Monday, July 23, 2012

The Great Divide – Rob O’Neill’s Article On The Employee Engagement Gap In New Zealand


Rob’s article yesterday gave a very detailed snapshot of a study into the current state of employee engagement in New Zealand and, to a lesser degree, compared with Australia. I have one bugbear with something that someone from the research company said that worries me which I’ll turn to soon but the article as a whole and its primary conclusions were spot-on, I think.

That primary conclusion was reflected in the article’s title – there’s a big difference between the engagement levels of the bosses compared to the bossed. The opening paragraphs screams it out, “A massive gulf is emerging not just between managers and workers in this country, but also between senior managers and middle management – and that will damage productivity, both management experts and unions are warning.”

The average figures generally reflect other engagement studies. About a third of people are disengaged. BUT when they stratified their findings by pay-grade, the startling gaps became plain. “57 per cent of leaders were engaged at work while just 32 per cent of non-managers – or those people that actually do the work – were engaged, a 25 percentage point difference.”

While the disparity between bosses and the bossed is a worry, let’s look at that 32% of non-managers who actually are supposedly engaged. Other studies have shown that to be in the mid 20s so 32% is less bad. (In New Zealand we use the phrase “less bad” way too much.) Other studies routinely show, with some variation here and there, about a quarter of workers are engaged and a quarter disengaged. The rest are ‘present.’ They show up, consume oxygen, do what they’re told to or paid for and no more. That’s where the greatest  performance improvement potential lies.

Here’s my beef from just one quote in the article from one of the researchers, “Only a third of New Zealand employees without management responsibilities report feeling engaged at work…”

Report feeling engaged! To me, what people report they think they feel is perhaps interesting but that is not engagement. Engagement is a set of observable behaviours which, to be fair, the article does go on to outline later. To me, the most basic, yet critical, of which is the acid test of engagement. The engagement that leads to the productivity and profitability benefits not just changes in people’s feelings. That acid test is discretionary effort.

People can say they feel motivated or unmotivated or engaged or disengaged or any number of adjectives. It may or not be accurate but what matters is their observable behaviour, not what they report they feel. If the research cited in the article was a genuine measurement of actual behaviour reflecting the correct definition of engagement then the startling gap is indeed a worry. I myself only have three facial expressions and one of them is startled so I’m OK.

The research company is also in the business of selling solutions to the problems they just identified. I can’t bag them for this. Why else does research ever get done? (One of my other facial expressions is cynical.) That said, I can’t disagree with their generalised solution guidleines:
  1. Be visible and available for people throughout the organisation,
  2. Build an environment of openness and trust,
  3. Connect your employees and their work to a shared vision and values.
I’m always raving on about autonomy, mastery and purpose being great drivers of engagement. Their point 3 certainly ties in with purpose. Their point 2 seems synonymous with autonomy. So while I’ve nitpicked a bit, its a great article and seemingly research highlighting a problem that needs addressing.
Someone should definitely do something about it. That’s where my third facial expression arrives – looking around innocently…

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