Given that disengaged employees represent 87% of the workforce, chances are you will work with one at some point in your career. You will be more likely to succeed if you develop the skills to channel their lack of motivation into a productive force. First, don’t get emotional. Work is work, and what matters most is that people deliver. This is particularly true for disengaged employees, who will respond and cooperate more if you stick to a transactional style of communication. Second, don’t assign disengaged people tasks outside their expertise area. When motivation is low, natural ability can compensate, and vice-versa. Finally, use extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivation. This means using sticks and carrots and being clear about the reasons your employee should bother making an effort with the task at hand.
If you love your job, consider yourself lucky. According to global estimates, just 13% of people are engaged at work, which contributes to a huge productivity loss. In the United States alone, disengagement costs the economy around $500 billion every year (that is roughly the size of the global beer industry). These estimates are based on a simple calculation, namely scaling the average differences in productivity between engaged and disengaged workers.
Engagement can be interpreted as a broad indicator of how motivated an employee is at work. This means low engagement levels can be expected to play a significant role in driving the massive loss in productivity we are seeing worldwide. Employee performance is as much the result of a person’s motivation as it of their talent or ability. But while companies are relatively good at hiring for talent, especially when talent can be equated to hard skills or past experience, they are generally less apt at hiring for soft skills, including motivational traits. A candidate could seem to have high potential on paper or during an interview but fail to live up to it on the job.
Industrial-organizational psychologists (like myself) have long been aware of this issue, described as the problematic gap between a person’s maximal and typical performance. When engagement is high, there’s very little difference between the two — meaning people are performing at their best on a regular basis. But when engagement is low, maximal performance (or the best a person can do) is rarely on display.
Given that disengaged employees represent 87% of the workforce, this is not a problem that can be avoided or ignored. Chances are you will work with (or on) a team that has disengaged employees at some point in your career. You will be more likely to succeed if you develop the skills to channel their lack of motivation into a productive force.
Here are few simple recommendations to boost your ability to collaborate with disengaged (or less motivated) colleagues:
What Not To Do
Don’t make assumptions about their performance. Although the relationship between engagement and performance is consistent and positive, it is far from perfect. In any organization, at any given time, some disengaged employees and leaders will perform rather well, while their engaged counterparts will perform rather poorly. In other words, there is no need to be dramatic or have a catastrophic reaction when you are working with (and even for) people who are disengaged: statistically, they are likely to underperform, but that doesn’t mean that they cannot perform adequately or even highly. As the Norwegians say: “There is no bad weather, just the wrong choice of clothing.” When dealing with people, a similar rule applies: bad predictions are a bigger problem than bad people.
Don’t force an employee to be someone who they are not. Low levels of engagement (the term organizations use for motivation) often reflect people’s personality and values rather than their motivational state, as recent meta-analytic studies show. Just like some people are temperamentally happy or optimistic while others are moody, grumpy, or pessimistic — some employees are prewired to be more critical, cynical, and disengaged than others. These feeling often manifest as a lack of enthusiasm, particularly if the employee is disinterested in faking happiness. Expecting an employee who is prone to disengagement to act in a happy and exciting way is like forcing them to be someone who they or not. Try your best to be realistic about what people are able to deliver.
Don’t get emotional. Work is work, and what matters most is that people deliver. This is particularly true for disengaged employees, who will respond and cooperate more if you stick to a transactional style of communication. Keep things formal, concrete, and focus on the task, rather than trying to appeal to their emotions. Don’t expect to win their hearts and minds. Enlist them instead in task-oriented activities, operating within the formalities of the organizational structure and explicit performance indicators they have.
Don’t assign people tasks outside their areas of expertise. Performance is always the result of ability and motivation. When motivation is low, ability can compensate, and vice-versa. This is why even disengaged employees can still do something they are skilled or experienced at fairly well. They may even deliver great results despite being on autopilot. A much bigger issue, however, is when disengaged employees are out of their depth of experience. In such cases, you won’t be able to rely on their willingness to compensate through energy, hard-work, or persistence so as to get better.
What To Do
Use extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivation. People tend to perform better when they are intrinsically motivated — or when they truly and deeply care about the activity in question, to the point of losing themselves in the work and experiencing a state of flow. But for most employees this is an exception rather than a norm. While highly engaged workers may not need a reason to perform to the best of their capabilities, and tend to give 100% even if you don’t spend much time motivating them, disengaged workers are more likely to wait for your orders, and need to be extrinsically motivated. This means using sticks and carrots and being clear about the reasons your employee should bother making an effort with the task at hand.
Focus on what they value. Engagement is largely about bringing your whole self to work, as originally conceptualized by William Kahn, who, when first introducing the term 30 years ago, equated high engagement as a psychological condition characterized by narrow distance between a person’s self and their work persona. This explains why people become disengaged when their beliefs and values don’t match those of their employer.
However, this also doesn’t mean you can’t engage them. In fact, if you are a manager or leader your main role is to figure out what each person on your team values in order to establish a meaningful relationship with them. Doing so will help you connect organizational needs with each person’s unique motivations and systems of meaning. Unsurprisingly, direct line supervisors are one of the major drivers of engagement (and disengagement). But the same logic applies to peer-to-peer relationships. If you want to gain a disengaged team member’s trust and respect, you need to first understand who they are and speak to their interests. Pay extra attention to what makes them tick and note their consistent pattern of behaviors.
Respect people’s space. From an ethical standpoint, you should respect people’s desire to keep a healthy distance between their work and private self and be relatively uninvested (at least in a spiritual sense) in their careers. After all, at least for most people, there is more to life than work, and people’s personal lives often impact their work-related performance and engagement.
Though most of the disengaged employees surveyed in Gallup and other consulting firms are highly skilled and work in global firms, one can whether there will ever be enough jobs out there to engage the vast majority of the workforce. Maybe engagement is more of an aspiration or privilege for those who are lucky enough to land attractive employment.
If organizations are genuinely interested in improving productivity, then, one would surely expect them to consider it from a diversity and inclusion perspective and accept that personal circumstances as well as people’s own style and disposition may interfere with the cult-like level of engagement they aspire to build in their workforce. There is such a thing as setting expectations too high, and when you do, you risk nurturing a culture of conformity, suppressing creative and critical thinking, and causing burnout.
To conclude, it is not enough to attempt to boost employee engagement levels, and if we look at the evidence there is not much that suggests we are making systematic progress in this field, since engagement levels have remained low — and even decreased — in the past decade. This is why it is just as important to figure out how to work with and manage people who are disengaged. Ultimately, it’s what people deliver that matters most.