Business Journal

The High Cost of Disengaged Employees

A Q&A with Curt Coffman

There are "cave dwellers" in your ranks, and they're hurting your company

Engaged employees are clearly more valuable to your company than disenchanted ones. Great managers and leaders know this instinctively, and The Gallup Organization's latest research into employee engagement levels among the U.S. workforce confirms it. In fact, according to Gallup's calculations, actively disengaged employees -- the least productive -- cost the American economy up to $350 billion per year in lost productivity.

What are the characteristics of the best -- and worst -- employees? And how can employees, managers, and corporate leaders work together to create a workplace that promotes employee engagement? 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 the soon to be published Follow This Path (due out in October), to give us Gallup's latest insights.

GMJ: Gallup uses the terms engaged, not engaged, and actively disengaged to describe workers in businesses worldwide. What do those terms mean?

Curt Coffman: Since 1997, Gallup has reviewed the responses of approximately 3 million employees (over 1 million in 2001 alone) that have participated in the Q12 survey, Gallup's 12-question assessment of employee engagement levels. Employee responses to these crucial 12 items have significant linkages to broader employee attitudes and day-to-day behavior.

In Gallup's review, three distinct groups, or levels of engagement, emerged: engaged, not engaged, and actively disengaged. The "engaged" employees are builders. They use their talents, develop productive relationships, and multiply their effectiveness through those relationships. They perform at consistently high levels. They drive innovation and move their organization forward. The employees that are "not engaged" aren't necessarily negative or positive about their company. They basically take a wait-and-see attitude toward their job, their employer, and their coworkers. They hang back and don't commit themselves.

This brings us to the "actively disengaged" employees -- the "cave dwellers." They're "Consistently Against Virtually Everything." We've all worked with an actively disengaged employee who is not just unhappy at work; he acts out that unhappiness. Every day, actively disengaged employees tear down what their engaged coworkers are building.

GMJ: What are the characteristics of an actively disengaged employee?

Coffman: Actively disengaged people operate from the mindset, "I'm okay. You're not okay." They believe that they're doing what needs to done, and everyone else is wrong. Negativity is like a blood clot, and actively disengaged employees sometimes clot together in groups that support and reinforce their beliefs.

Actively disengaged employees also may close themselves off from anyone who will challenge them to become part of the solution, rather than staying part of the problem. This is key to understanding the difference between an engaged and actively disengaged person. An engaged person occasionally becomes negative. We all do. But an actively disengaged person finds it almost impossible to become part of the solution, because they thrive on being part of the problem.

GMJ: How can you spot an engaged employee?

Coffman: Engaged workers show consistent levels of high performance. They're natural innovators, and they drive for efficiency. They demand clarity about the desired outcomes of their role. They're passionate about their work -- they have a visceral connection to what they do. They challenge others to work with mission and purpose.

Engaged employees don't just accept anything that comes along; when a change occurs, they want to know what is behind it and how they can connect to it. They're energetic and enthusiastic, and they never run out of things to do -- they create more work for themselves within their area of talent. They're committed to the company, to their workgroup, and to their role, so much so that their commitment overcomes barriers and transforms relationships.

GMJ: What can managers do to help engaged employees stay that way?

Coffman: Engaged employees need strong relationships with, and clear communication from, their manager. They also need a degree of tension within their areas of talent and strengths that will stretch them and help them continue to grow.

A great manager can help them create and "own" their goals, targets, and milestones. A great manager can help them focus and can help keep their path clear, so engaged employees can do what they do best every day. And managers can help them develop the skills and knowledge they need to build their talents into strengths.

GMJ: What do engagement levels mean for a business' bottom line?

Coffman: Engaged employees produce more, they make more money for the company, they create emotional engagement with the customers they serve, and they create environments where people are productive and accountable. We also know that engaged employees stay with the organization longer and are much more committed to quality and growth than the other two groups.

Our most recent research suggests that 29% of the U.S. workforce is actively engaged, 55% is not engaged, and 16% is actively disengaged. To put it another way, for every two builders walking the halls of your organization, there is a cave dweller impeding the good work done by the engaged employees.

If 55% of all U.S. workers are not engaged, and 16% are actively disengaged, then 71% of the Americans who go to work every day aren't engaged in their role. So American businesses are operating at one third of their capacity. Think about that: What if only one third of a bank's branches opened each day? What if only one third of a manufacturing company's machines operated at capacity every day? The lost opportunity is obvious -- but so is the opportunity for growth, if you can move your employees from the "not engaged" to the "engaged" category.

-- Interviewed by Barb Sanford

Next month: Managing for engagement

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