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Chronic Disengagement in Organisations

Do you know the motivation and commitment levels of the employees you supervise or the colleagues you interact with? Outside of work, how fulfilling do your friends find either their professional duties or their relationships with their superiors? International indicators are unanimous in answering these questions, and unfortunately disengagement is extremely high and prevalent. This rate exceeds 83%, according to the prestigious annual report of Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace which tracks employee engagement in 140 countries among more than 200,000 people. Figures in this report differ from one country to another of course but rates are high across the world with 67% in the US and 93% in the UK. The most striking figure in this report is that the company with the highest level of commitment has a 30% rate. This means that the difference between average performance and best possible achievement is excessively large, and that strengthening commitment is possible and not just a theory, as there are a few companies which have already successfully raised commitment.

These figures may have been a bit of shock, but what is most shocking is that many companies are in denial of disengagement or its consequences, and this for several reasons. Some people experience disengagement as a chronic illness which they get used to and convince themselves it is a necessary evil. Others are in the passive acceptance of disengagement, perceiving all companies in similar light and that there’s no point in struggling against a global phenomenon, and that it would be better to devote their energy on the non-human to generate competitive advantage: better supply circuits, better distribution channels, better tools, better financing, better planning … These practices may work on isolated cases but can not sustain long term business development. The change management consulting firm Kotter International confirms that companies with committed employees provide 5 times the return on investment of companies with disengaged employees.

With few exceptions, demotivation and disengagement eat away at organisations from the inside unless explicit attention is paid to them. In the best of cases, companies develop annual surveys with very fancy names (Global People Survey, HR Survey, Social Climate Survey, …). These polls are technically good, but the use of their results clearly isn’t. The problem with these polls is that they restrict themselves to headline affects and easy labelling instead of focusing on concrete actions linking demotivation to chronic corporate diseases to strengthen commitment to transformation projects. In many cases, these exercises can demotivate employees rather than motivate them by listening to them. A senior executive recently shared with me a very telling example of the disengagement malaise: Working in the Organisation Management of a multinational corporation specialized in sanitation services, he says: “We are often asked to fill out polls, provide our opinion on the social climate, and we do not know what they do with it. These surveys are only filled out because they are compulsory, and I have strong doubts about the quality of the information which HR management receives. ” The take away here is important and simple: Ask for a team member or stake holder’s opinion only if you will truly take this opinion into consideration and get back to them with effective change or actionable items. The second take away is to associate a set of practices in support of any attempt at measuring engagement:

  • Compare intra-company results with a cross-business benchmark, such as that of Trusted Advisors, which will cross-reference organisational performance and its evolution with that of other players operating in a similar environment

  • Communicate results in a transparent way by highlighting the business-to-business context in which they appear. This does not imply ‘cold’ communication through posters and unidirectional processes, but rather ‘hot’ communication designating actors to ensure the regular dissemination of engagement / disengagement indicators. These actors must also ensure communication of employee feedback in relation to strengthening their commitment and that of their peers.

  • Recognize that engagement or disengagement is neither cultural nor consistent across the organisation, and push teams and departments to show and communicate success stories of projects which reflect massive commitment.

  • Do not rush to blame human behaviour but identify and remove barriers to engagement in process, skills, workflow, performance control systems, management layers, reporting chains, …

These practices can be initiated in a structuring way as part of wider transformation programs, but can also correspond to team or collective work at each division or unit level. Building engagement is incremental work spread over years and not the result of a few minutes’ show and tell in an executive convention. The practices described below can be implemented with internal or external resources and provide very interesting results.

In order to delve deeply into the causes of disengagement, it is important to rely on consultants who are culturally and emotionally detached from the organisation. These are of vital use for deciphering chronic diseases such as:

Chronic Illness 1: Lack of vision and lack of shared values

Chronic Illness 2: Lack of Strategic Direction

Chronic Illness 3: Low synergy and lack of alignment between departments

Chronic Illness 4: Bad management in large company (top management, middle or local managers)

Chronic Disease 5: Inadequate or outdated know-how & skills set

Chronic Disease 6: Department don’t trust themselves or each other

Chronic Disease 7: Habits and values are not aligned

By Farid Yandouz


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