of managers were trained to adopt the mindset of “the boss is always right” and they simply grew accustomed to leading that way. They tell employees that, if they do not like working for them, they should go ahead and find another job. That is the antithesis of a positive employee experience and it breeds active disengagement within a workforce that could otherwise be executing organizational goals…if only they were inspired to do so.
Taking action requires a great deal of courage on a leader’s part. It means validating workers’ concerns and making a positive change to ensure a better employee experience, even if that takes standing up to executive leadership and challenging the status quo. Courageous leaders will graciously take their employees’ feedback, even if it’s negative, and use it to strengthen their organization’s employee value proposition. Instead of telling employees to stop complaining and to just be grateful for their jobs, courageous leaders face their teams and say “Thank you for telling me what isn’t working. I want you to be proud of our company.” This, of course, requires a culture of total openness and trust in which employees feel comfortable sharing their feedback; a rarity in today’s business environment. When leaders reprimand or threaten employees for expressing frustration over negative experiences, they are essentially inviting active disengagement into their organizations for reasons discussed throughout this chapter.
What does taking action look like? It looks like real, impactful change. It is cultural, procedural, organizational, and behavioral. It is not superficial or patronizing. Too many leaders look at employee engagement efforts as simple gestures to placate the masses without having to change the way they behave, be more realistic with their expectations, or dig into their pocketbooks. In their minds, giving employees silly tokens of appreciation and office pizza parties will somehow inspire them to be more engaged despite critical factors that are contributing to their disengagement. This is one of the false beliefs comprising The Stepford Employee Fallacy which we will examine in Part II.
I’ll use our earlier example of technology projects to illustrate why taking action requires great courage, but is absolutely necessary in order to prevent disengagement among employees.
One of the first projects I worked on involved the upgrade of a legacy e-commerce system to a new web-enabled version. Although the system was developed over the course of two years and underwent significant testing, upon launch, it nearly crippled the department that would be leveraging it because its usability was so poor. The user interface was clunky and counterintuitive, and processing time for even the simplest of transactions was so atrocious that it rendered employees incapable of meeting customer (or management) demands.
As is the case with many other large-scale technology implementations, the actual end users were not as involved in the development process as they should have been. The product itself had its own set of issues from the outset, but because senior leadership had already made the time and money commitment to upgrade, they saw no reason reconsider their decision to proceed. This justification, known as the Sunk-Cost Fallacy, is common among business leaders. Because they had already spent so many months and millions of dollars on their selected course of action, the project leaders and sponsor would not admit that they had bought an ineffective tool, even though it was harming the very people they expected to use it. Unfortunately, it was the employees who suffered most, and all their leadership did to support them was to document and suggest confusing workarounds that stifled productivity. The impact on engagement was palpable.
In this case, the leaders should have been courageous and taken action by reinstating the legacy system (which worked perfectly fine) and taken a step back to assess a better option. It would have been a pretty sizable financial blow to pull the plug and start over with more involvement and input from employees, but the investment would pay dividends in terms of restored goodwill and engagement. Instead of forcing employees to use a system that didn’t work and then labeling them as disengaged because they voiced their frustrations about it, the managers involved should have followed Sir Richard Branson’s advice: Put employees first!
Leaders, I challenge you ask yourselves whether you are putting your employees first before you think about using that dreaded actively disengaged label.
Gallup. State of the American Workplace. February 2017.
Aon Hewitt. Actively Disengaged and Staying. October 2016.
Widrich, Leo. “The ‘No Complaining’ Rule: What It Really Means to Create a Company Culture of Positivity”. Buffer. July 20, 2015.
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George A. Akerlof, Janet L. Yellen; The Fair Wage-Effort Hypothesis and Unemployment. Q J Econ 1990; 105 (2): 255-283. doi: 10.2307/2937787
Schurenberg, Eric. “Richard Branson: Why Customers Come Second at Virgin”. Inc.