Thursday, August 15, 2013

Disengagement’s Drag On Performance

It never fails.  Every summer there is a news article or two complaining about receiving work-related emails and calls when on vacation.

The real issue probably isn’t email.  It’s just a tool, in my opinion, that allows you to relax on vacation because you aren’t holding someone up or failing to address an issue that could grow into a full-blown “forest fire” if you don’t nip it in the bud.

The real issue is more likely one of lack of engagement.  Of the 100 million people in America who hold full-time jobs, 30 million are engaged and inspired at work.  That’s the good news, according to Gallup’s ongoing analysis of the American workplace.

Among the rest, 50 million are not engaged or inspired in their work and another 20 million are, well, “actively not engaged.”  I suspect the same holds true of the population in retirement or in school and may be especially true of many who run for elected office.

It is probably also true of the editors who repeatedly assign those stories.

Before you jump to the conclusion that lack of engagement must drive high turn-over, think again.  Gallup has isolated and quantified the relationship between engagement and nine different performance outcomes because engagement continues to be key to organizational performance.State of the Amercan Workplace

Lack of engagement is 2.6 times greater as a factor in “low employee turnover” than it is in “high employee turnover.”  In other words, low employee turnover can often mean employees have just “retired in place.”

Other studies show that thriving organizations strive for “continuing and never-ending improvement.”  On average, studies show that 20% or more of employees should either move on or be “moved on” each year because they have outgrown their jobs or the job just isn’t a good fit.

Low turnover can be of even more concern than high turnover to high performing organizations.  The best rule is a policy of “grow and go" for engaged employees who need to progress faster than an organization can accommodate them.  Of course, equally important is “moving employees out who are actively disengaged.”

One of the biggest drags on an organization by employees who are not engaged is absenteeism.  This is even greater than high turn-over.  Shrinkage or employee theft is also a bigger factor followed by safety incidents.

If someone complains about checking email occasionally while on vacation, that may be more an indication that they aren’t engaged in their work.  They are most likely to also complain or be unresponsive at work.

In my experience, a tell-tale sign of lack of engagement is the inability to resolve conflict.  Those who are “actively not engaged” probably also generate a fair amount of needless conflict, especially if they are passive-aggressive.

Email accounts for highly engaged people should probably be monitored by supervisors when they are on holiday until it is confirmed that they know how to limit engagement or to determine what may be creating unnecessary interruptions.

Fifty percent or more of every job is project management.  This means collaborating with other people and organizations.  It may also mean a fair amount of “putting fires out.”

Email availability is probably not be a burden, but a blessing for those engaged employees who do not want their absence to inconvenience co-workers who are “holding down the fort” while they are gone.  It also lessens the mountain of work waiting when they return.

For anyone for whom it is a strain, there are probably bigger problems to be addressed.  Engagement is also more important to employee motivation and organizational performance than perks.

Organizational size seems to make a difference.  Slightly less than half of the 100 million full-timers noted above work in organizations of fewer than 500 employees while 39% work in organizations with 10 or less.

The ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees according to Gallup is 8 to 1 in organizations of 10 or fewer employees.  The ratio is only slightly better than 1.5 to 1 in organizations of 10-24 employees and also less in organizations of up to 99 employees.  From there, the ratio gradually increases again to a high in organizations in the 500-999 employee range before it begins to fall again.

The Gallup report also breaks down engagement by position.  Managers, executives and officials have slightly higher (6 points) engagement.  Of concern for the impact it may have on organizational engagement overall is that 51% are not engaged and 13% are actively not engaged.

At 29%, oft-maligned Government workers are only 1 point less engaged than American workers as a whole.  They are three points higher when it comes to “not engaged (53%)” but two points lower than American workers overall when it comes to being “actively not engaged (18%.)”

Longevity can be a factor.  In the first six months or less, 52% of employees are engaged.  It drops to 44% for those who stay three years or less and bumps up a couple of points for those who stay ten years or more.

Active disengagement bumps up four points between six months and three years and then another two points between three years and ten years.  The lesson is that the 8% who are actively disengaged in the first six months won’t get better given time beyond a trial period.

To me, tenure does not equate in the study with the danger of complacency but about 15% of those employees who are engaged at 6 months become disengaged or actively disengaged over time.

There are far too many organizations where disengaged employees who aren’t released during their trial period, are later made supervisors based on tenure.  The sad part is that this is where their active disengagement contaminates and demotivates others.

“Hire slow, fire fast” should be the mantra for high performing organizations.

The price to society of the people who remain unengaged or actively disengaged in their work over decades must be staggering.  Fascinating in the report is a breakdown of engaged, unengaged and actively disengaged by generational cohort.

Ironically, broken down by education, those with less than a high school degree are slightly more engaged than other educational cohorts.  The study reveals that having a college degree and higher earnings during a person’s lifetime does not guarantee engagement in the workplace.

Educational level is important to getting a good job and to earning more money but no guarantee to finding work that is personally engaging.  Part of this may be higher expectations and a sense of entitlement.

But those with a college degree are slightly less likely to be actively disengaged.  One thing is clear from the report, hiring more college graduates or paying more in salaries or indulging employees with perks is no guarantee they will be engaged and inspired in their work.

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