Imagine a workplace where the welfare of each person is built on an environment of mutual trust and respect and where positive, creative energies engage everyone in a shared purpose. This is a place where both people and ideas are valued, and where all do their best and collaborate to contribute, optimize and improve.

But now let’s get back to the real world…

Leaders are Always Looking

Welcome to the average workplace, the majority of whom are disengaged and only casually involved.

Many leaders in management might think that people would be happy to have a job, and they are. But that happiness does not translate into productivity and performance results.

Stats show 85% of employees report their morale declines significantly after spending 6 months on the job (Sirota Survey Intelligence) and 49% of workers say they constantly have their antennae out for new job opportunities, even when they are happy in their current position.

Few feel their current employer is giving them a fair deal in terms of advancement opportunities (Kelly survey).

Minimally-Acceptable Standards

What begins as an energetic, positive, and committed new hire becomes one of those people who simply disappear, and are working only to get by, noticing if something better might come their way.

Focused on meeting the minimally acceptable standards of productivity and quality, they no longer seem interested.

They are not the first person you call on when something needs to get done. And there are a lot of them in most workplaces.

As leaders and customers, you know who they are. Most were attractive job candidates and solid new hires, and some are now supervisors and managers. There is little about them that causes them to stick out.

What could possibly be wrong with an employee who:

  • Is a nice person and was a skillful job candidate
  • Quietly processes and handles transactions, day in and day out
  • Arrives on time and rarely leaves early or misses a workday
  • Follows policies and procedures
  • Is seldom aggressive or defensive
  • Goes through the motions of working, attends meetings, joins teams, gets things done
  • Does nothing that causes them to attract much attention

But as the great leader and legendary basketball coach John Wooden said, “Never mistake activity for achievement.”

One may hope that people are actively involved and intrinsically motivated to perform, but the reality and research say that many are just on the job.

As we used to say in a college beer drinking game, “I’m in, but I’m out.” When we needed to take a pause and leave the game, “Keep me in, but I am not playing.” This is a reality for many.

The Numbers

Before I get to thoughts on improving the situation, let me share a bit more information for those who like statistics and details.

Gallup has done extensive surveys and reporting on engagement:

  • 70% of US workers are not engaged and are somewhat sleepwalking during their days
  • 54% of the workers are muddled in the middle
  • “Saboteurs” represent the actively disengaged other 17% of the workforce

The middle 54% are choosing to not produce to their potential. And things are not getting better, even though many organizations report they are “working on engaging people”.

Employee engagement has actually declined from 24% to 13% in 2 years. (Mercer’s 2012 Attraction and Retention Survey)

The Opportunities

Randstad Corp. found that 70% of employees say, “You have to work late and work overtime to get ahead,” and Towers Watson found that 39% of employees feel senior management does not exhibit attitudes and behaviors that reflect that they even care about the well-being of their employees.

And while 59% of engaged employees say that their job brings out their most creative ideas, only 3% of disengaged employees report this. (Gallup)

Survey the muddled 54%, and they will say that they like their jobs and they are even happy at work. Nothing will stand out statistically, and they may even add some positive comments.

Many are neither interested in looking for a new job nor in getting more training, even though they would leave if something came up. Most say things are just fine as they are.

They are not exactly demotivated, but they are certainly not engaged and involved, nor are they top performers in any respect.

Read the above as Average. Middle. Muddling. Mundane. Unexceptional. Disengaged.

Statistically, their results are found around the middle of any curve of performance results.

The Situation

These same muddling-along middle-curve people also have the highest potential impact on individual and overall workplace performance improvement if you could improve their results. They have more headroom than most others since it is not a capability issue, but one of the choices.

They are simply choosing not to excel and not to commit themselves to higher levels of performance and expectations.

The Big Idea is to engage some of the disengaged. This moves the average performance level up (and may also engage some of the poorer performers since they do not want to be too far below the average).

Just Okay

Little Billy has never talked. One morning, when Mom serves him breakfast, he says, “Mom, oatmeal cold.” Mom is obviously pretty excited, and she asks him why he has never said anything before.

His response? “Up until now, everything has been okay.”

Like Little Billy, “everything been okay” is the case for most workers. Not good or bad, just okay.

How do we get them “to talk” about what needs to be changed? How do we give them more and better choices and alternatives?

Employees want to succeed when they are hired and starting the job. And the company wants them to be successful. What has happened, and what can we do?

Common Factors

Your typical employee attitude survey will be ineffective in finding much from these people.

They are unlikely to complain publicly, and sometimes will not even comment privately.

But it is highly likely that one or more of the following has happened:

Being Restrained

One area of concern is around the miss-fit of policies, procedures, rules, and regulations. They may become frustrated because they are restrained in how they accomplish things.

They might want to be more helpful to customers or they may see possibilities of improvement that are either rejected as ideas or simply brushed aside.

Being Ignored

They may simply feel that they are ignored. They might not have feedback systems that provide effective information about their performance and those results may be invisible, in their opinions, to their management team.

They might feel that they need training (or they are sent off to training for no apparent reason). And when they do extend forward, no one notices or comments. It changes nothing.

Not on the Team

They may feel like they are not part of the team or the in-crowd. People at the margins tend to become marginal.

As part of a team, they often feel that their efforts contribute to the overall good. But with no sense of such involvement, they tend to become less involved, quickly.

After all, it’s hard to care for customers if you don’t feel anyone cares for you.

Accidental Adversaries

Another factor was discussed by Peter Senge in his work on learning organizations and involved a series of small negative events that, in the bigger overall situation, would become more and more annoying over time. Repetitive small “pinches” could eventually be disruptive.

There was not one event or one thing, just a bunch of little things that added up. It should not be surprising that these loops could be common between workers or between an individual and a supervisor and that, left unattended, they underpin a motivational problem.


Defined as a negative consequence that occurs following some behavior, is another issue in many workplaces.

We are not talking “public disgrace” here or corporeal punishment; we are more often talking about little comments or perceived slights or the threat of negative consequences that could occur in response to behaviors.

Punishment – commonly referred to as aversive control – will generate Compliance Behavior, or what I consider a manager’s worst nightmare!

To be continued. This is Part 1 of a 2 part series.

How Can Leaders Improve Engagement?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Dr. Scott Simmerman
Scott is a keynote speaker, conference speaker, workshop and seminar leader, and professional facilitator. He has facilitated his highly actionable team building events in over 30 countries.