Why are disengaged employees disengaged?

Last year, when working on the Work Media Roadmap report, I came up with a characterization of the way we work today, which I called the 3D Workforce: Distributed, Decentralized, and Discontinuous.

Work today is being uprooted:

  • Workers today are increasingly mobile, and their expectation is that they can and must work wherever they are. Our work can be performed at home, in the train, at a coffee shop, and in the office, and we have increasing autonomy in deciding where and when to do what.
  • Individuals and organizations increasingly do not recognize a clear break between work hours and leisure time, for better or worse. The discontinuity inherent in ‘lifeslicing’ has deep societal implications, and is happening at an increasing rate.
  • Work is commonly shared across geographically dispersed workers, across different companies, and a growing number of freelancers, whose contributions are now estimated at over 35% of all professional and creative work in the US.
  • People also timeshift across projects, making work discontinuous. As a result, people are becoming used to working in loosely coordinated, short-term projects, with a growing reliance on results-only work styles and decreasing organizational infrastructure and oversight.

This trend — or group of trends — was considered far and away the most disruptive of the four identified, more than twice as disruptive as the second. In fact, the 3D workforce received every vote possible.

I often make the comment in presentations that it’s really a 4D workforce, however, because these is a fourth factor: Disengagement. A recent Dale Carnegie research study (What Drives Employee Engagement And Why It Matters) looked into the question of disengaged employees, and found 71% were disengaged to some degree.
Some findings:

Among the 1,500 employees, only 29% are fully engaged and 26% are disengaged. Almost half (45%) are partially engaged.
The findings from the MSW Research study identify several factors that drive engagement or disengagement.
Gender, ethnicity and work status (full/part time) do not emerge as critical variables of employee engagement.
On the other hand, there are some additional factors that have minor influences on engagement. More engaged workers tend to be:

  • Senior management (Senior VP+ level)
  • Employed in a large corporation
  • Have a college education
  • Earn $50K+
  • Under the age of 30, or over 50

Comparatively, demographic and organizational segments currently less engaged or disengaged with their organizations are:

  • Middle-aged employees (40-49 years old)
  • The most highly educated, i.e., those with a post-graduate education
  • Lower-level income employees earning less than $50K
  • Newer employees, especially those in the organization less than a year
  • Client-facing and clerical staffers
  • Those working in government, military, education and manufacturing sectors

And the McGuffin?

While there are many research studies that point to the percentage of engaged and  disengaged employees, few studies have looked at what really drives employee engagement. Dale Carnegie teamed with MSW Research to study the functional and emotional elements that affect employee engagement. A national representative sample of 1,500 employees was surveyed, which revealed that although there are many factors that impact employee engagement, there are three key drivers:

  • Relationship with immediate supervisor
  • Belief in senior leadership
  • Pride in working for the company

Employees said that it is the personal relationship with their immediate supervisor that is the key. The attitude and actions of the immediate supervisor can enhance employee engagement or can create an atmosphere where an employee becomes disengaged. In addition, employees said that believing in the ability of senior leadership to take their input, lead the company in the right direction and openly communicate the state of the organization is key in driving engagement. Other factors that drive engagement are that employees are treated with respect, that their personal values are reflected and that the organization cares about how they feel.

I wrote not too long ago about remote workers being more engaged, which may be counterintuitive, but seems to be based on the way that immediate supervisors treat them. This suggests that leaders work harder to engage remote workers, and that makes a difference.
But the more general issue is still engagement across the board, which hinges on first line managers.
I am not surprised that social sensitivity — the capacity to care about employees as individuals, and to be concerned for their well-being and involvement — is the necessary component for worker engagement. And the lack of that connection with the specific demographic groups may shed light on the difficulties managers have: managers may find it hard to put themselves in the shoes of clerical works, support staff, post-docs, new employees, and low-paid workers.
U.S. businesses lose $11 billion per year because of employee turnover, according to The Bureau of National Affairs, and a lot of that is due to disengaged workers who leave rather than work with unfeeling bosses.
My bet is that as companies become more fast and loose with the transition to social business models of operations, employee engagement may decrease in criticality. As employees build their own support and trust networks, and have more say in what they do and how they do it, the role of management will shift. In a sense, the relationship between the employee and their ‘supervisor’ will become less central to the perception of the company and the job, because ‘supervising’ will gradually be replaced with ‘circumvising’. Instead of a manager you report up to and who directs the work of those below, the social context — social practices, social tools, and the immediate social network — will constrain and support the worker from all around.
The best answer to disengagement is not trying to train first line managers to be more caring. That’s unlikely to work, or to scale. We should instead move steadily into building circumvision as a characteristic of social contexts, where engagement emerges from strong caring relationships with many colleagues, instead centralizing that into one supervisor.