Disengaged Employees: The New Normal

Disengaged Employees: The New Normal

Workers who don’t care will eat up your profits.

Psychologically checked out. Counting the days ’til retirement. Trying to make everyone else as miserable as you are. Playing the “blame game” and “CYA” to get the next promotion. According to recent large-scale employee surveys, this is a description of the culture at the majority of American workplaces: Employees who are actively disengaged or unengaged make up two-thirds of the U.S. workforce.

That most employers are trying to fight a sluggish economy with employees who are disengaged is disturbing in itself. It’s even more alarming when disengagement affects profitability and the future well-being of your organization. With disconnected employees representing 70 percent of the U.S. workforce, according to Gallup, this is a problem that business leaders simply can’t ignore. Too many organizations have managers and employees who don’t care, and I’m afraid it’s setting us all up for disaster.

Here are the results from Gallup’s latest State of the American Workplace: Employee Engagement Insights for U.S. Business Leaders survey that caught my attention. Their employee categories are “engaged” (those with passion and a profound connection to their company), “not engaged” (those who do not put energy or passion into their work), and “actively disengaged” (those who whine and complain to undermine the work of others).

  • Two-thirds of working Americans have been “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” for at least 12 years.
  • The group with the highest percentage of actively disengaged and not-engaged employees are millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000 roughly); the group most engaged are the traditionalists (those born before 1945).
  • But traditionalists comprise only 4 percent of the workforce, while millennials make up 8 percent. The rest—the vast majority of the American workforce—are baby boomers and generation Xers who are mostly actively disengaged or not engaged. The highest percentage of engaged employees work for companies with 10 or fewer employees.

Why should you care?

Management quality strongly affects employee engagement, which profoundly impacts key performance indicators such as absenteeism, productivity, and profitability, says Gallup. According to Gallup’s research, the top 25 percent of factory teams, which they classify as the “best managed,” have nearly 50 percent fewer accidents and 41 percent fewer quality defects, plus lower health care utilization. “Gallup research shows that managers from hell are creating active disengagement, costing the U.S. an estimated $450 billion to $550 billion annually,” says Chairman and CEO Jim Clifton in the report.

What you can do

Sometimes we just make it too easy for our employees to blame us for their unhappiness. So to be sure you aren’t that type of manager, ask yourself:

Do I focus on the strengths and positive contributions of my employees, or do I tend to dwell on their weaknesses, mistakes, and negative characteristics?

Do I make an extraordinary effort to have the right managers in the right places, and hire the right people for the right jobs?

Do I hire managers using a deliberative selection process based on qualities, values, and cultural fit, rather than a recruiting process focused on interviewing a large number of candidates to find the right mix of skills and experience?

Do I fire managers quickly when it is obvious that they are a problem and are negatively affecting employees?

Do I place value on genuine, trusting relationships with employees so they know they are important as individuals, or do I only value their recent performance?

Do I encourage and invest in talent and empower employees to grow and strive for greater success?

Employees who feel they are ignored by their manager become actively disengaged, according to Gallup research. To me, that is just common sense—if you want to engage your employees, become engaged and involved in their work lives. It’s not rocket science. And it’s not just about giving them a paycheck. Get involved and give them the freedom to act on agreed-upon goals. Offer a sense of mission and clearly defined expectations, consistent input and communication, and a vision of the future and the important role they play in it.

Your customers will reward you

As Peter Drucker, the granddaddy of modern management, famously said, “A business exists to create a customer.” That’s the real bottom line. Checked-out employees do not create happy customers. Just think of the last airline flight you were on. Did you feel any love? When we do, we are more loyal, become brand ambassadors, are more forgiving, and spend more.

The proof is empirical: “When organizations successfully engage their customers and their employees, they experience a 240 percent boost in performance-related business outcomes compared with an organization with neither engaged employees nor engaged customers,” says Gallup.

I’m sorry to be so bleak, but the reality is that most of your employees just aren’t that into you, and that is a major roadblock to your success. The good news is that it’s not an impossible task. Start by building on the enthusiasm of the third of employees who are already engaged, passionate, and into their jobs. Unless, of course, you are a disengaged business leader yourself!

Mark W. Sheffert (mark@manchestercompanies.com) is founder, chairman, and CEO of Manchester Companies, Inc., a Minneapolis-based performance improvement, board governance, and litigation advisory firm.

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