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What Causes Employee Disengagement?

Statistical analysis reveals that the drivers of employee disengagement are not all the same as the drivers of employee engagement.

A lot of focus is placed on employee engagement these days - what is employee engagement, what can be done to increase employee engagement, etc. Numerous research studies, based on statistical analysis of employee engagement data, have all reached more or less the same broad conclusions about employee engagement. (We cover this topic here.)

Most of these research studies also find that between 20% and 30% of employees are disengaged, but employee engagement models, as well as activities to increase employee engagement, are usually based on the entire spectrum of employees - both engaged, disengaged, and those "in between" - in a sort of one-size-fits-all approach.

In our latest employee engagement research study*, we decided to take a closer look at the differences between engaged and disengaged employees, and we discovered some clear and striking results. Our statistical analysis shows that there are some common drivers of engagement across the entire spectrum of employees - things that drive engagement as well as disengagement, but there are some important differences as well.

The two lists below show the survey questions that are most highly correlated with overall engagement for the bottom 10% (most disengaged) employees compared to all employees.

See if you can spot the key difference between the most disengaged employees and everybody else.

Most Disengaged Employees
Top 10 Drivers of (Dis)engagement
  • Respect for Employees - This organization respects its employees.
  • Respect for Management - The senior leaders in this organization are highly ethical.
  • Respect for Employees - My manager values my talents and the contribution I make.
  • Personal Expression - My ideas and opinions count at work.
  • Purpose and Direction - My manager clearly defines goals and expectations.
  • Values - The actions of our senior leaders support this organization's mission and values.
  • Teamwork and Cooperation - My manager emphasizes cooperation and teamwork among members of my workgroup.
  • Personal Expression - People with different ideas are valued in this organization.
  • Empowerment/ Autonomy - My manager gives me the freedom I need to do my job effectively.
  • Feedback - I receive useful and constructive feedback from my manager.
 
All Employees
Top 10 Drivers of Engagement
  • Respect for Employees - This organization respects its employees.
  • Fairness - Everybody is treated fairly in this organization.
  • Trust - There is an atmosphere of trust in this organization.
  • Respect for Management - The leaders of this organization really know what they are doing.
  • Values - The actions of our senior leaders support this organization's mission and values.
  • Teamwork and Cooperation - It really feels like everybody is on the same team in this organization.
  • Respect for Management - Our senior leaders demonstrate strong leadership skills.
  • Respect for Management - The senior leaders in this organization are highly ethical.
  • Personal Expression - People with different ideas are valued in this organization.
  • Personal Expression - Our senior leaders are genuinely interested in the opinions of all employees.



That's right... Five of the top ten drivers of disengagement relate to "my manager", compared to zero of the top ten when we look across the entire spectrum of all employees!

In other words, poor relationships between employees and their managers are a leading cause, if not the leading cause, of employee disengagement.

The remaining survey questions and associated themes are consistent for both groups - mutual respect, fairness, personal expression, values, and trust are issues that influence engagement levels for all employees, but the most disengaged employees have this additional, dominating theme that we do not see when we look at all employees.

(Research Note: We also looked at engagement drivers for the bottom 20%, the top 20%, and the top 10% of all employees. The statistics were very consistent. The bottom 20% showed the same "my manager" pattern, with three out of the top ten correlates relating to "my manager". For the top 10% and the top 20%, "my manager" items did not even make it into the top twenty correlates.)

Thinking about employee disengagement - A shift in mindset

If you are used to thinking about employee engagement, your mind probably naturally thinks of things that motivate employees and cause them to be more engaged. When we look specifically at disengaged employees, we need to think a bit differently. We are not looking for what is needed to engage these employees. Rather, we need to think in terms of what is causing these employees to be disengaged.

To put it another way - we are not looking for ways to make people happy, but rather, we are looking for ways to stop them from being unhappy. Addressing the things that cause disengagement won't immediately lead to "engaged" employees, but it will make those disengaged employees less disengaged and get them pointed in a more positive and productive direction.

Employee disengagement and "my manager" - What to do?

You've probably heard the saying, "People don't quit their jobs; they quit their bosses." Our statistical research on employee engagement supports this. The employees who were surveyed had not yet quit their jobs or their bosses, but no doubt many have done so since the surveys were conducted. Those who remain are unhappy, and they are probably adding little if any value to the organizations they work for.

Not every disengaged employee is unhappy with his or her manager, but many are, and those employees have the potential to be more engaged and productive. Each employee-manager relationship will have its own unique problems, but there are some concrete steps that can be taken in order to address disengagement issues related to "my manager".

Step One: Diagnosis
The first step is to understand if there is a problem, where the problem lies, and what the nature of the problem is. If you have not done so already, start with an employee engagement survey. Make sure the engagement survey includes items related to employees' relationships with their managers, and that it allows you to segment results by manager, or by some other demographic that is a reasonably good proxy for manager (e.g. by department). Your goal here is to get answers to the following questions:
  • Are there company-wide issues related to employee disengagement with their managers?
  • Are there specific managers who are struggling to engage their employees?
  • What are the specific engagement issues that need to be addressed?

With answers to these questions in hand, you'll be ready for our next installment, where we expand on our employee disengagement research findings and outline the remaining steps to getting employee-manager relationships back on track.




* Research findings based on statistical analysis of employee engagement survey results from more than 18,000 employees across more than 150 organizations. The survey questions that are listed are those that are most highly correlated with the average score on all engagement survey items for each employee in the group. The groups consisted of the bottom 10% (most disengaged) employees and all employees.

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