Is Someone Drilling Holes in Your Ship?


In a recent coaching session with a CEO, we were discussing Gallup’s annual survey on employee engagement. He compared the results to people aboard a ship. Thirty percent of employees are Fully Engaged, that is they are actually on board and rowing the boat in the direction established by the company leadership. Twenty percent of employees are Actively Disengaged, that is, they are either drilling holes in the hull of the boat or rowing in the opposite direction. That leaves fifty percent of the employees (the Not Engaged) on board the ship standing around looking at the scenery and taking up space. As many times as I have read these annual survey results from Gallup over the years, this is the probably the best visual picture I have heard to illustrate the impact of those statistics. My hope is that you know who your Fully Engaged employees are and that you are rewarding them for their efforts, contributions, commitment and performance; that you are working hard to transition the Not Engaged to greater engagement; and that you are focused on helping the Disengaged find someplace else to work.

The greatest opportunity for leaders is with the Not Engaged.  And the question everyone is trying to answer is, What does it take to move them to Fully Engaged?  Here are a couple of my thoughts:

  1. Help them find purpose and meaning in their jobs. That may mean that you will have to first define the meaningful purpose of your company. People want to do meaningful, significant, and important work. If your service or product is being purchased, your organization has significance. Some of the most fun work I do is interviewing employees to help organizations clarify and articulate their purpose. Once this is done, helping the individual employee connect their work to the purpose is much easier.
  2. Recognize them for their contributions. Make sure they know that you are noticing their work and appreciate the value they bring to the outcomes you are trying to achieve. Make the recognition specific rather than a generic “thank you”.
  3. Invest in their growth and development. Nothing says, “I value you” more than investment in training, development, and challenging projects or assignments.
  4. Help them know what they can do to get ahead.  One of the greatest tragedies in the war for talent is when you lose a key player because you failed to tell them they were a key player.  Do they know what the future opportunities look like in your organization and what they can do to land one of them?
  5. Make a few tweaks to your incentive programs and organizational structure to send a message that they are valued.  With today’s workforce where we are more and more reliant on the technological skills of employees, you may want to investigate creating dual career tracks, where highly skilled technical contributors can grow, get ahead and improve their financial standing, without necessarily stepping over into management.
  6. Make sure their voice is heard and their comments, concerns, ideas and innovations are welcome. This may take the form of an Open Door Policy, an Innovation Depository, Employee Engagement surveys, etc.
  7. Be as transparent with them as possible. There is nothing that builds trust among employees than when leaders speak the truth to them, even when the truth involves tough messages. This becomes even more important in today’s economic environment. The American Psychological Associations 2014 Work and Well-being Survey just reported that 24% of employees don’t trust their employer. Some of the distrust is our own fault. When the cuts in benefits, stagnation in pay, and layoffs occurred after the downturn, employees probably grasped why those changes occurred, whether we clearly explained them to them or not. They were simply glad to have their jobs. However, with the resurgence of the stock market, the rumors and news or record executive pay, the news of productivity growth without employment growth, skepticism could easily reign. As such, it is more important than ever that you are clear with them about the fiscal state of the company, why you are making the investments you are making, and the kinds of things that impact decisions regarding their pay and benefits.

If you are as successful as you are with thirty percent of your workforce Fully Engaged, just think of what you can accomplish if you raise that number and eliminate a large portion of the Actively Disengaged?

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