Disengaged & Not Engaged & Actively Disengaged, Oh My!

How Attention-Grabbing Headlines and Lead Quotes can be Misleading

At the end of 2013, Gallup reported some pretty staggering findings about how engaged Americans are in their workplaces, only 30%. These findings were based on a 12-question test administered to 25 million employees in 189 different countries and 69 languages.

It is a 68 page report and its conclusions have made headlines in The Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, Forbes and more. In How the Best Places to Work are Nailing Employee Engagement, Forbes begins its article with, “Research shows four out of 10 workers are disengaged globally. In the U.S., the situation is worse.”

The Los Angeles Times headlines with, Most workers hate their jobs or have ‘checked out’, Gallup says.

And The Huffington Post’s headline says, New Gallup Poll Shows 70 Percent of Americans Are Disengaged From Their Jobs.

The articles, unfortunately, lump together “disengaged” and “not engaged,” two different concepts, as one, creating a sense that engagement is binary, two sides of a scale. It gives the reader the idea that with engagement, either you are there or you are not.

We argue that these conclusions are overly simplified. The most misleading aspect of the report being that middle group – the 50% they call “not engaged.” “Not engaged” and “disengaged” are two different concepts. Many of those employees in the 50% are probably somewhat engaged or motivated by some aspect of their work experience. At the very least, many of those people are probably content and competent, doing their jobs adequately. To say that all these people are "checked out" or "sleepwalking through their day" is unfair and overly simplistic. Content Workers Could Do More, of course, does not make a good headline.

Simply put, engagement falls on a spectrum from the highly engaged to disengaged. There is such a thing as partially engaged or somewhat engaged employees that are “in between,” many of whom probably like their jobs and are assets to their companies. All of these fall under Gallup’s “not engaged” umbrella. These employees have the potential to become more engaged, improving their role and impact in the company. These workers are not sleepwalking through their days and there are many things an organization can do to capture their hearts and minds if they are willing to do what is necessary.

So the headlines bleed information about a workforce that is, when put to the test, overwhelmingly disengaged, and thus ineffective. We might consider, though, the fact that engagement has not been an obvious cornerstone of business success until recent years. HR departments are grappling with new concepts. Implementing significant, measurable change is not easy. Successful companies have found ways to create emotional connections between the company’s goals and purpose and those of their workers, finding a unique symbiosis. But lambasting us with doomsday headlines is not, perhaps, the best incentive to begin creating this new company ideal.

Over the next few weeks, we will take time to discuss these concepts and indicators of effective management and employees as well the emergence of engagement as a business concept. Most importantly, we will discuss the importance of measuring employee engagement then taking targeted action. As Gallup writes, “Measurement without targeted action is useless.”

To that, I think we can all agree.

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