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The Continuing Epidemic of Disengaged Employees

By Kimberly Wiefling

Break-all-the-rules Way back in the 20th century the Gallup Organization conducted a seminal study of what set Planet Earth's best managers apart from the rest. These managers create what they call "engaged employees." In 1999, Marcus Buckingham first published the insights from this research in his bestselling book, First Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently.

Employee engagement is measured by asking employees 12 yes/no questions -- the more yes answers to these questions, the more engaged the employee is. What's more, it's been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that companies with higher employee engagement scores also enjoy better customer satisfaction scores, higher quality, lower employee absenteeism and turnover, and increased profitability. Only a cynic -- or someone who's never worked in a dysfunctional organization (which is pretty much someone who's never worked) -- will be asking if this is causation or correlation.

Known as the Q12 (PDF), these questions (paraphrased below) are as simple as they are brilliant:

  1. Do I know what is expected of me?
  2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
  3. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
  4. In the past seven days, have I received recognition or praise for good work?
  5. Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
  7. At work, do my opinions seem to count?
  8. Does the mission of my company make me feel like my work is important?
  9. Are my coworkers committed to doing quality work?
  10. Do I have a best friend at work?
  11. In the past six months, have I talked with someone about my progress?
  12. At work, have I had the opportunity to learn and grow?

NOTE: As much as I would admire you for taking immediate action, please note that the Q12 instrument is copyrighted by Gallup. To use the Q12 measurement at your organization, purchase it from Gallup.

MOST OF THIS DOESN'T EVEN COST MONEY! As you can see, each of these items seems like common sense. In fact, only the second of these engagement-inducing workplace characteristics requires any kind of financial budget. The only thing needed for the other eleven is the time, attention, and care of a human being. So, why -- after decades of knowing how to create far more effective organizational cultures -- is the business world still awash in disengaged employees and dysfunctional organizational cultures? Frankly, I'm a bit mystified. Here's how bad it is.

Region Engaged Employees Not Engaged Actively Disengaged
Globally ~15% ~65% ~20%
US* 33% 51% 16%
Germany 16% 68% 16%
Japan 6% 70% 24%

* Ref: Gallup's "State of the American Workplace Report," 2017.

What's preventing business leaders all over our world from adopting what is clearly common sense, not to mention in the long-term best interests of customers, shareholders, and employees? Why are engaged organizational cultures not as common as blades of grass?!

The research is very clear that the biggest contributor to a lack of engagement is a person's direct manager. For example, Japan recently ranked 132nd out of 139 countries surveyed in terms of employee engagement. What's the primary cause of this abysmal disengagement? The conflict between traditional command-and-control managers and the younger generation in the workforce.

Similarly, a whopping 84% employees in Germany are not engaged, mostly because of their direct manager. Oddly enough, more than half of all German managers don't feel any need to change, as they think they are doing a good job -- yet more proof that self-evaluation sucks.

STOP THE MADNESS! Please, everybody, can we all just STOP checking email for one gosh-darned minute and contemplate the REAL work of a manager? Here are a few ideas of what managers could say and do to immediately increase the engagement of their team members and others in their organizations. (Add your own ideas in the comments section!)

1. Do I know what is expected of me?


  • What do you think is most important to focus on in your work?
  • Where are you spending most of your time/energy?
  • What are your short-term and long-term priorities?


  • Discuss with your people what you expect of them and what they expect of you.
  • Agree on how you and your team will treat each other, and the processes you will all use to achieve results.
  • If your team's understanding of expectations does not match yours, align those expectations.
  • Clearly post the long-term and short-term priorities for your team, and keep them updated.
  • Ensure that each person's individual priorities align with the team's priorities.

2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?


  • If anything were possible, what might help you achieve better results in your work?
  • If you had unlimited money and people, what might you do differently in your job?
  • What else could I do to support you in being successful in your work?
  • What am I doing that's making it more difficult for you to do your work and achieve results?


  • Encourage your people to come to you to ask for what they need to be successful, including asking for help. Remind them periodically that it's their job to ask, and your job to say no when necessary.

3. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?


  • What do you see as your strengths?
  • What do you enjoy doing most at work?


  • Avoid assigning rocks the job of swimming. If you need someone to climb a tree, assign a squirrel; don't try to train a horse!

4. In the past seven days, have I received recognition or praise for good work?


  • Thank you for X. (Be sincere, specific, and timely with your praise.)
  • This is what I appreciate about your work: X, Y, Z.
  • Here's what I appreciate about you (character, habits, behaviors, personal/professional qualities): P, Q, R.
  • Let me share with you the positive impact that you are having here: A, B, C.


  • Send the occasional handwritten thank you note. (No, email does NOT count!)
  • Set up a peer-to-peer recognition and appreciation program. (Write to me for an example.)

5. Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?


  • How are you doing? What's happening?
  • If you know they are having personal struggles, and it's appropriate to talk about, ask "What can I do to help?"


  • Take individuals on your team out for a beer or a walk and talk once in a while. Spend most of the time just listening to them.
  • Bring chocolates or other snacks to your team meetings.
  • Be flexible and accommodate individual differences and circumstances.
  • Notice when they need help and get them help.
  • Be nice, friendly, kind, and considerate.

6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?


  • What's your big dream for the future of your career?
  • Ideally, what would you like your career to be a couple of years from now?
  • What professional/personal development goals do you have for yourself?
  • How might I help you achieve these goals?


  • Take time to grow yourself professionally/personally. We all need to grow in order to support the growth of others.
  • Provide opportunities for mentoring, coaching, and "learning from each other."

7. At work, do my opinions seem to count?


  • What do you think?
  • I'd like your thoughts/advice/inputs/opinion about X.
  • Interesting, tell me more . . .


  • Listen generously to what your people say. Listen with the intensity most people use only for speaking. Listen twice as much as you talk. Listen to them as if what they are saying is gold, and it's your job to mine that gold.
  • Let them know how their opinions influenced decisions.
  • Implement their ideas.

8. Does the mission of my company make me feel like my work is important?


  • Share stories of how your company is making a positive difference to people.
  • Talk about the greater mission of your company. For example, are pharma companies selling drugs or helping increase the quality of life for people with conditions treated by their drugs? It's a matter of perspective, yes, but the "selling drugs" story is not usually inspiring to most employees. "Increase revenue" is not inspiring. Working together to create a company that helps people, solves problems, and creates prosperity for employees is much more inspiring.


  • Make opportunities available for your people to come into contact with end customers and others who benefit from your company's work.

9. Are my coworkers committed to doing quality work?


  • What are the criteria for "success" for Project/Task X? What are the measures of that success?
  • What's working well in our team/organization? What's not working/not working well? If you were going to help me become a more effective leader/manager, what advice would you give me?


  • Make "quality work" measurable and tangible via scorecards, scenario planning, and other approaches.
  • Ask for feedback from your people.
  • Make it psychologically safe to share honestly.
  • Encourage healthy conflict via facilitation and tools to support dialogue and debate.
  • Provide opportunities for people to talk openly about their frustrations and concerns.

10. Do I have a best friend at work?


  • Who do you know that you'd like to have working here with us?


  • Recruit from the social circles of your team members.

11. In the past six months, have I talked with someone about my progress?


  • How's it going on your professional/personal development plan?
  • We all need to continue to learn and grow in order to support the growth and success of our company.


  • Help your people partner up with more senior, experienced people for periodic mentoring discussions. Mentoring doesn't have to be a long-term relationship. Even a one-time lunch with someone who can guide or inspire them is worthwhile, and easier to secure than an ongoing mentoring commitment.

12. At work, have I had the opportunity to learn and grow?


  • What professional development opportunities interest you?
  • Is there a class you'd like to take?
  • Which conferences and other professional events should we be attending?
  • What other aspects of our work would you like to get involved in this year?


  • Provide funding to support learning and development.
  • Create opportunities available for cross-pollination across your organization, where people can work in other areas that interest them.

There are plenty more ways to support each of these areas. Please add your own ideas about how to increase the engagement of your people in the comments section!

12-elements 12: The Elements of Great Managing. The research on employee engagement has been repeated millions of times in over a hundred countries and more than 40 different languages. This book summarizes these timeless findings, and is a great investment of $20. My favorite chapter is called "The Problem of Pay." I found documented there what I have come to suspect through years of experience, with some fascinating tidbits:

  • Good and bad employees are equally likely to think they deserve a raise.
  • Higher pay does not guarantee greater employee engagement.
  • Some incentives can backfire, decreasing employee motivation.
  • Money without meaning is not enough compensation.
  • Pay is more about status than about paying the bills.
  • Pay comparisons among employees spark intense emotions.

WRAP UP. Maybe AI will make human skills obsolete. I hope so, as our track record for overcoming challenges in the business world where human skills are required is pretty poor. Even the BEST workplaces have only 70% engagement, leaving three out of ten employees unengaged, or actively working against their own company! But until R2D2 and C3PO replace us all, we have an excellent opportunity to improve business results and reduce misery at work.

One way to start is to visit Gallup's Q12 website. There are some great tools to support increasing employee engagement, and their Q12 survey is only $15/person -- way cheaper than replacing the talented people you will lose if you don't engage them.

It's the 21st century, people! We've known for decades how to do better. There's nothing standing between us and a highly engaged workforce, except perhaps the discipline to spend time on what matters most. Let's all get busy doing the real work of management -- taking care of our people! -- Kimberly

Kimberly Wiefling, founder of Wiefling Consulting, and co-founder of Silicon Valley Alliances, is the author of Scrappy Project Management, (published in English and Japanese), and the executive editor of the "Scrappy Guides." series. Kimberly helps managers become leaders and groups of people become true teams that can achieve what seems impossible -- and would be for any individual acting alone. "Impossible" just means we haven't figured out how to do it yet!

©Copyright 2001-2017 Wiefling Consulting. All Rights Reserved.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Are managers themselves not employees. Perhaps the should first apply the Q12 questions to themselves. Haif the disconnect is because managers are disengaged from their charges to whom they owe a duty of care and accountability.

Kimberly, thanks so much for this article. A great set of questions and todos. Especially important given how much our companies ask of us.

Right on, Vincent! I totally agree, the managers are also disengaged, and thus the problem perpetuates.

The comments to this entry are closed.

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