Business Journal

Start Worrying About "Not Engaged" Employees

A Q&A with Curt Coffman

Half of your workforce may be "checked out." Here's how great managers inspire, refocus, and re-engage these low-performing employees.

Most executives are consumed with plummeting stock prices and accounting scandals. But they generally cannot control the stock market. What they really ought to be worried about is the fact that 55% of their employees are "not engaged" in their jobs, according to Gallup Organization research. These employees are essentially "checked out." They're sleepwalking through their workday, putting in time -- but not energy or passion -- into their work.

What are the signs that employees are not engaged, and what can managers do to re-engage them? We asked Curt Coffman, Global Practice Leader for Q12 Management Consulting and coauthor of Gallup's best-selling book on great managers, First, Break All the Rules, and Follow This Path (in bookstores in September 2002), to share insights from the world's greatest managers.

GMJ: What are the characteristics of employees who are not engaged? How are they different from employees who are "engaged" or "actively disengaged"?

Curt Coffman: If your workgroup is an engine, these are the employees who are stuck in neutral. "Engaged" employees are in high gear, moving forward toward the next challenge. "Actively disengaged" employees are stuck in reverse, and they're dead set on dragging others down with them. "Not engaged" employees are different. They don't necessarily have a negative attitude, but they aren't necessarily positive, either.

GMJ: So these are the employees who come in, put in their time, are pleasant enough, and get their work done. But they don't generate nearly as much value for the organization as employees who are engaged.

Coffman: That's right. Actively engaged employees have a passion that drives them to build and innovate, to find new and more effective ways to accomplish their roles and to drive the organization forward.

Employees who are "not engaged" are stuck in a low-risk, low-commitment mode. They don't feel a connection with -- or from -- their company, their manager, or their coworkers. They don't feel a sense of achievement. What's more, they become fixated on the steps of their roles instead of the outcomes. They're just concerned about doing the minimum they need to do to get by. And Gallup's research indicates that, on average, about 55% of the employees in a manager's workgroup could be in this category.

GMJ: That's an awful lot of employees. How can managers spot people who are "not engaged"?

Coffman: First, watch for a focus on steps instead of outcomes. "Not engaged" employees concentrate on tasks rather than the actual goal they are supposed to accomplish. They focus on process, not product. Engaged employees focus on the ends, not the means.

Employees who are not engaged also tend to feel their contributions are being overlooked, and their potential is not being tapped. Often, they feel this way because they don't have productive relationships with their managers or with their coworkers. The only way people can really engage and be an integral part of an organization is through relationships, so employees who are not engaged respond to their lack of engagement by disconnecting emotionally from their coworkers. They don't feel a commitment from their managers or coworkers, so they hang back and don't commit at work.

GMJ: And how can a manager inspire them to become more engaged and deliver greater value to the organization?

Coffman: If they're going to engage these employees, managers must re-ignite that sense of commitment. Basically, these employees "lower the bar" for themselves by doing the least amount of work necessary. Managers can help them refocus on the demands of their roles and on the skills, knowledge, and talents these employees bring to their roles. Managers must provide expectations, clarification, and measurement.

GMJ: Please elaborate.

Coffman: The best place to start is with a dialogue about the expectations of the role. Get employees to stop using a microscope and start viewing their roles from a broader perspective. If you think about it, companies hire employees to do three things: achieve the business outcomes of their roles, be an active part of creating a productive workplace, and drive customer engagement. So review those three things very carefully. Ask them, "What are the outcomes you are supposed to achieve? What were you hired to do? How do you contribute to making this a great place to work? Are you creating engaged customers?"

The key is to refocus employees away from steps and toward outcomes. One of the most difficult discussions a manager can have is when an employee says, "Tell me what to do." This is a trap. Managers who fall into that trap will end up telling that employee, "Here's exactly what you do at 8 o'clock, at 9 o'clock, at 10 o'clock." Managers who do this reinforce "not engaged" behaviors and move 180 degrees away from engaging the heart, mind, and soul of that person.

GMJ: Which brings us to clarification.

Coffman: That's right. Next, help employees clarify how they can achieve these outcomes. What skills, knowledge, and talents do they bring to their roles? How can they use these to achieve their outcomes? Sometimes, managers can help employees tweak their roles so they better fit their talents. For example, a sales consultant may need to turn in expense or time reports promptly, but he lacks the discipline or focus to do this task effectively and in a timely manner. Finding him a complementary partner who can take on this task or a system to compile this information will enable him to concentrate his energy on developing client relationships, which is a key demand of his role.

GMJ: What about measurement?

Coffman: Measurement is crucial to an employee's feelings of success. Good measurement aligns with outcomes and matches the expectations for the role. It can also build a sense of achievement as long as the measurement is carefully calibrated to expectations. Managers must review the measurement system carefully to ensure that it focuses on outcomes, not steps. For example, measuring a salesperson on the number of calls he makes reinforces process, not product. But measuring the number of sales he makes clearly aligns with an outcome for his role.

GMJ: So expectations, clarification, and measurement are keys to nudging "not engaged" employees back toward engagement.

Coffman: And that's what managers want -- they want employees to be engaged. They don't want employees who are satisfied with mediocrity, but ones who actively pursue excellence in all areas of their roles.

-- Interviewed by Barb Sanford
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