Are you disengaged from work?

© poosan -
© poosan -

I just came across a post I did seven years ago this week (on the blog) on the subject of employee engagement—which the Gallup organization measures in extensive surveys on a regular basis.

The results over the last seven years have remained gloomily consistent. THEN: 31% of US employees were "actively engaged," 52% were "not engaged," and 17% were "actively disengaged." NOW: 30% actively engaged, 52% not engaged, and 18% actively disengaged (which means “roaming the halls spreading discontent”!).

I don’t need to tell you these numbers have economic consequences, but I will. The cost of having so many disengaged US workers is now estimated at $550 billion annually. (And that’s the organizational cost, not the personal cost. A majority of these actively disengaged employees believe their disenchantment is taking a toll on their physical health.)

Meanwhile a recent Gallup survey of German workers is more alarming: 24% of workers are actively disengaged—and feel worse than if they were unemployed! According to the Gallup report: “Actively disengaged employees are less likely than unemployed workers to say they experienced enjoyment, smiled or laughed a lot, were treated with respect, learned something interesting, or experienced happiness the day before the survey.” And this is happening in Deutschland—the high performance engine of the European economy!

Why, you ask, is there such a lack of employee engagement in business?

Lots of good reasons. Many employees experience a lack of freedom, a feeling of not being recognized or appreciated, a perceived inability to make a difference, a lack of connection between their job and what’s important to them. Some feel their work lacks any creativity or self-expression. Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith in their brilliant polemic, The End of Management and the Rise of Organizational Democracy, lay the blame squarely on “hierarchy, bureaucracy, and autocracy”—and do a thorough job of lambasting command-and-control management. Others will say simply (but eloquently), “Bad bosses.”

The best snapshot I’ve seen of worker disengagement came from a time I was coaching a design team in northern Ontario to radically improve the process flow of their saw mill. While canvassing employees to find ideas for improvements, the team interviewed one worker who mentioned that a simple mechanical fix would remove recurring jam-ups on his saw line, saving—conservatively speaking—thousands of dollars a week. He complained about it to his shift supervisor years earlier but was told, “Just do your job.” It may not surprise you to learn that this was the last time the poor fellow ever volunteered a suggestion to management. If there’s a better way to produce actively disengaged employees, I can’t think of it.

This is a topic I devote significant space to in my upcoming book, Business Lessons From Rock (an amazing coincidence, given the title of this blog), in which I highlight engagement—or passion or enthusiasm—as one of the six success traits of the great rock bands, which we might be wise to emulate in our businesses. The book covers many angles from which to address this issue, but my favorite approach is one that the great bands have taken—The Beatles, The Who, Green Day, etc.—which consists of a ridiculously simple formula: GENERATE (from scratch, out of nothing) excitement. Decide to be enthusiastic. Crank up the energy. Like anything else you do for a while, it will soon become a habit.

Case in point… One June night in 1964, while performing with The Who on a high stage at the Railway Tavern in West London, Pete Townshend broke the head of his guitar by accidentally poking it through the low ceiling. So it wouldn't look like a mistake, he proceeded to finish off the job by repeatedly punching the guitar through the ceiling until the instrument was reduced to “a splintered mess” in front of surprised audience members (and band mates). After receiving a rousing reception for this, the band made it a nightly practice to passionately attack their instruments and sometimes destroy them in a scorching finale to their shows. The Who quickly became the most thrilling live act in the UK—and later in the US. At every gig, members of the band would provoke each other to new heights of performance (the "service" they were providing) which inspired their audience (their customers) to rave about them to friends (their new customers), in a sales dynamic as old as the pyramids. Passion begets passion. The contagiousness of enthusiasm is a marvel to behold.

So should employees destroy office furniture in a frenzy of excitement at the end of their meetings? Probably not, though it might make boring meetings more memorable. But expressing a little enthusiasm can go a long way.

Of course there are many other ways to defeat disengagement (as outlined in previous posts here and here).

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  1. I've worked in offices where dismantling the furniture and tossing it down from the 3rd floor would have been a vast improvement over anything else that was going on.

    In my work I run across an endless stream of people who ask, in effect, "Who do I pay, and how much, to make people engage with me?" and I always say "Yourself, and everything you ever wanted" but it usually ends in confusion. Since it's always them, I move on to someone who asks "How can I help make this better?"

    1. I hear ya. People think you can buy engagement. But pay is a threshold motivator. There has to be a minimum so employees aren't worried about meeting the rent or mortgage, but beyond a certain level it has little motivational value.

      I always think of that surgeon in the news who left the patient lying in O.R. so he could run to the bank and make a deposit. Poor guy was apparently living from pay check to pay check. Gotta pay surgeons more to keep them off food stamps.

  2. Good article John. Well I don't know if this will help but I think there are a lot of unfulfilled people out there. They don't think for themselves, just kind of go along with the program. They need money so they get a job but it seems most jobs are pretty boring. They don't follow their passions. I know everyone can't be an artist but in many cases they don't even try to find something they are interested in. So this is maybe more of a spiritual problem with the current human race than a business problem for the corporations. It becomes a problem for the corporations.

    1. Grayson, maybe everybody can’t be an artist, but if people can’t find a way to be creative in their work they’re unlikely to be engaged. This is what Richard Florida writes about in The Rise of the Creative Class. He’s not talking about an elite group of creatives (he thinks we’re ALL creative) but the necessity of drawing on people’s innate creativity so it gets expressed in their work.

  3. "The Office" says it all. Most folks are engaged in merchandizing shower curtain rings or Dunder-Mifflin office supplies. It's amazing they don't all commit suicide in their cubicles. And most have a bosshole who makes things ten times worse because he hates HIMself as well.

    I have no idea how these folks can do it. Perhaps if you're low intelligence and have zero creative drive it's a lot easier. All I know is every job I ever had that involved an office I totally despised every minute of it. I felt the same about school. Lemme the hell outa here!!!

      1. Even Wayne doesn't have his fountains anymore. He just moved out of his 45 acre estate in Vegas.

        What can we learn from perennials like Wayne Newton or Jimmy Buffet? There must be some business lesson in there. Something about never changing to New Coke or sell the sizzle, not the steak.

  4. I'm not sure the answer is really "bad bosses" although oddly enough I think the problem is bad bosses.

    If "bad bosses" means people who regard leadership a branch of tyranny and the opportunity to bully people, then that of course is a problem. But I'm not sure it's the biggest problem.

    I think the root of the problem is bad bosses in the sense that someone's become the boss but has simply not had the training or the mentoring or the example of a good boss to become a good boss themselves. Maybe they got the job on a "buggin's turn" basis or maybe they went for it because they wanted "the additional responsibility (and money)." As a result, you get all the problems you're bound to get when someone's basically winging it and unless the person just happens to be a good leader, one outcome is an unhappy, disengaged staff.

    Until folks realise that being the boss of people is about focusing on the people side of work rather than the task side, I suspect we'll see the problem continue.

    Many folks have argued that "Management" needs to be seen as a vocation with proper training and an expectation that you'll hit at least a minimum standard. Meanwhile, we continue to put people in charge of other people with no regard for aptitude, ability, experience, training, mentoring and just a wild hope they'll, err, grow into the job.

    1. Though I agree that the Peter Principle plays out in companies all over the world, that doesn't match my admittedly limited experience about what drives people to disengage.

      The managers who drove me out of the corporate world permanently believed that position makes right, that impossible goals are motivating, that more hours = quality employee, the sales department is good and the accounting and IT departments are a waste of money . . . it's endless.

      They believed all the narrow inhuman illogical things we mock in the pointy-haired boss in Dilbert.

      I worked for one guy who was so much like Dilbert's boss that every time he'd make some monumentally bad decision, a handful of folks in the company would drop by my office, pull out the typing table on my desk, and see which Dilbert strip I'd taped there to tie into the situation. Because, there was always a Dilbert strip that perfectly matched what he was doing. This is the guy who practiced his smile on the way to a sales call so it looked more natural.

      1. Joel - I reckon our views are probably closer than you think. The poor managers you've described seem to share one characteristic: a focus on tasks and an ignorance of people.

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