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Gallup's Workplace Jedi On How To Fix Our Employee Engagement Problem

More than half of America's workforce is disengaged. In an exclusive conversation with Dr. Jim Harter—who initiated the first "State of the American Workplace" study in 1997—we dig into the latest report, due out this month.

The way we lead people in America is failing.

That’s the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn from Gallup’s "State of the American Workplace" report being released this month.

Over the past year, Gallup researchers interviewed nearly 150,000 workers—people in all states and industries—and discovered that a stunning number are miserable in their jobs. More specifically, only 30% of the nation’s working population today admits to being fully engaged at work. While Gallup encouragingly notes that there’s been a slight improvement to engagement since the Great Recession, it’s hard to cheer when you realize 52% of Americans admit to being disengaged in their jobs, and another 18% to being actively disengaged.

To fully comprehend these grim stats, imagine a crew team out on the Potomac River where three people are rowing their hearts out, five are taking in the scenery, and two are trying to sink the boat. It’s hard to conceive how businesses can thrive when so few people are working to move it forward.

A decade or so ago, many in business dismissed the notion that there are clear links between employee engagement and an organization’s overall success. Fast-forward to today, however, and you’ll find few people who don’t strongly agree that engagement is the wonder drug for maximizing workplace performance.

Numerous studies have shown that engaged workers display greater initiative, approach work more passionately and creatively—essentially do all they can for their organizations. Gallup’s report specifically states that engagement drives greater productivity, lower turnover, and a better quality of work. For punctuation, it adds: "Organizations in the top decile of engagement outperform their peers by 147% in earnings per share, and have 90% better growth trend than their competition."

So, the $64,000 question becomes this: If attaining high employee engagement has become one of the most important ambitions of leadership, why is it that our practices appear to be doing more harm than good? What’s causing 7 in every 10 workers to disengage and under-commit themselves at work?

Perhaps one of the best people in the country for us to pose this question is Dr. Jim Harter, Gallup’s chief scientist of workplace management and well-being. For the past 27 years, Harter has been on the forefront of employee engagement research; he initiated the first "State of the American Workplace" study in 1997.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Harter to solicit his insight on what’s driving engagement down instead of up. Intimately familiar with the causes—and the cures—Harter offers workplace leaders the following guidance on how to turn things around:

Measure Engagement At Every Level Of The Organization

A surprising number of companies have no engagement metrics in place, and leave local level managers in the dark on how they can more effectively support employees.

"A lot of leaders understand the essential importance of improving engagement," says Harter, "just not enough of them. Many people see the macro engagement numbers and dismiss them as not relating to them or their firm. But when you show an organization their own results, it tends to shock them. And that’s when they tend to want to do something to correct it."

Gallup long ago created a 12-question diagnostic tool that "measures things that matter" down to the lowest supervisory level. Tied to the results, leaders can identify the key causes of employee dismay and work to remedy them. As an incentive for putting measurements like these in place, Harter confirms he’s seen many organizations greatly exceed the national average for engagement. "Some have moved as high as 70%. They didn’t start there, of course. They worked on it and got there in time."

Harter also emphasizes that top firms have made engagement "as big a priority as performance," and do an exquisite job of communicating why it’s so important to the sustained success of the organization. That clarity "resets all expectations" of managers and significantly alters their future behavior.

Put Systems In Place To Ensure The Right People Are Chosen For All Management Roles

Harter insists that nothing is more important to an organization’s health and well-being than ensuring everyone selected into a leadership position has the talent to be an inspiring and effective manager. "If you get that wrong, it’s really an uphill battle."

"Workplaces in general have paid a lot of attention to process and much less to people," he continues, "and too often employees are given managerial roles tied to success in a previous role, or as a reward for their tenure." It’s unrelated to whether they can effectively support and positively manage human beings.

Several studies in recent years have shown a remarkable number of people believe they work for a bad boss. As evidence of how deeply this affects engagement, 35% of U.S. workers polled by Parade magazine last summer said they’d willingly forgo a substantial pay raise in exchange for seeing their direct supervisor fired.

So, what are the qualities of leaders that businesses must now be seeking? According to Harter, it begins with a combination of being results oriented and authentically concerned about the development of every worker. "Some people are better at getting results and some are better at developing. But, we’ve found both are equally important."

Harter describes the most effective managers as being deeply caring—and capable of seeing, supporting, and adjusting to the differences in people. "They help people build jobs that fit them as an individual person, while still helping them get to the outcome they need from an organization perspective."

They bring workers together in collaboration, provide clear direction, put good measures in place, and accept responsibility for maximizing each employee’s full potential. Ultimately, the differentiated manager is someone who understands that the more they do for their people, the more successful they will become. "The data proves it," asserts Harter, "doing what’s right for people proves to be right for the organization."

Getting The Basics Right

When I asked Harter to explain what influences people to become actively disengaged, even saboteurs, he had a surprising answer. "Most people come to work well intentioned and only turn sour when their basic needs aren’t being met. You have to get the basics right if you want great engagement."

Here are four essential things managers must do consistently if they aspire to greatly improving their team’s engagement:

  • Get people in the right job: Harter is insistent that managers only put people into roles that fully leverage their talents and strengths. Too often, employees are assigned work to which they’re neither well-suited nor emotionally connected. "Make sure to get people the right job so they can be efficient, effective, and fulfilled." This is accomplished through vigilance in the selection process, and by keeping the guidance of author Brian Tracy in mind every time you have a position to fill: "The single greatest mistake a manager can make is a bad hire."

  • Set clear expectations: Gallup finds that only half of people surveyed have clarity on what’s expected of them—and this causes enormous frustration. "Unfortunately, a lot of organizations forget about that, or mess it up by not communicating effectively when changes happen—or the local manager is unsuccessful in translating to the front line people what the organization is trying to get done. It comes down to showing people how their work and contributions impact the success of the entire firm. Disengagement starts with having a confusing job."

  • Give people what they need to do their job: When employees don’t have the equipment, support, or knowledge to do their jobs effectively, they quickly conclude their organization isn’t paying attention to them. Once people begin to feel their work isn’t important, or that they’re not personally valued, they head down a slippery slope of disengagement. Conversely, Harter notes that giving people greater autonomy and control over their workday has profoundly positive effects. It leads people to feel trusted, and influences them to do much more for the organization.

  • Be extremely generous with praise and recognition: One of a human being’s greatest needs is to feel appreciated and valued. According to Harter, many people in leadership roles underestimate how essential this is to employees—and how recognition lifts employee spirits. One key reason why so many workers are disengaged is that they feel their contributions and efforts are overlooked—or taken for granted. Harter advises managers to lean in the direction of over-appreciating people, and to devote greater attention to praising good outcomes. "People need recognition frequently," he stresses. "We know there’s a physiological response when we get recognition. A boost of dopamine makes us feel good in the moment. This lasts a while; but if we do good work, we have a continued need to be lauded for it."

Going forward, Jim Harter believes there’s no reason why engagement in the U.S. has to remain so low. "I’ve done this work for 27 years, and I’m really encouraged by what firms like Hyatt Hotels, Charles Schwab, Stryker, PNC Bank, and the Cleveland Clinic have done to inspire much higher engagement."

If more firms follow their lead, Harter said he thinks "the upside in America is really high."

And remember: When you do get everyone rowing, no one will have time to rock your boat.

Mark C. Crowley was Senior Vice President at Washington Mutual, one of the country’s largest financial institutions where he led investment product sales nationwide. After leading his division to all-time record performance in 2008, he was named Leader of the Year. Contact Mark on Twitter: @MarkCCrowley or at his website.

[Image: Flickr user Thebarrowboy]

Add New Comment


  • The obvious reason most managers rise to their level of incompetence is due to the insidious practice of "networking." I.e. they "know" or are related to someone higher up. It's who they know, not how competent they are.

  • Josh Bobst

    This seemed like good advice, but Crowley's pedigree at the bottom of the article made me do a double take, and then a triple take when I noticed he "led investment product sales." I'm guessing that's the sale of securitized sub-prime mortgages. WaMu blew up in 2008 thanks to these toxic assets and was subsequently purchased by Wells Fargo. I'm guessing that's why Mr. Crowley is a consultant and speaker now, instead of having a real job.

  • Thanks Josh,

    WaMu's failure was enormously distressing & harmful to many, many of its employees whose work & roles had absolutely nothing to do with its demise. Count me as one of them. The nationwide team I led provided guidance to hundreds of thousands of WaMu customers on retirement savings/investing, in addition to life insurance planning and the like. The sale of subprime mortgages & other risky loans that played a large role in bringing the bank down was entirely unrelated to this enterprise, & no one working for me had any involvement whatsoever in their sale and delivery. Before WaMu failed at the onset of the Great Recession (& then sold to Chase), it's Retail Banking franchise of over 4,000 branches was routinely seen as one of the very best service providers in the nation. Many customers miss that organization today because of it.

  • Michelle Dill

    I'm quite engaged. My boss sucks. I want to go to another job because she makes my life hell. It's at the point now where she is convinces I am the problem and not herself. So tired of trying to please people who are assholes.

  • I discovered by accident just a few minutes ago that this article was trending again on the Fast Company site -- it was first published nearly 2 years ago!

    The distress you are feeling at work, Michelle, was common back then -- and, sadly, remains common today. It's indeed my hope that organizations will start to do some soul searching and to fully rethink whom they select for management/leadership roles. If any manager lacks the instinct to care about the well-being & happiness of their employees, they should be redirected into other roles. People should not have to hate their jobs in order to pay their bills. Hoping things changes for you!

  • craiggers

    Hardly suprising. Everywhere I hear no one has got a raise in forever. While upper management keeps getting richer and richer my so called benefits have got more expensive, we're hardly allowed to take vacation, and everything is more expensive. Hard to be active in work when it seems work is active in keeping you down.

  • AppIdeas

    I find it intriguing that the natural flow of things is perceived to go downstream. If I understand correctly, "Engagement" is an emotional state which correlates with human needs. Assuming all employees are humans, the CEO's engagement level is as exposed to risk as anyone else's down the ladder, and more importantly, it is subject to change by anyone, not only by someone up the ladder. Isn't a top-bottom approach incomplete for not enabling a 100% engaged employee, since such an employee would be measuring his boss's engagement?

  • Sanjiv Bhamre

    The real challenge of engagement, i feel, is the last one. Getting people in the right job is not as easy as it seems. Because employees are motivated when the challenge is just 'higher' than the current ability, they like to be in the job where they are not yet ready. On the other hand, bosses want employees who are fully ready to do their job so that there are less headaches for them. This 'gap' of what bosses ( or organisations) want and what employees want is the basic challenge . And this challenge has to be solved by the manager and the employee every time every day ! No short cuts are available...

  • George Hare

    In my experiences the real reasons employees are not as engaged as they could be is that it is safer for them to just go along and get along rather than risk standing out and possibly failing.
    The other main reason is that normally the corporate HR departments do not support the plant leadership who are trying to drive change and so it reinforces the example of go along and get along.

  • chickenlittle

    If you ask me, part of the "disengagement" problem comes from people feeling as if their work doesn't matter. The bigger a corporation or business gets, the more compartmentalized the production line has to be. Until you're just a guy on the line turning a widget, day in and day out, like an factory worker. Having said that, we also promote a culture in which the average person is not encouraged to be in charge of their work life, but instead be eager to please an employer and be picked for hiring -- to be good enough for someone else, someone else's needs, someone else's standards. That's fundamentally a fairly depressing thought and way to go through life.

    It's nice to think that companies might try to bring "engagement" up. But at the same time, I think it's time for people to ask themselves what THEY want to do for a living, and realize that with hard work and experience THEY should be interviewing the clients they want to work for, not the other way around. As a freelancer, I can say my engagement is full throttle. And it's pretty awesome.

  • Deb Siverson

    I love this comment..."Ultimately, the differentiated manager is someone who understands that the more they do for their people, the more successful they will become. “The data proves it,” asserts Harter, “doing what’s right for people proves to be right for the organization.”  Identifying and developing leader-coaches is the key! 

  • danaCreative


    This is a very interesting and near-to-my-hear article. However, I had trouble reading the whole post because I couldn't believe you made the mistake of alluding to a 10 person crew team. The largest crew is 8. Add in the coxswain and you still only have 9. I'm just surprised that in putting together such a great piece you'd make such a sophomoric mistake.

  • Mark C. Crowley

    Ha!  You are correct.  But I chose to take creative liberties to make the point.  :-)

  • Philip Uglow

    Great article Mark. I think the other important thing that keeps folks motivated is progression towards the goal. So once you have clearly defined goals and expectations, measuring your progress and steeping out of the way to let it happen is a great motivator.

  • Elyse, Brightwing

    Employee engagement is a cultural issue, so it affects and is affected by everything you do. I have been at companies who were so focused on process that the culture suffered immensely and they weren't having a tough time. They were actually growing, in Detroit no less, and could be more successful if their culture was better. I became stressed out and disengaged, and I was not alone. Turnover was very high. I am now at a company in the same industry, same city, but that has an incredible focus on culture. The difference in my work ethic, attitude and loyalty are night and day and I am not in a managerial role. It makes the world of difference. 
    For more about employee engagement and the bottom line, go to

  • Shep Hyken

    I firmly believe that what is happening inside a company is felt
    by the customer on the outside.  Employee engagement is crucial to
    this.  It seems the most engaged employees are fulfilled employees who are
    “exploited” and then appreciated for the talent they bring to their job. 
    This article is a fascinating look at why so many companies may not be
    successful in creating an engaged workforce.


  • Ben Simonton

    Mark, you have not nailed it though your four essential things bosses must do may be a move in the right direction, and may not. Why not?

    The things that cause people to disengage are always the same and the things that cause people to fully engage have never changed. The root cause of the disengagement reported by Gallup is the top-down command and control approach to management otherwise known as McGregor's Theory X. I did not read where you told us to get rid of this root cause, get rid of attempting to control people with commands. Without that bit of advice and without telling us what would replace command and control, your advice may just be putting lipstick on a pig to make it look better depending on who is attempting to use it.

    Another point is that attempting to measure an abstraction like engagement is virtually impossible. Besides, employees tend to tell us what they think we want to hear, not what is really going on.

    Let me add that anyone who actually knows how to create a fully engaged workforce would never waste time on a survey. I only know a very few who know how to cause people to fully engage and none of them would ever survey. I am one who has achieved a fully engaged workforce several times. The gains were not in the tens of percent - the gains were hundreds of percent - just as Stephen Covey senior wrote in 1991 that the possible performance gain is 500%. For myself, once fully engaged my workforces were at least four times more productive than I had thought humanly possible.

    The formula for so doing is quite simple, but as usual the devil is in the details and there are many. I call my alternative Autonomy and Support whereby controlling with commands is replaced by autonomous self-control by the employee with management providing whatever the employee needs in order to excel at autonomous self-control. Here is the formula as simply as I can state it.

    Rather than spending its time trying to control employees with goals, targets, orders, bureaucracy, and the like thus disengaging them, management listens to whatever employees have to say. Management does this often enough to more than satisfy the employee's need to be heard.

    Management then responds to what was said in a timely and respectful manner to the satisfaction of the employee or better thus satisfying the employee's need to be respected. Once employees realize this will always be done, they realize that they can influence everything in the workplace. This ability to influence everything begets a sense of ownership - that this is their workplace just as much as it is anyone's.

    In the same way, a sense of ownership begets commitment. This process will also satisfy the employee's needs to have competence, autonomy, and relatedness and with all needs satisfied, they will choose to become fully engaged.

    Hope this helps, Ben Simonton

  • geoff alford

    Engagement Research and Surveys - a Critique

    I have been involved in Employee Satisfaction, Well-being and Engagement research, surveys and metrics for 20 years. Now I am somewhat cynical. Why?

    Too often, measuring metrics and conducting surveys is an excuse for management and HR "to be seen to be doing something", when in fact they are doing nothing to implement known and obvious engagement strategies. 

    The problem is that management and HR do NOT practice what they preach; they do NOT walk the talk.

    It is far easier to blame the problem on :employee engagement", as if employees are to blame.However, it is management and HR which needs to be engaged with the workforce, and implement organizational structures and policies which permit employees to perform more effectively. 

    Let's be frank. Take communication in an organization. Too often, management and HR send policy announcements and practice notices to employees, but do not establish an effective process for employees to provide their feedback.up the chain back to management.

    And even if such feedback is collected through Engagement or Communications Surveys, management ignore it!

    Seriously, how can anyone think employees can be engaged with an organization, when the organization and it management is NOT engaged with them.

    And while Engagement Surveys may be profitable for survey companies, they do little to improve the performance of organizations!

    If you want to improve organization, you need to change management, or get a skilled consultant into the organization who will "seriously kick backsides"!

    I am sick to death of naive commentators blaming employees, when management are the problem. Simple reflection on their own employer will demonstrate the truth of what I say.

    And equally, I am critical of survey consultants, who take the organization's money to conduct Engagement Surveys or metrics,  but are not focused on the implementation of effective change strategies directed at changing the management of organizations. The excuse - it might offend the client, the HR department or whoever hired them.