Are you engaged?

We cover the causes of disengagement in your employees and how to keep your workforce engaged.

By Doug Plucknette, Allied Reliability Group October 3, 2014


It’s a word that has several meanings; most think of an upcoming wedding, a young couple excited about the idea of getting married, starting a home and a family together and all the things that come with being in love.

This isn’t the kind of engagement I want to talk about.

The engagement I am referring to has to do with people you work with; more specifically how engaged you and your employees are at improving the performance of your company at every level and what each of you can do to improve that level of engagement in 2014.

Before we discuss some ideas for improving employee engagement, we should discuss what causes employees to become disengaged. A disengaged workforce can cost your company millions of dollars in productivity losses, and even worse, disengaged workers rarely share their ideas on how the company can improve. So if your company advertises a model of continuous improvement and your workforce is disengaged, the likelihood of meeting or exceeding your goals is slim to none.

So what causes employees to become disengaged? Remember, if we seek to understand the causes, we have a much better shot at putting in place effective solutions.

Causes for Disengagement

1. Career growth is non-existent or limited – Ask yourself this question: If your boss told you that you were no longer eligible for any further promotions, how long would you remain fully engaged in a continuous improvement effort? Recognition is far more than knowing someone’s name, and glass ceilings based on someone’s level of formal education are a sure fire way to encourage disengagement. Promote those who are actively engaged in improving your company and eliminate glass ceilings.

2. Ideas or opinions are not valued – The most common cause for disengagement is managers who don’t value the ideas or opinions of their employees at any level. This problem exists in nearly every company I visit from the shop floor to the executive suite, and all one needs to do is listen. For every product that has ever been released with issues or problems, you will find 10 people who raised their hand and spoke up and one or two managers who didn’t listen. It’s important to remember that ALL opinions count, not just the positive. Engaged people speak up, and as managers we need to listen.

3. No confidence in managers or products – This is the toughest cause to recognize. It takes brave people to speak up about this issue. As a manager, you not only have to know the pulse of your direct reports, but what people are thinking and dealing with from the production floor up. You have to be visible and you have to have an open door and mind to people at all levels of your organization.

4. Open communication is not encouraged – Simply look at the cause above and compound it by having the belief that employee engagement is the responsibility of each person’s direct manager. Employees must feel safe about taking their ideas and concerns to any level of management.

5. Endless cycle of managers – Today’s business culture seems to encourage a change in managers every two to three years. If your production floor people have worked 30 years or more, they have now worked for 10 to 15 different managers. Each manager will likely have a different style, a different level of engagement with their direct reports, and often, different goals. As a result, many of your seasoned employees will become more or less engaged in their work depending on the style of each manager. In the end, what they have learned is that even with the worst managers, if we simply disengage and wait, the worst managers will be asked to leave.

6. Punishment is valued more than truth – I have to say, this is the number 1 cause for mass disengagement. If you want your workforce to throw the engagement ring out the window, punish someone for simply telling the truth. Human errors, incidents, accidents and defects can only be brought to world-class levels by encouraging open and honest dialog.

7. Managers are not engaged – If your managers don’t believe in your message and are not engaged in continuous improvement, why would you expect your employees to be?

8. Outside distractions
– The internet, social media, cell phones, the economy, health care, national debt, the Super Bowl, World Series, monthly bills, college costs, the balance in the checking account… The list goes on and on and continues to grow. The challenge of being a good manager who creates a work environment that engages people at all levels becomes more difficult each year. What doesn’t change is showing people you care about them, the direction of the company and how we need to work together to move forward.

After suffering through a rather large list of why people become disengaged, what can you as a manager do in 2014 to get and keep your workforce engaged in continuous improvement?

1. Become an engaged listener – While this might sound simple, try taking some notes at the end of each hour; who did you talk to, what did you talk about, what actions did you agree to or ask them to take? You might be surprised to find out you only remember about 30% of just the items I listed. Most people have to work to become engaged listeners and the people you work with have a keen sense in regard to those who listen and those who pretend.

2. Know your people – How many of the people who work at your facility do you actually know? I once had the pleasure of working with a plant manager who had over 700 people working at his site and I would estimate he knew more than 60% by name, knew the names of spouses and children, where they went to school, what sports the kids played, whose children were getting married, and who had recently become grandparents. I was in awe watching him work his way through the cafeteria each day like the father of the bride chatting with people at different tables after he finished his lunch. His investment in showing people he cared was 30 minutes a day, and when I pointed this out to him, he looked me straight in the eye and told me: "I don’t talk to people to show them I care. I do care."

3. Study and put to use performance management
– I learned Dr. Aubrey Daniels philosophy in 1985 and fundamentally it changed how I interact with people in every part of my life. Positive reinforcement is a very powerful tool in developing and sustaining an engaged workforce. For years, my competitors have often wondered how I get so many companies to implement the results of our RCM (Reliability Centered Maintenance) analyses. Truth be known, it has everything to do with what I learned about performance management and positive reinforcement. Yet another free plug for my friend Dr. Daniels!

4. Lead by example – This applies to all managers and supervisors! Come to work on time, use your time at work wisely, treat people as you would like to be treated and make your work environment a clean and enjoyable place to be.

5. Set one clear goal! – I have to say some of the Mission, Vision, Goals and Values statements I see posted in the workplace are enough to make me vomit. Your workforce sees right through that nonsense and many even find it offensive that a group of well-paid managers sat in a conference room for God knows how long and the best thing they could come up with sounds like the script to an episode of the Brady Bunch! One clear and common goal is something everyone can rally around, remember, and repeat.

6. Celebrate sustained success – It’s one thing to have a record day or week of production, it’s another much larger thing to have a record quarter or year, but realistically isn’t this what we all want to achieve? While it’s important to celebrate the first small victories, the real goal is to show continuous improvement, and to do that we have to first improve, then sustain that initial improvement and then improve on that again, and again, and again. Be creative in how you celebrate these successes; I see far too many pizza parties and far too few meaningful and memorable moments.

7. Recognize your leaders
– By line, section, department, team and individuals. Make this recognition as personal as possible. Newsletters are fine for bulletin boards, but recognition should be public and personal, face-to-face so you can shake people’s hands, look them in the eye and thank them. Change comes through strong leadership and your best leaders will need that recognition!

Moving forward

An important thing to remember as you move forward to create an engaged workforce that is focused on continuous improvement, I have always said that without reinforcement or motivation, the natural split of your workforce will be 10/80/10, with 10% of your workforce being intrinsically motivated or engaged, 80% residing on the fence waiting for direction or motivation, and 10% being destructive-disengaged. It’s important to recognize that while the top 10% are intrinsically motivated or self-motivated, this trait doesn’t necessarily make them the best leaders. Good leaders understand their role as a coach and mentor is to encourage and motivate people in a way that brings out their best performance. Often the intrinsically motivated will give up on people because they don’t understand why others need positive reinforcement.

The middle 80% is where your growth will come from. Your job as a manager is to work to motivate as many of these people as you can to become actively engaged in their work. Again, this is what performance management is all about; I would highly recommend you learn and practice these techniques as soon as possible.

The bottom 10 % is where your problems are, the destructive-disengaged employees work to make their numbers larger and they despise their work, the workplace and their leaders. Your greatest challenge as a leader will be to identify the people who represent the bottom 10% and work to change them or eliminate them from your workforce. Remember, leadership is all about getting as many people as possible engaged in the process of continuous improvement. It’s not about giving up on people, and you will find the occasional intrinsically motivated person in your bottom 10%. If I could give you a tip, look for those who punch the clock and then go directly to work for themselves. This is someone who has given up at work and uses their intrinsic motivation to make money outside of work.

Isn’t it time we all got engaged?