Are Employees Really that Disengaged in Their Jobs?

It seems that few days pass without a message in my Inbox containing the subject line, “68% of US workers disengaged in their jobs.”
On those rare days when I’m not flooded with emails along these lines, my newsfeeds, tweets, and subscribed blog notifications more than make up for the lack of “the-employee-engagement-sky-is-falling” bad news.
When press releases like the above headline reach the company level, we create a flurry of activity designed to ensure that we’re not part of the majority, and that our workers all fall within the rare 32% of engaged contributors. Consultants, employee survey companies, the media, and HR teams everywhere latch onto this notion and are quick to justify their positions with dire statistics.
Could this be true? Are the vast majority of workers today really that disengaged in their jobs? If so, we are in for some tough times.
The reality is that most employees are engaged in the workplace.
Inherent in human nature is the desire to succeed, as well as to be engaged in what we do. Although there may be times when our workplace activities don’t fully ignite the fire within, generally speaking, we either move on to activities that do engage us, or move out of the organization.
Think of it logically. Do you really think that 2/3 of all those with whom you associate hate their jobs?
Before I’m water boarded by my fellow HR and consulting friends, I will admit to the fact that some days I would rather be fishing than working. There. I said it. But disengaged? Not by a long shot.
Most of these depressing statistics come from survey or opinion polling firms, and are based on aggregating a series of questions. For example, the question, “I am satisfied with my pay” is looped in with other questions like, “Overall, I am fully engaged in the work that I do each day.” These several dozen (or more) questions are then mixed together to come up with an ‘Engagement Score.” Not a bad practice, but also not one from which we can accurately state, “Two-thirds of employees are disengaged.”
Why? The biggest problem is that we mistake drivers of engagement with indicators of engagement.
Drivers of engagement are those elements that contribute to one’s level of engagement. Things like working conditions, pay, a boss’s feedback, company strategy, etc., are all good examples of drivers. They don’t necessarily indicate how engaged I am, but are often contributors to (or detractors from) my level of engagement. It’s very useful to know how employees respond to questions around these drivers, as they are important contributing factors. But they don’t measure engagement. That’s where indicators come in.
Indicators (also known as “outcomes”) tell us whether one is engaged or disengaged. They are not questions about pay or benefits. They aren’t questions about how my boss communicates with me. They are questions about whether or not I am engaged.
Just to clarify, then, drivers are measures of inputs (factors that often lead to engagement). Indicators are measures of outcomes (how engaged I actually am as a result of some of these drivers).
However, when many doomsayers report “levels of engagement,” they are actually pooling and mixing together a series of questions on drivers mixed with indicators.
When we mix all of these factors together and come out with an “engagement score” we make three fundamental errors:

  1. We assume that these drivers are actually indicators of the level of engagement. Faulty assumption.
  2. We assume that we know what engages everyone. In other words, we assume that every employee in every organization derives satisfaction from the same factors. Wrong again.
  3. We assume that there is a 100% correlation between what the company provides and my level of engagement. If the organization provides all factors (drivers) necessary for my engagement, then I am engaged. Conversely, if one or two are missing, I am not. What we are not considering here is choice. An individual can choose to be engaged or disengaged, regardless of the drivers provided by the organization.

In our study of employee engagement across multiple organizations and continents, we find similar results to those above—most employees respond negatively to questions regarding factors such as pay. After all, are any of us paid what we think we’re worth? However, that doesn’t mean they’re disengaged.
In fact, we find that when we ask questions that truly are indicators of engagement— questions like: “I would like to remain at XYZ Company, even if a similar job were available elsewhere”—the answers indicate a resounding “YES!”
We typically like to ask 6-8 questions on every employee survey that we refer to as “Engagement Anchors.” These are indicator questions that signal whether or not employees are engaged, versus driver questions, which merely act as input into our choice to be engaged in what we do. While drivers are important to understand, as they give us insight into what causes engagement or disengagement within an organization, they are not true indicators of engagement.
Where does this leave us?
When looking at those questions that are indicators of engagement, rather than drivers, we find that only 8% of employees are fully disengaged on their jobs, with another 19% being moderately engaged.
So perk up. We’re not quite ready for the apocalyptic downfall of organizations across the globe. That’s a far cry from claims that “Everyone in the company (except me and HR) is disengaged.
Employee Engagement Survey
Related Post: The Employee Engagement Sky is Falling!
Related Post: How Disengaged Employees Could be Sabotaging Your Company’s Success
Related Webinar: Inside the Mind of a Disengaged Employee
Related Training: ENGAGEMENT MAGIC®

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