Well, he’s not what I had in mind!

How often do we make a new hire and soon start to worry that they’re not exactly the person we thought they would be? Or we know some people are capable of so much more, but never seem to deliver like we think they should.

Of course, we have the standouts; the people who never disappoint, who always do top notch work, who really care about the business and the job they do. But they are only a handful, and they certainly are not the ones we worry about. No, it’s the ones that don’t deliver that take up much of our time and keep us up at night.

What is Engagement?

In other words, we want our employees to be more engaged in their work, their contributions, and in the business. But what does engagement mean and more importantly, how do we get our employees to be more engaged?

Dr. William A. Kahn, professor of organizational behavior at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, defines employee engagement as what employees do with their discretionary effort. We all have discretionary effort throughout our day. You have a list of things to do, goals to achieve, deadlines to meet. And there are activities that need to be performed to hit these targets. But we can’t do them all, we have to choose which activities we perform and which ones we don’t. We have a choice in what we do, how we do it, and when.

Our workforce is the same. Employees have multiple activities that they need to choose from according to their job description. But even when it’s straight forward, they still get to choose how long it takes to perform, how well they do it, and the amount of care they put into the task. Again, what do they do with their discretionary effort.

Ideally we want our employees to use their discretionary effort wisely. To constantly be focusing on high return activities. We want them to be like the top producers focused on success and achieving great results; these are the Engaged employees. Engaged employees are the ones that go above and beyond what is expected of them. The more they go above and beyond the higher their level of engagement is.

Disengaged employees barely or never even live up to our expectations. They spend their time in low return activities. The less they do for the business, the more disengaged they are. There’s even a percentage of them that are highly disengaged. These are the people who have quit their jobs but still show up every day, collect a paycheck, and make life miserable for everyone around them. They are our biggest headaches, drain our emotional resources, and cause us to do damage control with everyone else so the engaged people won’t leave.

Cost of Disengagement

There is a huge cost to disengagement. Besides emotional cost to us, there are real dollars associated with people not living up to their expectations. According to Don Rheem in his book Thrive by Design, disengagement can cost a business up to 50% of wages paid back in productivity. This means if you pay a disengaged employee for 8 hours, you are really getting 4 to 5 hours of actual effort. Multiply this by several actively disengaged employees over weeks and months, the costs can be in the thousands of dollars.

Who’s Responsible for Engagement?

So, who is responsible for our employees to be engaged? Most of the time we assign responsibility to the disengaged employee. We expect that they perform at a high level and to our expectations. When they don’t perform, we blame them for not caring enough, for lacking motivation, or we think they have a character flaw such as they’re just lazy. Sure, we’ve talked to them about the need to do better, but no matter what we say, they just don’t get it.

The truth is we as leaders in the company are responsible for their engagement. More specifically, it is the leader’s responsibility to create an atmosphere where our employees want to engage. According to Dr. Kahn, along with relationship an employee is looking for meaningfulness in the work they do, a sense of psychological safety, and psychological availability. The more they have these three things, the more actively engaged they will be at work. These are things that can be provided by leaders in an organization.

High performing and high potential leaders understand the role they play in creating the proper environment for their reports. Low performing and low potential leaders and managers create an environment that leads employees to disengage. If you want to raise engagement throughout your company (which is a must in this tight labor market) your efforts are better spent on developing your leadership team than trying to motivate, entice, or threaten employees to perform better.

And the first step in developing your leaders is to get a clear picture of their individual performance and potential strengths.


MJ Human Capital Consulting unlocks the power and performance of your team faster and easier than you can imagine. I help companies evaluate performance and potential, and get the best from employees by developing clear plans for growth, advancement, and greater success.