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Posted on Fri, 2019-03-01 00:00 by Chris Carr

In one of our previous thought pieces the topic in question was ‘engagement’ – genuine interaction with the client in order to develop a brief or finalise a design. Here we discuss the exact opposite and from an internal and not a client perspective.

Having staff within your team who are actively disengaged is a problem not to be underestimated, and one that becomes more noticeable as the team size reduces. In purely financial terms, it is estimated that in the US alone productivity losses arising from disengagement (active or passive) are of the order of $500 billion annually.

It is however relatively rare that staff go out of their way not to engage. A CIPD survey from 2015 found that only 3% of staff fall into this category. Far more worrying though is the finding that 60% of staff were considered to be ‘neutral’, or to put it another way, neither contributing to nor detracting from organisational operation. This is not sustainable, either in terms of financial cost or in terms of the wasted potential of staff. Another survey from CIPD (this one from 2014) reported on different levels of staff engagement in the voluntary, private and public sector. The engagement level was significantly higher in the voluntary sector (52%) when compared to the other two, with the public sector coming last (on 30%). No workforce is homogeneous and while lumping people together as a sector probably makes for an easy soundbite, the devil is probably in the detail. Perhaps that’s another thought piece for the future.

Is disengagement an HR problem or a managerial problem?  (Is there a difference?) I would assert it is a problem for both HR and management. I would say that it is also a problem for the colleagues of the disengaged, as they are often the ones who have to pick up the pieces or to take on more responsibilities. (It almost goes without saying that it is a problem for the individual, even though they may not necessarily appreciate that or be concerned by it).

You are able to get a feeling quite quickly as to whether a member of staff is a team player or not, with an employee’s probationary period being the perfect time to look beyond scoring against standard ‘performance metrics’ like attendance or delivery of reports on time. You need to look at those activities, often going unnoticed, but which contribute not only to the smooth running of an organisation, but to its enhancement.


Is engagement being measured in your workplace? Can it even be measured, and if it can, should it be a cornerstone of HR policies or just another item buried in the annual appraisal process? Is it worth including a ‘challenge’ within the first couple of months of a person’s employment just to see if, in the long term, the new recruit is going to become a valuable (or even an indispensable) member of your team, going beyond the normal call of duty? Of course, it is understood that people develop their personalities within an organisation over time and rushing to make a judgement might inadvertently cast potential onto the scrapheap. The flip-side is that It might also quickly remove a potential millstone from around the organisation’s neck.

This does raise the question of whether you actually want all your staff to be actively engaged and involved in the decision-making and running of your organisation. Would this lead to less time concentrating on working for the client and less time on either fee-earning or service delivery activities, and more time spent on issues where others have more experience and/or insight, or are indeed more capable?

If the person’s ability to engage is in question, then that might raise a question over your choice of candidate in the first place. Perhaps HR need to challenge that “I am a team player” sentence in the CV. Regardless, it could be argued that employment contracts should have some sort of clause in them that specifically refers to staff engagement and has procedures in place for dealing with those who fail to meet agreed ‘targets’.

Assuming that HR have fulfilled their duties and the most able candidate is in post, what then is the responsibility of the manager? As numerous studies have shown recently, the role of the manager / line-manager is becoming even more crucial, with employee performance and wellbeing (of whatever flavour, mental, intellectual, psychological etc.) being influenced by the relationship between manager and employee. Does the line-manager have to wait until the annual appraisal or the responses to the annual staff survey in order to monitor employee engagement? If a manager is worth their inflated salary, they should be able to pick up on disengagement quickly.

Last in the workplace food chain are the fellow employees and their all-important relationship to their disengaged colleague. As hinted at above, it is often the case that colleagues have to take up the slack as one person gradually steps back when they perceive that others are, in their often-mistaken eyes, taking over, and the appetite for engaging slowly changes from ‘willing participant’ to ‘not bothered’ to finally reaching the nadir of ‘not interested at all’. There may only be a small percentage whose appetite doesn’t change but starts at ‘not interested at all’; this is slightly different, and these employees need to be carefully managed as active disinterest may lead to disruption or at least start to affect the wider cohort with their negative attitude. As we discussed in another context (related to learning environments), the role of the peer group is vitally important and empowered staff should have the confidence to raise the issue of colleague disengagement, if not directly tackle it themselves. Nipping disengagement in the bud can be a challenge for all concerned, but the implications of not tackling it head on are serious for any organisation.

And what of the disengaged employee? Doing the minimum required and coasting through life stifles personal and professional development. Can work be enjoyable without there being interest in what you are doing? Work without purpose is [insert motivational poster cliché here] … actually, it’s just a waste.

In a workplace, a staff cohort that is engaged (albeit, most likely to different degrees) is likely to be more content, more innovative, more creative and therefore stands a better chance of being more productive.