Why Are So Few Employees Engaged

A Scenario

“Imagine that during a routine check-up with your doctor, he diagnoses you with the dreaded “C” (in most medical circle – this usually means cancer). The doctor’s prognosis certainly requires more testing, but your concern is immediate. You find yourself, suddenly asking questions about your future:

  1. How serious is it, Doc?
  2. Can I be cured?

Once you regain your composure and listen to the good doctor’s advice, you are determined to make every effort to beat the dreaded “C”. Seems reasonable, right? After all, it’s a matter of your life and death.

Now, what if there is a dreaded “C” in your workplace with potentially devastating effects to your organisation? This dreaded “C”, if left untreated, will erode your organisation the same way dreaded “C” erodes a patient’s body. Customer satisfaction, employee retention, productivity, and profitability are all being compromised until you get it under control. This dreaded “C” in most organisations — the biggest problem in the business world as well as the least-addressed one — is that business ‘engines’ are clogged up with sludge in the form of unclear goals, fearful managers, unnecessary rules and restrictions, and too little room to debate, question, learn and to grow.

There’s a shortage of truth-telling, and it’s easy to see why. All the incentives seem to go to the people who keep a low key, keep silent and out of the frying pan. Whilst that is bad for the organisation, but it’s good for that individual, at least in the short run, to keep smiling and tell the boss whatever the boss wants to hear. It’s a simple problem to understand and an easy one to spot, providing you do not work in the organisation yourself. When you’re inside the fishbowl, you can’t see how filthy the water has become. You’ve learned to swim through it. It’s invisible to you.

However, anyone from outside the organisation could tell you the truth of the sludge and gunk all over your engine. This is reflective of organisations today. Whether a company is growing, shrinking, or treading water, fear is the dominant force and it’s got to be addressed. Only newcomers to your company who come from the outside the sludge zone can remind us that in the real world, things move quickly. Mother Nature is always stirring the pot. Nothing stays the same, and neither can your business. To stay ahead, you need to be flexible while maintaining control.

To maintain control, Business leaders need to understand the difference between organisation structure and company culture because these aspects of your business can have a major influence on the firm’s success or failure. Your company culture is the loudest happening in your organisation. It is booming in your employees’ ears. Your vendors know a lot about your culture. Your customers may know more about your culture than you do. They have a ringside view!

So, culture matters! You hear it all the time, and you might even say it all the time. We don’t think anyone will argue with the statement, but why does it matter? 

A healthy corporate culture values employees in the organisation regardless of their jobs and duties, resulting in employees working as teams to meet the company’s and individual’s needs which thus improves the performance of a business in a number of areas.


Employees want a positive workplace culture; they are looking for advancement opportunities and collaboration, among other aspects of organisational culture. By addressing some of these elements, we are investing in the commitment and success of your workforce. Engaged employees therefore become powerful assets, and the keystones of an organisation.

Financial Success Company culture is the main influencer of the bottom line. In fact, according to a Gallup meta-analysis* of 1.4 million employees, companies in the top-quartile of employee engagement are 22% more profitable than those in the bottom-quartile. If that’s not convincing enough, the same study confirms that engagement can lead to improved customer interactions as customers are also experiencing the benefits of your culture.

*(Gallup meta-analysis 2016)

Recruitment With reports out such as Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work for” applicants are adding culture to their list of considerations. In fact, highly educated job-seekers are prioritising cultural components, such as company values and growth opportunities high on the list .

This is becoming an important differentiator and a powerful tool in attracting top talent and knowing how.

Retention Investing in your company’s culture show employees that you care.

When your employees know you care, they feel valued for their work and are more committed to their performance. According to a study by the Corporate Leadership Council, engaged employees are 87% less likely to leave the organisation. Turnover is expensive, disruptive, and rough on morale, and working on your culture is the best thing you can do to address this.

The opposite can lead to Employee Disengagement and must be taken seriously by every leader in your organisation. The Gallup Organisation has performed ongoing research on employee engagement for over a decade now and has identified three types of employees: Engaged, Not Engaged, and Actively Disengaged.

This problem of Employee Disengagement is very real. The numbers don’t lie. One of the least obvious but most significant costs of this malady is the percentage of the payroll wasted on disengaged employees.

Like an infectious disease, they spread their discontent and do their best to turn the engaged employees against you as well. Even if they don’t succeed, they will undermine the good work your engaged employees are doing by failing to complete their part of projects on time or lowering the overall quality of the job.

Why Are So Few Employees Engaged?

When employees join your organisation, they start out engaged and ready to take on responsibilities. They applied for the job because it interested them, and they believed they had the talents, skills, and creativity the job required. So did you, which is why you hired them. So, on day one they were excited about getting the job, switched on, and ready to make a contribution to your organisation.

An employee’s first six months with your organisation are critical. During the first six months, an average of over 60 percent of employees switches off, then engagement continues to decline over time.

Switching Off.

What happens during that first six months? New employees start with high expectations and enthusiasm, believing, “This is the job for me!” After all, it was a big decision to accept the job. The decline starts when they realise that their expectations are not being met, and they begin to wonder if they made a mistake. They start talking with their co-workers about their expectations only to get confirmation that their expectations are not going to be met.

Because they are new to the company, they are apprehensive about speaking up. Finally, in a last-ditch effort, they talk with their manager to see if they can improve things and get some of their expectations met. But nothing changes; the employees realise the situation is not going to change. They give up on getting their expectations met, switch off, and start thinking about leaving.

The final stage is when they decide to quit and actively look for another job, or more commonly and costly, they quit and stay! This is where the whole problem begins.

Leadership Has Failed!

For such a high percentage of employees to become disengaged over the first six months, there must be a significant failure at the leadership level. Leaders at all levels have not sustained the natural enthusiasm and commitment their employees had when they started with the organisation. Despite the billions of dollars spent on leadership development every year and the thousands of books and resources on the subject, the primary objective of effective leadership; getting all employees to perform at their best, is not being achieved. Even with the increased focus placed on employee engagement over the past ten years, the percentage of engaged employees overall has increased by barely one or two percent.

Why? Many leaders do not even realise that the disease of disengagement is eating away at their organisation, so they do nothing to treat it. Many of the managers aware of the problem start to look for a quick fix, attempting to cure the malady of disengagement with the equivalent of an aspirin or a band aid. They throw money at the problem, thinking that better compensation, benefits, incentives, or working conditions will fix it. If a raise has any impact on engagement at all, then it only lasts one or two months at most.

The truth is, there is no quick fix for the problem of disengagement, any more than the availability of a quick fix for dreaded “C”. But if diagnosed early on, both can be cured. A better solution would be the old saying of “Prevention is better than cure” If one is serious about getting one’s employees to be as passionate about their dream for the organisation; focus on igniting the passion in the employees, beyond just getting them engaged. Passionate employees are naturally engaged.  There should be no confusion about passion— it cannot be bought; it is intrinsic

Getting the team to be as passionate about the organisation’s vision and goals will take time and exceptional leadership. It requires deep commitment by the leaders to getting people engaged and then shaping them into high performance teams, to create a great organisation, one that not only achieves outstanding results, but that also attracts and retains the most talented people.

The first step is to make sure that management is not consumed by one of the four primary obsessions listed below. This will result in managers unintentionally increasing the spread of the disease of disengagement when what they really want is increased employee commitment and passion.

These are:

  • An obsession with financial results.

Financial success is critical to any organisation. But to drive myopically toward profit or achieving budgets alone while ignoring the needs of employees, customers, culture, and values of the organisation, is very costly to results. Being obsessed with the bottom line can give you good results, but then think about how much more you could achieve with passionate employees who go to extreme lengths every day to give their best performance? Lasting success comes from employees who are switched on and passionately supporting your organisation. You invest in them and they, in turn, invest in you.

  • An obsession with control.

Control-based leaders assume that people cannot be trusted and send that message to their team. They micromanage employees, believing that tasks will not be completed to their standards unless they are checking on their team. They assume employees do not really want to work, and therefore they need to continue to drive them to achieve results. They also believe that, as a manager, they have all the knowledge and experience, and therefore they need to make all the decisions about how to improve performance. There is no research that shows this approach achieves superior results; in fact, the opposite is true. These autocrats are a liability to the organisation, squashing natural enthusiasm, creativity, and ambition and most detrimentally driving away the most talented employees.

  • An obsession with avoiding responsibility.

Lack of engagement, performance problems, and high levels of employee turnover— sadly, is never the leader’s fault. They blame their employees or other external factors when what they really should be doing is to look in the mirror and see where the problem lies!

The number one cause of this lack of engagement, poor employee performance, and staff turnover is the relationship the employee has with his or her immediate supervisor. In another book from The Gallup Organisation, Now, Discover Your Strengths, authors Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton observed that,

“…The single most important determinant of individual performance is a person’s relationship with his or her immediate manager. Without a robust relationship with a manager who sets clear expectations, knows you, trusts you, and invests in you, you are less likely to stay and perform.”

If the team is not performing to expectations, first look at whether the leadership they are getting is what they need to be able to perform at their best.

  • An obsession with logic.

Left-brain thinking is the rational, analytical, logical, sequentially- thinking side of the brain. The world of work has been ruled by an age of left-brained thinking since the beginning of the Industrial Age. The executive offices of most organisations are dominated by left-brained professionals such as engineers, accountants, economists, lawyers, scientists, and businesspeople. Yet every organisation, whether its leaders realise it or not, is that it is in the people business! They hire people, sell, or provide services to people, and partner with people. Well, people have feelings. Managers obsessed with logic and left- brained thinking are dismissive of feelings—they say that emotions don’t belong in the workplace. They do not believe that engagement has anything to do with organisational performance or that people can be passionate about their work. “They just need to do their jobs,” they say, as they switch off any engagement their employees have. Managers need to understand that emotional intelligence and right-brain thinking are critical skills to become successful leaders in the new economy.

Additionally, some leaders proudly profess that they do not like surprises and crucify employees for giving them “surprises”, forgetting that managing adversity in business and organisation is the norm and to play the role of mentor and guide – “serve to lead” and not to be served!

What’s the Answer?

Managers need to identify who the disengaged people are and get rid of them. Then hire just engaged people.” What is forgotten was that they had already hired predominately engaged people. If they did not change their leadership approach, and therefore the work environment, this new crop of engaged workers would soon become disengaged. It is a never- ending cycle that cannot be defeated until new ideas come into play about how to lead an effective team whose members are not only engaged in their work, but also emotionally invested in what they are doing for your organisation.

It’s a domino effect. Being disengaged is contagious. So, until you inspire that passion, nothing will change. By inspiring their passion, you are not only recapturing the enthusiasm and optimism your employees had on their first day with you, but also creating an environment that will ignite their passion to perform at their very best. Like disengagement, being engaged is also contagious.

This post is written by our Senior Advisor, Alan Teo in his book titled “Creating Winning Culture and Building Supertalent”.

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