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How Can We Solve The Employee Disengagement Problem?

It's time to look at the causes, not the symptoms. Here's why 1890s business culture is a good place to start.

Recently, Mark Crowley reported on the results of the Gallup organization’s annual employee engagement survey. He painted a humorous, but compelling picture of the results, "… 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."

Gallup interviewed 150,000 workers and found that only 30% would describe themselves as being engaged at work, while 52% say they’re disengaged, and the final 18% call themselves actively disengaged. When there was little data connecting employee engagement with business performance, these results might have been interesting only to HR. However, numerous studies have shown now that higher levels of engagement correlate with stronger business performance through greater productivity, lower turnover, and better work quality. If business today is the tough competitive race we keep saying it is, the lack of commitment of our "crew" doesn’t bode well for our success, and it’s probably not something we should ignore.

So what can we do about it?

Crowley went to Jim Harder looking for answers. Harder’s been administering the Gallup survey since 1997. Harder’s observation is that to improve employee engagement organizations need managers with the interpersonal skills to care about and connect with employees. They have to mainly deliver "the basics"; helping employees to find the right job, setting clear performance expectations for them, making sure they have what they need to do their jobs, and being generous with praise and recognition. His recommendations make sense, given what we know about the influence managers have on their workers and the actions that build worker commitment. In fact, many engagement experts, with minor differences, would say the same thing. It’s also advice in keeping with much management guidance that suggests, as Harder himself says, "doing what’s right for people proves to be right for the organization."

However, while Harder’s recommendations make sense as far as they go, they don’t really go very far.

As in most discussions of engagement, they don’t consider what forces may be creating our high level of disengagement in the first place. Aren’t people curious about how you manage to create tens of millions of disaffected employees? That’s not a trivial accomplishment. The closest Harder comes is: "Most people come to work well intentioned and only turn sour when their basic needs aren’t being met." Unless there’s a conspiracy of leaders and managers across every business to not meet the basic needs of their employees, we need a more systemic explanation than that if we’re going to understand our current scale of employee disengagement and address root causes rather than symptoms.

Where I would look for a plausible culprit, of the right scale, is our culture of business. While every company has its own particular culture, they ride atop a larger shared culture of business that we practice every day without recognizing how its norms impact our organizations. One of the hallmarks of that culture is our assumption that employees, when they come to work, will leave their personal baggage behind, just bringing along what they need to play their assigned roles. Without recognizing it as such, we operate at work on the assumption that who people are personally only matters to the extent it influences their job performance. We maintain a belief in a division between what is personal and what is business. The irony is that we ask people to be role players during their work day and not who they fully are as human beings, but then we’re perplexed and concerned when most of them feel disengaged from their organizations. Our belief system seems not to recognize that what we call engagement is a very personal state that depends on people’s willingness to bring who they are more fully into their workplace.

While we hold leaders accountable for whatever happens in their organizations, employee disengagement is probably not something we can lay at their feet. It’s a condition that long preceded every leader alive today. Furthermore, there’s no reason to assume that leaders and managers who themselves grew up in our organizations are any more engaged, or able to resist disengagement than the employees who commonly get our attention. If there’s employee disengagement, why not employer disengagement? If, as seems likely, there are systemic reasons for the widespread nature of disengagement, there’s no logical reason to believe that any levels or segments of an organization are somehow exempt from its effects. In a system that, by default, makes engagement more difficult by discouraging full human beings from showing up at work, both the front-line supervisor and the CEO face similar challenges.

It seems unfair to suggest a cultural explanation, without speculating on its origin. I would look back to the 1890s, to the changes wrought by Frederick Taylor, the father of scientific management. Taylor, looking at work processes with scientific rigor, devised methods of standardization that dramatically improved industrial productivity. His methods were widely adopted, to the extent that they probably contributed to the U.S. becoming a great industrial power during the 20th century. However, there was a dark side to Taylor’s methods in his unequivocal beliefs about how they had to be implemented.

He was emphatic that workers lacked the capacity to comprehend his methodology and therefore to control their own work. The mental work of planning and control was something only a manager had the ability for, while the worker was just responsible for executing the work plan as given to him. In the new Taylor-created status quo, workers no longer had the same autonomy or personal attachment to their work, but in return, they profited from the new methods, achieving levels of affluence that earlier generations of workers had never seen. Lost in most discussions of Taylor is recognition of how his methods institutionalized a new role and status differentiation between the management-thinkers and the worker-doers. The managers became the "adults," planning for and directing the more "child-like" workers, who lacked the capacity to manage their own work lives. The resulting culture of business promoted high productivity, but at the expense of workers who became little more than "cogs in the system."

Taylor’s philosophy made the manager responsible for all problem-solving. It sounds very much like our contemporary mindset, where for every organizational problem the answer is generally a new management task. With the best of intentions, solutions offered for employee disengagement depend on the manager "doing" for the employee. Without intending to, we may keep reinforcing a system that deprives employees of proper credit for their own capacity for self-management and independent problem-solving. Equally, we make unfair demands on managers who have been, more than likely, trained to play leadership roles, but were not developed to be leaders. The better model would be one in which the responsibility for making work feel vital, motivating, and personally important is a task equally shared by everyone no matter what their title.

When so much management advice seems to come down to "treat employees like adult human beings" you have to wonder. Why do people need to be told that? If they’re not doing that, what are they doing? The fact that managers even need that advice and advice-givers seem to think it’s necessary to give may provide us with some additional insight into the origins of disengagement.

The most substantial solution to employee disengagement (and many other organizational challenges) would be an organization completely populated with three-dimensional human beings and not avatars and role players. It might seem that such an organization would present a difficult management challenge. On the contrary, it would be self-managing and the Golden Rule would provide the necessary guidance 98% of the time.

Michael M. Chayes is managing principal of Sustained Leadership LLC, a firm focusing on executive leadership coaching and change management support. He is a formed partner at and president and CEO of Stromberg Consulting Group.

[Image: Flickr user Andrew Turner]

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  • Bob Gately

    If an employee's boss does not agree that the employee is engaged (i.e., the employee is hard to manage, mistake prone, a poor performer, rude, etc.), then the employee is not engaged. If the boss is not engaged, then we can't draw a useful conclusion from the employee's self assessment on the engagement survey. Managers are always trying get their direct reports to do their jobs for them.

  • Bob Gately

    Talent means different things to different people.

    If a CEO believes that hiring talent means hiring employees, then s/he is doomed to fail at talent acquisition and talent management.

    • Before we can manage talent we need to hire talent. 

    • Before we can hire talent we need to find talent. 

    • Before we can find talent we need to know what talent looks like. 

    • Before we can know what talent looks like we need to know how to measure talent. 

    • Before we can know how to measure talent we need to know how to identify talent. 

    • Before we can identify talent we need to define talent. 

    • Before we can define talent we need to ask, "How do I define talent?" 

    This is not rocket science but few employers know how to do it effectively.

  • Bob Gately

    continued from my previous comment

    When there are disengaged or problem employees we need not look beyond managers and executives.

    • Too many employees are in the wrong jobs, i.e., management errors.
    • Too many managers are in the wrong jobs, i.e., executive errors.
    • Too many executives are in the wrong jobs, i.e., CEO errors.
    • Too many managers and executives Reward A hoping for B.
    • Poorly behaving employees are tolerated, i.e., management errors.
    • Poorly behaving managers are tolerated, i.e., executive errors.
    • Poorly behaving executives are tolerated, i.e., CEO errors.

    In other words, we get who we hire and who we promote.

  • Bob Gately

    Michael, let us not be too hard on managers since they know not what they are doing. If they did know what they were doing wrong, then they would stop doing it unless their hiring managers hired the wrong people to be managers which is the reason for the poor state of employee engagement. The wrong people are hired to be managers.

    It is far easier to change our own behaviors than to change other people's behaviors and changing our own behaviors is nearly impossible for most of us without wanting to change and without help. Telling and insisting that others change is a fools errand and is a cause of employee disengagement.

    Employees' lack of engagement starts with the CEO. CEOs hire the managers. Managers hire the employees. Employees don’t hire themselves.

  • Jean-Louis Viljoen

    Its very easy to over complicate matters. People seldom take a step back and look at the bigger picture. If you apply the golden rule of "treat others as you would like to be treated" and deploy a eNPS strategy and actually listen, act and involve employees in transformation recovery is almost always guaranteed. So many jump on the wagon with high level analytics and methodology this and that, useless if you still do everything top down. If we carry on concerning ourselves more with the shareholders and less with the people who service the company, the wheels will come off. We have seen amazing successes by implementing this across our contact centres. Keep it simple, transparent, change must be experienced through collaboration and engagement and no one should feel like they are forced to do anything. If you have a true understanding of what you do what you do and how you and the company can benefit and grow from something, you will benefit from it. From my personal experiences in deploying this, the biggest hurdle is with senior management not understanding the impact their actions, attitude and engagements with staff have on performance. If you want change, you need to be the change in order to inspire others to action. If all you do is tell people what to do and how to engage, it will never happen. Engaged staff = engaged customers, which does not always relate into more business, but at least helps you to retain customers. You don't need to do a lot of research to find similar results. Its the little that matter. Take the time to listen to your employees, take surveys, have forum/discussion sessions and most of all, act on the feedback, don't let it die after the conversation.

  • James Pepitone

    Especially well said. I have seen what you describe work in many operations, across functions and industries. You are fortunate that you take this approach. Many managers do not and perhaps can't. Changing the tiger's stripes, well, that's another subject.
    Jim Pepitone

  • Alec Sevins

    You need to think even broader than this. It's the daily grind of work itself. Humans didn't evolve to commute like lemmings and sit in one place for hours, often doing no physically demanding work. Technology has outpaced humanity. Many jobs are just plain boring no matter how you dice them.

  • James Pepitone


    Excellent article. Thanks for re-directing this discussion into a more productive area.

    I would like to add that because Taylor's reputation has been so inaccurately maligned over the past 100 years it is understandable that you would place him as the root of this problem. However, I find that a deeper reading of the history will identify Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations) as the intellectual force behind the division of labor, or the specialization of work and management.

    Furthermore, as noted by noted sociologist and management scholar Peter Drucker (Management Challenges for the 21st Century, Post-Capitalist Society, and others of his books discuss this), it was the machine-minded company owners of the day, people such as Henri Fayor and Henry Ford, that institutionalized the separation between workers and management. The biography of Henry Ford, The People's Tycoon (2005) by Steven Watts, offers a vivid illustration of this force. As Drucker says, "Taylor himself was already sick, old, and retired" when Ford mastered the assembly line, which was and is the personification of labor specialization. Alternatively, Taylor might more accurately be remembered as the father of workplace training, business consulting, incentive compensation, hiring for fit, and numerous other helpful innovations with which business has prospered. 

    Nonetheless, I share your concern that the economic future of the US and other developed nations probably rests on resolving the engagement problem, especially for today's knowledge and service workers, who are least amenable to and productive when being controlled and otherwise "muscled" into hitting top-down (versus organic, meaningful) performance targets. As a probable and more recent cause for today's alienating business culture, let me encourage you to examine the adoption of "shareholder" economic theory (and abandonment of "stakeholder" economic theory during the 1980s ( and What could be more alienating to employee stakeholders? My own client work suggests that workers have responded to this management initiative with frustration (i.e., management is not listening or dealing with work issues) and reciprocity (the Silver Rule), both of which fuel disengagement. 

    Dr. James S. (Jim) Pepitone
    Managing Partner
    DesignedWORK, Consultants and Advisors

  • Sean Williams

    Very interesting, though I do take exception to how Gallup calculates "engagement." Their Q12 is a good starting place, but most engagement surveys are attempting to quantify qualitative information. There also is the question of what engagement is in support of -- willingness to expend discretionary effort is the usual "results" metric, so that productivity (net increase in worker output) becomes the end-all.  Even in manufacturing companies, output per worker hour is still the sine qua non, and both quality and safety are relegated to lesser desired outcomes.  Many of us who straddle the academic and professional worlds are looking to a balanced scorecard approach, where nonfinancial results coexist with the more tangible metrics. For engagement, then, the point is in improvements in perception of value of the employment experience, which should lead to productivity improvements as well as reduction in turnover (where that's an issue), increase in willingness to recommend products/services/employment, improvements in customer service, quality, and most importantly, safety. 

  • burnettwm


    You've hit the nail on the head.  Most experts in the field try to answer the question "How can we engage out workers?" rather than the better question "How can we stop disengaging our workers?"  

    At the heart of the problem is the other question you ask: "When so much management advice seems to come down to “treat employees like adult human beings” you have to wonder. Why do people need to be told that?"

    The answer is in the problem itself.  The reason we want managers to treat employees as adults is because otherwise they are treating employees as children.  Adults generally don't like to be coerced into the 'Child' role.  Even when the manager plays the 'nurturing parent' role, giving praise to the employee, it puts the employee in the 'Child' role.  That has a negative effect on the employee's sense of Identity, and Identity turns out to be a powerful motivator.   Managers repeatedly put themselves into the Parent role because being in a role of power provides a nice boost to the manager's sense of Identity.  They're human too.

    How do you solve this problem?  Well for that we wrote a book: Behave! How to get 100% of your workers fully engaged.  Short video on YouTube:

  • Crystal Richard

    I think the key to getting employees engaged is making them feel as though they are contributing to the bigger picture. When managers micromanage or don't allow employees to make their own decisions (within reason) and stretch their wings - it's hard for them to see how they can really, truly help the organization succeed. By communicating regularly with employees (the Employee Feedback platform comes to mind) you're keeping them informed, addressing their challenges and needs, and helping them work towards your organizations bigger goals.

  • Andrej

    Search, destroy, and replace method seems to be the most effective solution to the problem.

    1) Search: This is the most demanding phase, which requires a bit of creativity. The most straightforward method is to stage a fake Gallup-like survey, with questionnaires marked with invisible ink. 

    2) Destroy:  Once the disengaged employees have been roused, the next step is, of course, to fire the entire lot.

    3) Replace: Hire fresh batch of employees. Thanks to the permanent jobloss recovery, that's the easiest part.

  • Cheyserr

    I totally agree that most of the time, when problems arise (like employee disengagement) , leaders think that a new management task will resolve it. We focus so much on what we are not doing and we miss to evaluate the things that we are already doing but we are doing wrong.

  • Kate

    Great article, Michael!  I also agree with Chris that people might feel less disengaged if they actually felt good about what their companies are doing.  I've talked with many employees at different companies and have been surprised at how many have disagreed seriously with their company's corporate policies.  The bottom line has become the variable that trumps all others - not product safety, customer satisfaction, environmental protection, fairness, employee engagement - just the short term bottom line and what the stock price will be tomorrow.  And that's not to say that there aren't millions of good people working for these companies who are trying to do the right thing - in spite of this prevailing corporate culture...

  • Michael Chayes


    Your note touches on one of the more complex questions here; where, in fact, does the buck stop?  Can we legitimately hold individual corporate leaders personally responsible for perpetuating the priorities that help define our culture of business, or are they just like any other temporary role-player who would be punished quickly and severely for not satisfying their role's particular cultural expectations?  In general, I prefer as a starting point, to think of every participant in the "business game"  -- of whatever level -- as mainly playing the part that's been written for them. It's not an excuse for questionable behavior so much as an effort to understand what really drives it.  Thanks for the comment.

  • Matthew Foster

    Michael, as you touch on above I think a large percentage of employees who feel disengaged with their work are also those who feel treated like cogs in a corporate machine. I believe that the only way to solve a problem like this is to allow each cog to develop their own shape to cohesively fit with the rest of their team. It is the job of management to not just assign concrete roles but allow natural talent to flourish, and managers should take it upon themselves to get to know their employees on a basis where they can appropriately judge and understand where their workers will be most successfully engaged. Here's an interesting post discussing the importance of being personal in the workplace that I wholeheartedly recommend giving a read if anyone is interested in this stuff:

  • Matthew Foster

    Michael, as you touch on above I think a large percentage of employees who feel disengaged with their work are also those who feel treated like cogs in a corporate machine. I believe that the only way to solve a problem like this is to allow each cog to develop their own shape to cohesively fit with the rest of their team. It is the job of management to not just assign concrete roles but allow natural talent to flourish, and managers should take it upon themselves to get to know their employees on a basis where they can appropriately judge and understand where their workers will be most successfully engaged. Here's an interesting post discussing the importance of being personal in the workplace that I wholeheartedly recommend giving a read if anyone is interested in this stuff:

  • Nosybear

    Interesting....  Ever heard of Taiichi Ohno?  He came up with the alternative to Frederick Taylor's industrial hell.  It isn't pinball machines, gourmet lunches and free massages, but a system that brings every employee's creativity into the problem solving process, that demands and fosters engagement, that expects and demands that problems be solved at the point of occurrence rather than by uninformed managers in remote conference rooms.  Yes, it's the Toyota Management System, sometimes called Lean Management.  Find a good reference and give it a read - it's an answer to the extended problem statement you give above.

  • Chris Reich

    Well, there is certainly a lot here. The problem of disengagement is far more serious than the business community understands. The future of our economy depends on getting this situation turned around.

    I see the heart of the problem being the decline of ethics. Business in America has never been the standard bearer of ethics, but today greed is the compass pointing the direction of nearly every business decision. The tools of greed, such as "lean" and "Kaisan" have gone from improving efficiency to choking innovation and creativity which drive motivation. When people feel like the chicken playing the piano, you place the grain, they peck the keys, their drive to be engaged dies.

    We are moving rapidly toward the most efficient, non-productive society in the history of mankind.

    Give clear goals and let people work. Relieve them of the burdensome procedures and meaningless metrics. Make work meaningful. Look beyond the quarter and toward the future.

    It's not too late, yet.

  • Michael Chayes


    Thanks for this observation.  Unfortunately, I would have to agree that there is more lip service paid to ethical conduct, than there is evidence that it is practiced routinely as a part of our culture of business.  However, like with disengagement, in order to understand it and potentially find ways to address it, I think we have to look a little wider at the systems that drive executive behavior. The alarming thing is, it's become difficult to know where the buck actually stops and who then to hold accountable. The evolution of Wall Street has created an investor community that relentlessly seeks returns and an unbroken record of reported growth.  They punish disappointments harshly with falling stock prices. You get a report card every quarter and miss a few quarters and you're having a serious discussion with the board.  It also becomes  more difficult to know who's accountable when the current generation of management is a product of the same system that they now perpetuate. Many take as gospel that their first obligation is to shareholders and they avoid reporting bad news st any cost.