January 31

Nine Prescriptions for the Deadly Disease of Disengagement By Richard Tyson

Business, Engagement


The unused movie tickets lay on the dining room table alongside a half-eaten tv dinner. It was 9:15 p.m. on a Friday evening when Jane walked through the front door.


“I’m sorry,” she said. “But I think I’ve completed the project.” Her husband looked skeptical, but he nodded. “Perhaps we can catch our movie tomorrow evening.”


Jane responded, “Well, maybe. If I go into work for just a few hours tomorrow, I can catch up on three or four other things my boss wants me to do.”


And so it goes… Jane is a “go-to girl” who is statistically one of the 3 out of every 10 workers who is “highly engaged” in her work. She is highly respected at work and is counted on to get things done. She’s the employee that every boss loves.


But there’s something very wrong with this picture, and it’s much more than a spoiled Friday-night date. You see, studies have shown that in the average U.S. company there are three highly engaged Janes, as well as five Bobs who are largely disengaged, and two Ollies who are not only disengaged, but are actively working to harm the business.


Employee engagement, or the lack thereof, is “public enemy number one” with CEOs and business owners. And unfortunately, two factors raise the real possibility that the problem will actually get worse: (a) With the Internet and the pervasive use of smartphones, opportunities for employees to be distracted and disengaged have multiplied; and (b) With so many Bobs (and the occasional Ollie) in the average company, “go-to girls” like Jane shoulder more and more of the workload. They do this willingly for a while because of their work ethic and integrity. However, they pay a high price for doing so in the form of burnout, health problems, and tarnished personal relationships. Because of this, they are destined to become a dying breed.


These factors do not bode well for business. Already, U.S. companies lose an estimated $450 billion annually due to disengaged employees!


So, what can be done? Studies show that there are notable exceptions to these disengagement trends. Google, for instance, has employed a number of strategies that are actually converting Bobs and Ollies into Janes.


In his book, Work Rules, Google’s head of people operations, Lazlo Bock, shares the company’s strategies to enhance employee engagement. Seven of the most effective are:


  1. Give the work meaning. Bock sums it up, “Give your team a pay check and they’ll give you their hands. Give them a purpose and they’ll give you their hearts and minds as well.”
  2. Purposely hire people who are better than you—and trust them to do their jobs. While some leaders may be tempted to deal with disengagement by micro-managing, Google has discovered that when they focus on hiring the right people, they don’t have to spend nearly as much time overseeing their work thereafter.
  3. Be clear on desired outcomes, in terms of both job performance and personal growth and development goals for each employee. These should constitute the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for each individual.
  4. Focus attention on your Janes and Ollies. Identify what your Janes do well and provide opportunities for them to teach your Bobs regarding both WHY and HOW they are successful. Then, be frank with your Ollies, helping them to improve—or exit the company.
  5. Be frugal and generous. Google has identified many ways to recognize and reinforce highly engaged employees that cost them virtually no money. This frugality allows them to be generous at times when employees most need support, such as when a team member experiences a death in their family.
  6. Make sure your compensation structure fairly rewards your people. Your Janes should know from their pay checks that they are your all-stars.
  7. Create and manage rising expectations. Clearly communicate your intent to grow your population of Janes. Entertain and experiment with ideas from your people to do so.


From my own experience, I would add two additional strategies to those used by Google:


  1. Treat your people as people, not as objects. I once had a client who told me that “people were like the alternator in his car. You use them until they burn out, and then you replace them.” This cynical attitude bought him little loyalty and even less engagement.


  1. Walk your talk. To expect high levels of engagement, you must model that behavior yourself. We must take care not to contribute to propagation of Bobs and Ollies!


Richard Tyson is the founder, principal owner and president of CEObuilder, which provides forums for consulting and coaching to executives in small businesses.

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Rich Tyson

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