Many years ago I worked in an upscale, family-owned department store in Nebraska. My co-worker’s name was Brian, and he was the assistant manager in the Men’s Department in the basement of the store. We were both paid an hourly wage. I was very time-conscious and was always punctual, but Brian was always already there when I arrived, even though we were on the same schedule. Brian dressed impeccably with clothing purchased from the department we worked in, including his shoes. He was like a walking, talking store mannequin, obviously proud of the products he was selling. He checked twice a day to make sure tried-on items had been properly returned to the racks, and that the sizes were grouped together and not mixed up. His daily routine included dusting the shelves and the shoes on the display racks, cleaning the glass on the checkout counter, wiping the fingerprints from the banister on the staircase leading down to our department, and a hundred other things. The owner of the store walked through the department once a day. He always stopped to talk to Brian and praise him for something, or to get his ideas about some change or product he was considering.
I encountered Brian only once outside of work. It was at the only shopping mall in the small city. We exchanged pleasantries, and then he leaned toward me and said in a low voice, “I’m doing some research on our competition!” He was wearing a T-shirt with the logo of the downtown store where we worked emblazoned on the back.
Brian was an Engaged employee.
Characteristics of Engaged employees
Engaged employees, like Brian, have these characteristics:
- They are enthusiastic about their job.
- They put forth discretionary effort to solve problems.
- They speak highly of the organization/company and support its mission and values.
- They eagerly learn new things.
- They are team-oriented.
- They are self-motivated and proactive.
Defined succinctly, engaged employees behave as if they have an ownership stake in the business. An engaged workforce is the Holy Grail of modern business. And for good reason. Engaged employees are more productive, they are less likely to leave the organization, have fewer accidents, and create higher levels of customer satisfaction. Companies with high levels of employee engagement have higher revenue, profit margins and shareholder returns. The studies are voluminous and too numerous to cite. And for purposes associated with this work, engaged workforces register less conflict and have higher levels of positive group identity and teamwork.
Brian was a great example of an engaged employee.
I, on the other hand, was a far more typical kind of employee. I was working there part-time while I was in college. I just needed money for books and gas and an occasional movie, and wasn’t planning to stay at the job for more than a year or two. I couldn’t even see the dust on the shoes, was probably the one who improperly sorted the tried-on clothes on the rack, and frankly didn’t care about fingerprints on the banister. At all. I did everything that was asked of me, and made an effort to complete my tasks properly, but my mind was usually on something else. If there were shortcuts I could take with little chance of being reprimanded, I took them. I watched the clock, because I knew I wasn’t going to be paid for any time after my scheduled shift and wanted to leave promptly. I, too, had a T-shirt with the store logo on the back. I used it to polish my Camaro.
I was a Not Engaged employee.
Not Engaged employees are common. A 2014 Gallup poll found that 51% of US employees were Not Engaged.
Organizational psychologists have identified a third category in the employee engagement spectrum… Actively Disengaged. These employees are miserable in their jobs. Not only are they unmotivated to contribute to the well-being of the company, they may actively undermine co-workers or sabotage projects. They may help themselves to office supplies for their own use. They tend to hold a grudge against the company, and may use a company credit card for personal use and justify it because they feel undervalued. They call in “sick” more often, and arrange their day around break times.
The same poll cited above found that 17.5% of the workforce was Actively Disengaged. They are miserable in their jobs, but for a variety of reasons, many of them don’t leave.1 In a 2016 white paper published by Aon Hewitt, Christopher Adair brands this subsection of Actively Disengaged employees who stay in their jobs “Workplace Prisoners,” and further finds that “Prisoners may in fact be more likely to stay with their organization than the average employee.”2 It is of these who are miserable in their jobs that Patrick Lencioni writes, “In some situations…job misery leads to even more immediate and tangible problems like drug and alcohol abuse, or violence.”3