If You’re Happy and You Know It, Stomp Your Feet: US Employees are Disengaged

September 18, 2012

I’ve offered these statistics before, but it bears repeating.  Employees aren’t happy:

According to Gallup, only 33% of American workers are currently engaged with their jobs, while 49% are not engaged and 18% are actively disengaged.
In a Conference Board report issued last year, 55% of American workers are not satisfied with their current work, which is the highest dissatisfaction rate in 22 years.
In the summer of 2010, Hewitt reported that nearly 50% of the 900 organizations they tracked experienced declines in employee engagement versus about 30% that experienced improvement. This was the largest quarterly decline in 15 years.
Other studies have indicated that 60-80% of American workers would consider a job change if the opportunity presented itself (Manpower, CareerBuilder). That’s a concerning statistic, as we see the economy and job market slowly improve (musical chairs, anyone?).
Employee dissatisfaction is costing American organizations dearly:
Disengaged workers cost US businesses as much as $350 billion a year (Gallup).  I think that’s understated, as there are many hidden costs (errors, product warranties, customer complaints and dissatisfaction, productivity, impact on reputation, etc.).
Job stress costs $200-300 billion to US employers annually in lost productivity, tardiness, and absenteeism (University of Michigan).
But if the trend were reversed, performance of organizations would improve:
Companies in the top 10% of employee engagement beat their competition by 72% in earnings per share; companies in the bottom three quartiles had earnings 9.4% below their competition. (SHRM)
Gallup reports that businesses scoring in the top half on employee engagement DOUBLE their chances of delivering superior results compared to those in the bottom half. Further, those in the 99th percentile are nearly FIVE TIMES more likely to deliver high performance than those in the bottom percentile.
So if having satisfied, highly engaged employees produces better overall results, why is it that organizations continue to fall short?  According to Towers Watson’s 2012 Global Workforce Study (just released this summer), it’s because “companies are running 21st-century businesses with 20th-century workplace practices and programs.”  That’s an indictment.

In their study, Towers Watson seems to uncover some of the root causes of employee disengagement.  For the first time ever, Towers Watson attempts to define “sustainable engagement” – the intensity of employees’ connection to their organization – based on three core concepts:

Being engaged: the extent of employees’ discretionary effort committed to achieving work goals, manifested in a belief in company goals and objectives, having an emotional connection to the organization (having pride and likelihood to recommend), and a willingness to give extra effort to support success.
Being enabled: having an environment that supports productivity, demonstrated by having freedom from obstacles to success, availability of resources, and the ability to meet work challenges effectively.
Being energized: having a work experience that promotes well-being, demonstrated in the ability to maintain energy at work, having a supportive social environment, and having feelings of enthusiasm and accomplishment at work.
So the goal is no longer just to have satisfied employees or even just engaged employees, but to have high levels of sustainable engagement– engagement, enablement, and energy – that results in loyalty, productivity, and achievement. If any one of those factors falls short, high levels of employee engagement cannot be sustained.

And the 2012 survey found that most employers are falling short:

Only a third (35%) of the more than 32,000 full-time workers surveyed are highly engaged.  That is, they score high on all three aspects of sustainable engagement (engagement, enablement, energy).
22% feel “unsupported,” in which they display traditional engagement but lack enablement and/or energy (so their engagement levels are not sustainable over the long term).
17% are “detached,” in which they believe they are enabled and/or energized, but are not fully engaged.
And 26% are completely disengaged, showing low scores for all three factors – engagement, energy, and enablement.
I guess the findings aren’t shocking.  According to Towers Watson: “Employees have been doing more with less – and for less [pay] – for over a half a decade, and that reality doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon, if ever.”

So can you blame us workers?  We’re tired; we’re stressed; we’re concerned about financial and professional security; we’re overworked and underpaid; we’re operating in a 24/7 always-connected work cycle; and we’re not receiving the support we need from our leaders to accomplish our work.  No wonder we’re not engaged.

But here’s the issue: “On a deeper level,” as the Towers Watson report argues, “the finding on employee engagement represents a wake-up call for employers, regardless of whether they’re competing to find enough of the right talent, struggling to maintain engagement following a major change in the business, or trying to retain a cadre of workers with essential skills.”

The Towers Watson survey suggests that organizations are somewhat at a tipping point in their ability to maintain engagement over time.  I’m not sure what it means to tip over that edge, but I’m not sure I want to find out either.

So how can leaders increase levels of engagement, energy, and enablement?  Towers Watson offers the top five drivers of sustainable engagement from their research:

Is effective at growing the business
Shows sincere interest in employees’ well-being
Behaves consistently with the organization’s core values
Earns employees’ trust and confidence

Stress, balance and workload:
Manageable stress levels at work
A healthy balance between work and personal life
Enough employees in the group to do the job right
Flexible work arrangements

Goals and objectives – employees understand:
The organization’s business goals
Steps they need to take to reach those goals
How their job contributes to achieving goals
Assign tasks suited to employees’ skills
Act in ways consistent with their words
Coach employees to improve performance
Treat employees with respect

Organization’s image:
Highly regarded by the general public
Displays honesty and integrity in business activities
The list is similar to one that was published earlier this year (Feb 2) in Inc. magazine.  According to author Jeff Haden, employees need these eight things to ensure engagement (the list is his; the commentary is mine):

1. Freedom.  Give employees autonomy and the latitude to be creative.  Yes, there should be “rules” (job guidelines, process and customer requirements), but giving your employees the freedom to innovate, experiment, and create allows them to solve problems, find new and better ways of doing things, and innovate.  There may be some failures along the way (see my column last month regarding the power of failure).  Turn ‘em on and turn ‘em loose.

2. Targets.  Set mutually agreed upon goals that advance the organization’s agenda, motivate the employee, and create accountability.  They should be achievable but challenging; they should be aligned with the organization’s mission and strategic direction.  They will absolutely create purpose, modify behavior, and promote engagement.

3. Mission.  As Jeff Haden proclaims: “We all like to feel a part of something bigger.”  It gives you a sense of purpose and it gives your work meaning.  So as much as possible, share your company’s mission, vision, core values, purpose, and goals with those who can help you achieve them – your people!  You can’t over-communicate these principles, so continue to set context – in different ways (words, pictures, videos, live discussions), in different media (one-one-one, town hall employee meetings, newsletters, blogs, websites, brochures), and with different (but consistent) messages (examples, stories).   Let them know what’s important and why it’s important.

4. Expectations.  According to Haden, while every job should include some degree of latitude (see #1 above), every job also needs boundaries – basic standards regarding the way specific situations should be handled.  Be clear with expectations: collaborate with your employees in setting them, communicate them, and be consistent in reinforcing them.  There is no faster way to impact engagement than by punishing employees for taking action or making decisions that they did not know were inconsistent with your (or your customers’) expectations.  Employees are incredible, but they aren’t mind readers.

5. Input.  Make it easy for employees to offer suggestions, ideas for improvement, and input into key decisions.  People want to be involved, and most employees appreciate collaborative decision making and servant leadership.  And when an idea just won’t work, take the time to explain why.  You’ll gain higher levels of engagement by soliciting input, having the conversation as to why certain ideas will or won’t work, and valuing employees for their contribution.

6. Connection.  People are social animals (even introverts!), and all sorts of research shows that most people find satisfaction and happiness through connecting with others (this goes for work or on a personal level – think of the connection with spouses and partners, children and other family members, friends and neighbors).  Bottom line: employees don’t work just for a paycheck, and they don’t work just for a company.  Employees work with and for people.  Show interest in them; ask how they are doing; see if you can provide support; treat them as a human being with dignity and respect.  It’ll deepen the relationship, and it will enhance their engagement and effectiveness on the job.

7. Consistency.  According to Haden, leaders oftentimes need to treat each employee differently, but must treat each employee fairly (there’s a big difference).  Being consistent – in how you treat your employees, how you make decisions, how you manage your part of the enterprise – promotes certainty and predictability with employees.  Ever work for someone that has no apparent basis for his/her decisions?  They promote or fire people inconsistently; they make a decision one day and change their mind two weeks later with no obviously basis for doing so; they punish behavior that was rewarded in the past.  Obviously, these contradictions will drive employees crazy, creating fear, stress, and sometimes hostility.  Part of – a big part of – being consistent is in communicating effectively: the more employees understand why a decision was made, the less likely they are to assume favoritism, unfair treatment, and/or sinister rationale.

8. Future.  People want to feel important, and most people want to continue to learn, evolve, and mentally grow.  So take the time to develop employees, giving them skills and experiences that will either lead them to a different/better position within or outside your organization.  Invest in them, and they’ll invest in your organization.

I think the whole engagement issue is best summed up by Haden in his Inc. article: “Employees will care about your business when you care about them first.”

In a period of intense stress and change (and in case you haven’t noticed: this “new normal” we’re in has caused a perpetual state of both), employees need to feel respected, valued, and supported.  Having happy, highly engaged, motivated, loyal, and effective employees depends on leaders within organizations creating an environment that enables their success, and creating an experience that promotes well-being and energy.  The result?  Employees that give their utmost to the accomplishment of the organization’s goals, that have an emotional connection to the employer, that have pride in their work and a willingness to recommend to other employees and customers, and that have a willingness to give a little extra to support sustainable success.  In other words, sustainable engagement.

If you want a copy of the Towers Watson report, email me (or it’s posted in the Network’s online Improvement Clearinghouse athttp://www.councilforquality.org/improve_documents.cfm).

Want to participate in a discussion on this topic??  Visit our LinkedIn group and/or our blog our to post a comment!

Yours in Performance Excellence,

Brian S. Lassiter
President, Performance Excellence Network (formerly Minnesota Council for Quality)