Best employees can be least engaged
More than a third of companies are so dysfunctional, the best people don’t really care about what they’re doing and the worst people don’t know that they are doing a lousy job.
Those are the findings of a new study by Leadership IQ, a twelve-year-old Washington, D.C. company that does employee engagement surveys and leadership training.
Though many companies in the human resources business collect data on employee engagement and companies themselves tend to track workers’ performance, according to Mark Murphy, Leadership IQ’s CEO, this is the first time an H.R. firm has combined the two data sets.
Murphy’s team did that for 207 companies and came up with a surprising number: In 42% of the companies, the employees who do the worst job are the ones who feel the most “engaged.” At the same time, the middle and high performers in those firms feel disconnected from their jobs and not very motivated to come to work every day.
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Companies should be worried about these findings, says Murphy, because high performers tend to thrive on feeling involved and challenged. They also act as company ambassadors with clients, customers and potential hires. If they are bored or they feel under-appreciated, they will stop talking up their employer, mentally unplug from their work, start looking for opportunities elsewhere and eventually jump ship.
As for low performers, companies want them either to become more productive or to disengage and find work elsewhere. Companies don’t want deluded low performers, who think they are contributing when they are really doing poorly, to stick around because they have fallen in love with their cushy jobs.
What has led to such a high level of dysfunction in more than a third of companies? Murphy says that many companies are failing to implement basic lessons of good leadership. Bosses should be clear about performance standards and transparent about what they want their employees to do. There should be what he calls “meritocratic accountability,” where high performers are regularly recognized and rewarded with praise, promotions and raises. And managers should not avoid difficult conversations with low performers, who should be told how and why their work is not up to snuff.
Most companies know they should be doing these things, but Murphy says that many businesses struggle to set clear performance standards. Outside of sales, where achievement is measured in numbers, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what bosses expect from top performers. Examples: hospital nurses and operations managers. Often what makes people good at those jobs can’t be defined by simple metrics.
Nevertheless companies must try and they should be diligent about communicating with employees about their performance while checking in about how engaged employees feel. Murphy thinks that bosses should have monthly one-on-one conversations with middle and high performers where bosses ask about whether employees felt unmotivated or burned out, and also about when they felt excited about their jobs.
Murphy is less concerned about the low performers who feel engaged at work. That is not such a terrible thing if bosses make it clear in performance reviews that those employees need to improve. The bigger problem is with middle and high performers who are so unplugged their work may slip or they may decide to leave. The good news is that more than half of companies are doing things right. But there are plenty of companies that should consider the Leadership IQ study and rethink the way they manager their employees.