Warning: Engaged Employees

A new study shows that low producers are often the happiest on the job. That has implications for how leaders need to define and cultivate engagement.

In the 1988 film Big, Tom Hanks plays Josh, a 12-year-old boy who is magically thrust into the body of an adult. Forced to make an adult living, he lands a gig doing data entry for a toy company. On his first day on the job, he tears into his inbox with a boy’s gotta-win-this-race flurry of productivity before he’s interrupted by the coworker sitting next to him.

“Listen, what’re you tryin’ to do, get us all fired?” he hisses. “You gotta pace yourself, slowly, slowly.”

“It’s my first day,” Josh replies.

“I know!”

Funny because it’s true. One way or another, workers learn fast that there are certain ways to calibrate your ambition—or your lack of it—at the office. We know that high productivity can catch the admiring attention of superiors, but we also know that productive employees are often “rewarded” with more of the same kind of work, and the resentment of less-productive colleagues. And while many lower-level employees content themselves with doing just enough to scrape by, middle managers higher up the ladder quietly fume that their hard work isn’t being appreciated. Worse, because everybody feels unsteady on their perch, nobody is going to clue in the CEO about this.

Real leaders take action to make their employees more mentally and emotionally accountable.

This disconnect is explored in a new study [PDF] by the consulting firm Leadership IQ, which reports that 42 percent of low performers at companies say they’re more engaged in their work than middle- and upper-level employees. That is, they’re happily unproductive, even blissfully unaware of their low productivity. “The employees bringing you the least value are often more engaged than the folks who reliably deliver good and great performance,” the study’s authors write, cautioning that this is a recipe for encouraging your best employees to move on.

Two Tracks

Though the study doesn’t explicitly say it, that provocative data point suggests that workplaces tend to cultivate two kinds of engagement. There’s the high-powered kind of enthusiasm for an organization that inspires people to not just work hard but think about how to make the organization better. Then there’s the softer kind of engagement, where workers are happy about their employer to the extent they don’t feel too challenged by it. Clearly something is out of plumb in a lot of offices.

The solution for each organization will differ, but most would benefit from establishing a consistent definition of “engagement” for every level of the organization. “Real leaders take action to make their employees more mentally and emotionally accountable,” as the survey authors write. I suspect that small-staff associations, with their less hierarchical, everybody-wears-a-lot-of-hats structures, suffer less often from this question of engagement. Yes, there’s more stress and longer hours, but less confusion about what it means to engaged and accountable—the kind of glue that keeps small staffs together.

Shoves and Tugs

Leadership IQ also promotes a management tactic called “Shoves and Tugs” that I’m not entirely convinced will fix the problem in itself. The idea is that managers should have regular conversations with their workers about the things that make them feel demotivated and burned out (the shoves), alongside the things that make them feel inspired and engaged (the tugs).

That’s all well and good—such candid conversations are valuable and rare. But all the shoves-and-tugs conversations in the world won’t mean much if workers don’t feel their efforts have value, that they will improve their status as an employee at your firm or a professional anywhere. A conversation about what employees feel good and bad about not only risks becoming a regular complaint session, it neglects a conversation about goals—both what you as a leader want out of a particular employee, and about what your employees can contribute to that effort.

How tuned in do you feel you are to your employees’ sense of engagement? And when you detect disengagement—or the wrong kind of engagement—how do you address it?


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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