A New Perspective on Employee Engagement – Shift from Indifference to Action

Employee engagement has been on an accelerated downward trend since the second half of 2020. After increasing at a modest rate through the 2010’s, the percentage of “actively disengaged” employees reached its highest level (18%) in nearly a decade due to:

  • Increasing economic uncertainty and change.
  • Growing pressure to return to pre-pandemic norms.
  • A broad reckoning across employee groups over just what employees should expect from (and give to) their employers.

At the same time, the share of “engaged” employees has fallen to its lowest point (32%) in seven years.

But here’s the most significant point – when you do the math, you quickly see how more than two-thirds of employees are not “engaged.” And, when you exclude those who are actively disengaged, you’re left with quiet quitters, who have represented the largest segment of the employee base for more than a decade.

Let’s rename them the “Indifferent Majority.”

The Indifferent Majority averaged 52% of the workforce in the 2010s and today remains at 50%. Clearly, quiet quitting is not a new phenomenon. While there’s been a tug-of-war between the engaged and the actively disengaged, companies struggle to make a meaningful dent in the apathy and lack of connection employees feel toward the significance and importance of their work.

Just as with social and political issues, the path to change or improvement in business isn’t necessarily about overcoming opposition or resistance. It’s about overcoming apathy. As Elie Wiesel said, “The opposite of love is not hate. It’s indifference.”

Employee Engagement’s Role in Organizational Success

Employee engagement reflects how willingly a company’s workforce expends discretionary effort in helping the company achieve its objectives and serve its clients. It’s about going above and beyond voluntarily, and is strongly tied to the:

  • Alignment employees feel with a company’s mission and purpose.
  • Perception that the work environment is fair, ethical and rewarding.
  • Connection they feel with colleagues.
  • Energy and motivation they have regarding their jobs.
  • Strength of belief that they are empowered to achieve something meaningful beyond their expectations.

High employee engagement is at the opposite end of the spectrum from “active abandonment,” where employees have given up, lost all connection with the work they do and aren’t executing even the minimum requirements for their roles. However, don’t confuse “active abandonment” with the “quiet quitting” by the Indifferent Majority, where employees are doing their jobs but aren’t going beyond what’s necessary to deliver the minimum acceptable level of performance.

Leadership Abilities that Drive High Engagement

Leaders who generate a high level of employee engagement in their teams successfully keep motivation high and ensure their teammates remain focused and buy into key objectives.

These leaders have distinctive skills and attributes that separate them from less effective colleagues including:

  • Vision, alignment and authenticity: Leaders communicate their vision, clearly align priorities with the company’s direction, and help employees connect their work to their strongest personal values to inspire and engage them on a deep level.
  • Collaboration, delegation and empowerment: These leaders foster a culture of collaboration, where employees feel empowered to contribute their own ideas and work together to achieve common goals. They delegate effectively, giving employees the opportunity to learn and grow, which enhances their teammates’ sense of feeling trusted and valued. They provide the necessary resources and training, so employees feel empowered and equipped to identify and solve problems while creating a culture of autonomy and accountability.
  • Recognition: Effective leaders acknowledge and reward employees for their contributions and achievements. They reinforce positive behaviors and motivate employees to continue performing at a high level.

Strategies to Improve Employee Engagement

Here are three employee engagement strategies leaders can start utilizing:

1. Eliminate indifference and attack apathy: These are the primary objectives when engaging employees. A good starting point is focusing on helping employees connect the dots between their day-to-day work and the company’s overall objectives.

During my career in finance, prior to founding Leading Edge Coaching & Consulting, I could readily detect when my team or some employees began feeling disengaged or started losing their edge. They shared that they were caught up in the routine and monotony of the work, and they didn’t feel the same challenge or spark that they felt in prior times.

On a few occasions, I led my team through an exercise called “5 Why’s and 1 What.” This began by asking, “What is our core function?” followed by five rounds of, “Why is that important?” Their answers created a value chain that extended the impact of their work, further and further from our team and ultimately to the client.

It went something like this:

  • What is our core function? To ensure that our financial reports are accurate and delivered on a timely basis.

(It’s easy to understand why few people, if any, would feel engaged in their work if this were all there was to it.)

  • Why is that important?  So leaders and their teams have access to the information they need to assess business conditions and results quickly, easily and reliably.
  • Why is that important?  So they can determine if our strategy is on track and yielding expected outcomes or whether corrective or supportive actions are necessary.
  • Why is that important?  So they can ensure that resources are allocated in the most effective and efficient manner, to achieve our financial and business objectives.
  • Why is that important?  So customers have repeatable, positive experiences and receive the intended benefits of our products and services when they transact with us.
  • Why is that important?  So customers highly value their relationship with the company, and we’re their company of choice.

2. Align outward and inward: While this is a good starting point, it doesn’t necessarily go far enough to reduce indifference and build engagement. A leader must help their employees not only “align outward” to the company’s purpose, but also “align inward” to their own values and motivators.

In other words, make it personal.

For instance:

  • If they’re motivated by efficiency and automation, help them investigate training opportunities and resources to bring machine learning and data visualization to reduce the manual nature of their work.
  • If they want to do more in the way of higher analytics, ask them to uncover some new predictive metrics or data elements that bring new value to the reporting.
  • If they want to get closer to the client, align them with a sales or marketing resource to give them that exposure and experience.
  • If they want to make more money, ask them to identify where in the value chain is the greatest opportunity to drive profitability. Then, ask them what their role is in bringing about that change.

3. Shift and rotate: Bring flexibility into play by shifting resources around. Indifference sometimes arises from the feeling of being in a rut or not learning anything new. Rotate people on your team between roles or support a teammate who wants to spread their wings and do something new outside your team.

Build a Highly Engaged Team Through Leadership Coaching

If you want to keep a boat from sinking, you must plug the leaks and bail out the water that’s already accumulated. It’s a two-pronged strategy to keep a boat sustainably above the waterline. Similarly, eliminating indifference is a multifaceted approach that both reduces the likelihood of it slipping into active disengagement while also working to shift it back to engagement.

Shifting the Indifferent Majority to “engaged” is akin to increasing your employees’ Net Promoter Score for your company.

While the goal of increasing employee engagement is to boost the willingness of employees to expend discretionary effort, it doesn’t mean eliminating healthy boundaries or expecting 24/7 employee availability. It does mean creating an environment and fostering a culture that brings out the best talents in your employees, while allowing them to establish their own sense of balance and harmony among the different spheres of their lives.

An engaged team is a highly productive team—one that performs at high levels with consistency, delivers breakthroughs and remains resilient in all conditions. The employees on the team have a focus beyond themselves, and their motivation and inspiration transcend solely meeting their individual needs. Reducing indifference is the key to raising engagement.

To find out how Leading Edge’s Coaching & Consulting’s 4D Leadership & Executive Coaching by Leading Edge can help you build a highly engaged team, follow this link to schedule a complimentary discovery session.