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By Joe Kay & Toby Lyons

When someone asks us “what do you do?” we almost always reply with our occupation. We are more than just our job title; for most of us, work is one of the defining aspects of our lives.


Despite work taking up a large chunk of our lives and forming an important part of our identity, there seems to be a crisis of employee disengagement that is showing no signs of changing:


According to a study conducted in 140 countries, only 13% of employees working for an organization are engaged.


This is particularly worrying given that the workplace report conducted by Gallup was published in 2013 and according to the follow up report in 2016, “it has barely budged in years.


In the ever changing world of work, it seems that we haven’t got the hang of keeping our employees engaged.


This article examines the causes and effects of employee disengagement before looking at why we work and exploring what managers can do to keep their employees engaged.

Disengagement Defined


William Kahn defines disengagement as:


“… the simultaneous withdrawal and defense of a person’s preferred self in behaviors that promote a lack of connections, physical, cognitive, and emotional absence, and passive, incomplete role performance.”


Employee disengagement can be described as work roles being ‘uncoupled from our sense of self’. In other words, you’re there but you’re not really there- you’re simply going through the motions of your tasks and activities at work.

The Causes


The potential causes of employee disengagement can be split into four categories:


  • External causes such as economic or governmental instability or a sudden unanticipated personal situation
  • Psychological causes like lack of meaning in the role you do, lack of an identification with an organization, lack of trust and a sense of being undervalued
  • Organizational causes such as bad management, poor working conditions, or the restructuring of a company
  • Other causes such as illness, laziness, or poor interpersonal relationships


The Effects


Disengagement can affect any and all parts of an organisation- from sales to customer service to the quality of the product or service being sold.


Disengaged employees are also more likely to feel disempowered, unconnected, anxious, and have a higher number of sick days.


Unsurprisingly, employee disengagement undermines the collaborative efforts of the whole team; employees who don’t really care are unlikely to bring much to the table. Input from disengaged employees is therefore unlikely to bring much value to the organisation.


The ultimate cost of employee disengagement is financial:


Disengaged employees cost organisations between $450- $550 billion annually


Why we work


According to Psychologist and author of “Why We Work”, Dr Barry Schwartz, if you look at the productivity and profitability of companies across many industries, companies that have the most “enlightened” management practices are the most profitable companies.


It’s fair to assume therefore that worldwide, the 13% of engaged employees have managers that create the working conditions to keep their workforce engaged, while the remaining 87% of leaders are consistently leaving money on the table by not tapping into what motivates their employees.


In his TED Talk, Schwartz highlights 6 reasons (beyond financial reward) that we go to work every day:


  • Challenge
  • Autonomy
  • Mastery
  • Social engagement
  • Meaning
  • Engagement


According to Schwartz, work is likely to be disengaging if it doesn’t have the above characteristics- even if the job is well paid.


Ensuring Employee Engagement


If management practices are aligned with the reasons that people work, we’re infinitely more likely to have a more engaged and motivated workforce. Here are our 4 tips to ensure employee engagement.


1) Define engagement goals in realistic, everyday terms.

Engagement goals are unlikely to be impactful unless they’re understood by everyone in the team. Managers in successful organisations bring engagement goals to life using emotive language and powerful statements.

Managers that truly recognise employees as the lifeblood of an organisation make caring for them a top priority. Engagement should therefore not be an afterthought; it should be woven into the fabric of the organisation and every opportunity should be a chance to ensure that management care about wellbeing.


2) Meaning

Ensuring employees understand why they’re doing what they’re doing is arguably the most essential aspect to ensuring engagement. When everyone on the team knows they are valued, knows why their work is important, and what they’re working towards, managers are able to strategically align employee engagement with overall team success.


3) Participation in decision making

Managers and employees must feel empowered to make a significant difference in their immediate environment

Delegating responsibility and empowering employees in decision making not only increases engagement but it radically increases the speed and efficiency with which teams can make decisions.


The possibility to truly include employees in decision making is less likely when there’s strict organisational hierarchy. Organisations that have a dynamic hierarchy are able to empower their team to lead and delegate within specific situations.


Being empowered in this way gives employees a stake in the success of the company and will dramatically increase the likelihood of team success.


4) Unlock internal motivation.


In Drive, Dan Pink argues that once basic financial needs are met, people are more motivated by internal factors than by external drivers. The key, he says, is for managers to realise how much control they have over the three areas of intrinsic motivation for their team, which are summarised here:  

Purpose: Passion behind a meaningful purpose makes us more motivated and engaged.

Mastery: We have an innate desire to grow and develop – to become really good at something. Mastery leads to a sense of personal fulfillment.

Autonomy: Having a sense of autonomy over tasks, time, techniques and team has been shown to have a powerful effect on performance, attitude and job satisfaction.

Final thoughts


“89% of employers think employees leave for more money. Only 12% actually do”

Employee disengagement is extremely damaging for any organisation.

The above statistic highlights that leaders need to have a deeper understanding of employee engagement. Identifying and nurturing what motivates, drives, and inspires us in the world of work should be a top priority for any organisation.

Ensuring employee engagement can’t happen as an afterthought- it must be part of management practice to strategically align employee engagement efforts with the overall goals of the organisation in order for teams to be successful.

Ensuring employees find meaning in their work, including them in decision making, and unlocking intrinsic motivation are some actionable ideas for leaders to drive employee engagement.  

Want to see how Enswarm has helped drive participation, inclusion, and engagement?

Check out our case study, HERE