The Dramatic Lack of Employee Engagement Worldwide
“Any company trying to compete must figure out a way to engage the mind of every employee”
Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric
As we begin a new year, it is well worth reconsidering one of the greatest challenges we face in the workplace at the present time: The lack of engagement of the global work force which has taken on epidemic proportions. Gallup, which has studied this phenomenon for over 15 years involving more than 25 million people, has revealed alarming results. What is even more disturbing: The low engagement levels have hardly evolved in over a decade, despite an intervening recession and financial meltdown.
Global Engagement Levels
Their latest survey (1) across 142 countries has shown that only 13% of employees are engaged in their jobs, while 63% are not engaged and 24% are actively disengaged.
Interviews and responses to their Q12 questionnaire indicate that only a small fraction of employees work with passion, feel connected to their company, drive innovation and move the organization forward.
An overwhelming majority of employees are essentially “checked out and sleepwalking through their workday”. They are putting time, but no energy, into their work.
And worse yet, the actively disengaged, almost twice the number of the engaged, are not just unhappy, they “undermine what their engaged coworkers accomplish”.
In the United States (2), the cost of active disengagement is estimated to be up to $550 billion annually and may be as much as $186 billion in Germany and $112 billion in the United Kingdom.
Engagement affects key performance indicators: Low levels are associated with higher absenteeism, turnover, safety incidents, defects and theft, as well as poor customer service.
Variations in Engagement Levels
There are marked regional differences with regard to engagement. For example, in the U.S., at the top, the engaged and actively disengaged represent 30% and 18%, respectively, in Australia the scores were 24% and 16%, Latin America 21% and 19%, Western Europe 14% and 20%, Southeast Asia 12% and 14%, Middle East and North Africa 10% and 35%, Japan 7% and 24%, India 9% and 31% and in China, at the bottom, only 6% are engaged whereas 26% are actively disengaged.
Within Europe, the figures ranged from Denmark, at the top, at 21% and 10%, respectively, Switzerland 16% and 8%, Italy 14% and 18%, Germany 14% and 24%, to France, at the bottom, with only 9% engaged and almost 3 times as many actively disengaged at 26%.
Gender differences are small, but women nevertheless report higher engagement levels at 33% compared to men at 28%, despite persisting workplace inequality in their disfavor with regard to salary and promotion.
There are also some variations regarding the type of job. Managers, for example, are more engaged at 32.5% than professional workers at 28.8%, clerical and service workers at 25% and transportation workers at 16%.
Company and team size also influences engagement: organizations and work units with fewer than 10 employees have significantly higher engagement levels. Clearly managers with larger teams face a more challenging task of motivating and engaging their subordinates.
Paradoxically, remote workers, who work on a telecommuting basis, often from their homes, indicated a higher level of engagement at 32% compared to on-site employees at 28%.
Finally, engagement varies according to generation: “traditionalists” (born 1925-1945) have the highest level of engagement at 41% followed by “millennials” (born after 1980) at 33% compared to the largest portion of the work force, the “baby boomers” (1946-1964) at 26% who are also the most highly disengaged at 25%.
Reasons for the Low Engagement
Gallup clearly points the finger at management: At least 70% of the variance in employee engagement is due to managers. The selection process of managers, far from adequate, as well as poor management practices, hinder company growth and employee engagement. Only 1 in 10 people have the talent to manage. More than 80% of the time, companies fail to choose the candidate with the right talent for a managerial position (3). As Gallup’s CEO, Jim Clifton, puts it: “Companies seem to try everything imaginable to fix their workplaces, except the only thing that matters: Naming the right person manager”.
Most often, managers are chosen primarily based on their technical competence, whereas their success requires a much larger skill set, including interpersonal and communication skills, as well as a broad range of managerial abilities, such as recruiting and coaching employees, team building, delegating, managing conflicts and many others.
Moreover, the training of managers, furthermore, before and after their designation, is typically woefully inadequate on critical professional aptitudes, such as emotional intelligence, change management or leadership. These shortcomings reveal themselves in their inability to motivate, inspire and guide their teams, as well as contributing to the stress of their employees (4).
How to Increase Employees’ Engagement Level
It follows that the selection process of managers is in need of a serious overhaul. Much more emphasis needs to be put on recruiting supervisors with good communication skills, high emotional intelligence, a positive mindset and the ability to direct and motivate a team. When those human qualities are lacking, technical skills, while desirable, will not produce the high levels of engagement in the workforce, the passion for work and the desire to contribute required in order for any organization to succeed.
Training and coaching of managers, before and after their nomination, must become much more intensive. The focus should be on further developing and deepening their soft skills, their capacity to care for their team members and take a personal interest in them, helping them to develop and thrive, as well offering regularly recognition and praise. Furthermore, they need to acquire essential managerial skills, such as recruiting, delegating, coaching and empowering their subordinates, as well as time, stress, change and conflict management.
As has been known for a long time, salary increases, bonuses and other perks do not increase real engagement; at best they only prevent demotivation. The real driving forces are above all the meaning and purpose of work and the pleasure derived from it, accomplishments, the feeling of being respected and appreciated, autonomy, responsibility and advancement.
These motivating factors are intimately related to the behavior of the employees’ immediate supervisors. The managers’ implication in the establishment and maintenance of their employees’ engagement is indeed enormous, and holding them accountable for it is critical. Talent development and retention, as well as general turnover, hinge on it.
Poor employee recruitment procedures, the failure of properly match job requirements and employees’ qualifications, and especially the lack of emphasis on employees’ strengths rather than their weaknesses, are also responsible for the low engagement level of the work force. Trying to fix deficiencies is time consuming and not very productive. When employees have the opportunity to do what they do best, they reach much higher levels of performance (cf. Buckingham, 2011; Rath, 2007).
“At Facebook, we focus on what people’s natural strengths are and spend our management time trying to find ways for them to use those strengths every day.”
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook
Finally, well-being in the workplace, not surprisingly!, also boosts employee engagement. It is “the catalyst companies need to cultivate – thriving employees who perform at their best every day…it can cut down skyrocketing employee health costs while allowing productivity to soar” (5).
The engagement levels of workers are alarmingly low worldwide and have stagnated for over a decade.
Organizations must do all they can to increase the engagement levels of their employees in order to reduce the huge costs of disengagement.
Engaged workers have significantly higher productivity, profitability, customer ratings and less turnover and absenteeism.
Companies with a high number of engaged employees have much higher earnings per share compared to their competition.
To stem the vast deterioration of working conditions and bring about higher levels of motivation and engagement, it is imperative and urgent to put in place an improved manager selection process, as well as more intensive manager training and coaching.
Enhancing the well-being of workers, better matching workers’ strengths and job requirements, as well as developing employees’ competence and talents will further contribute to increasing their involvement and caring about job quality and performance.
Buckingham M. (2011), StandOut : The Groundbreaking New Strengths of the Strengths Revolution, Thomas Nelson, Har/Psc edition.
Rath T. (2007), StrengthsFinder 2.0, Gallup Press
Marcel Lucien Goldschmid, PhD, Director of MTC