Otherwise Engaged

Get blase employees motivated about their jobs, and they'll really take care of business.
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the March 2004 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

A woman is standing at a retail counter waiting for help. When an employee finally saunters over to ring up her purchase, he doesn't smile or say "thank you." The woman leaves with a feeling of discontent, wondering if she ever wants to shop there again.

An "I don't care" attitude is ravaging businesses from the assembly line to the retail floor. Research and consulting firm the Gallup Organization estimates 70 percent of employees are "disengaged," meaning they're no longer committed to the company. Even worse, the longer employees stay, the more disengaged they become.

Disengaged employees are "in a holding pattern," says Curt Coffman, global practice leader of employee and customer engagement consulting at Gallup and co-author of First Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently (Simon & Schuster). "[There's] a comfort with being average."

Why Should I Care?

Employee disengagement is widespread at a time when companies are trying to increase productivity and brand themselves. Layoffs have put employees in positions where they feel poorly trained and overworked, says Bob Rosner, founder of employee site Workingwounded.com and co-author of Gray Matters: The Workplace Survival Guide (John Wiley & Sons). "We put people in situations where they can do the worst possible job as opposed to the best possible job," he says. "Organizations don't give [employees] reasons to care."

You can't afford to let employees stop caring. A ratio of four engaged employees to one disengaged employee is where a company starts to see gains in productivity, Coffman says. "The key question is, What percentage of my employees are engaged?" he says. "For every engaged employee, how many disengaged employees are undoing what they're doing?"

Scan your workplace. Are employees going beyond their job descriptions to help customers or other employees? Actions speak volumes. The Gallup Organization asks employees 12 questions to measure disengagement, ranging from "Do I know what's expected of me?" to "In the last year, have I had the opportunity to learn and grow?" The more employees say they don't feel praised,developed and valued, the more likely they are to be disengaged.

Do employees understand where they fit into your company? It's easy to be so busy that everyone loses sight of the big picture. For employees, "there needs to be a purpose greater than themselves that they're working toward," says John Ward, president and co-founder of TAParchitecture, an architecture firm in Oklahoma City with annual sales of $2.5 million. Ward, 52, has dealt with disengaged employees and has learned-as he puts it-not to hire five minutes into an interview. He's also become a "one-minute manager"-he offers feedback every day instead of waiting until the annual performance review. "It's a full-time job to keep people engaged," he says. "You can't buy motivation."

Use one-on-ones as an opportunity to ask employees what they think is expected of them. Their responses could be eye-opening. Also ponder your own work experiences. Did you ever lose enthusiasm for a job? If so, why? And what would it have taken to keep you motivated? Chances are, you'll find a few lessons to apply to your own company.

Get Them Going!

You have to discover and develop employees' talents if you want to keep them engaged. Do you know each employee's three strongest skills? Most managers focus on employee weaknesses and try to fix the unfixable-a surefire way to destroy motivation. You need managers who are able to put people in the right jobs and help them build on what they already do well. "The real opportunity for growth comes in utilizing your strengths," Coffman says, adding that great managers "catch people doing things right."

It may be time to reconsider managers who can't perform at this level. Theresa Welbourne, founder and CEO of eePulse Inc., a technology and management research company in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has fired managers who couldn't energize the company's 15 employees. "Sometimes as leaders we create barriers for people to get work done, and we're unwilling to listen," says Welbourne, 47, who is also an adjunct professor of organizational behavior at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. "[Engagement] is something every manager has to do with their employees." In 2003, eePulse expects sales of $5 million.

Review employee performance formally once a quarter, and focus on future performance instead of past performance. This is especially important with longtime employees who may feel trapped in jobs where they see little room for growth. "Ask, 'How can we position you for success?'" Coffman says.

By re-engaging employees, your company will reap rewards in lower turnover and higher productivity. Your customers will thank you, too.

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