Employee Engagement Is Terrible. Why It Matters and What Can Be Done.

The low level of engagement at work is a modern day tragedy. We are treating most people very poorly, and that impacts how they act outside of work, and how they contribute at work. Everyone would be better off if they were given what they needed to make a bigger impact and grow through doing it. And it’s completely avoidable. We know what it takes to improve engagement.

A recent Gallup study reported that only 30% of workers in the US are engaged or motivated in their work. And this has all kinds of negative consequences, at work and beyond. In this episode, we dig into the research and share some practical things you can do about it.

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Episode Transcription

Richard Lawrence

More than half of the U.S. workforce is either just going through the motions or actively trying to sabotage their company. This isn’t just a corporate issue. Sure, disengaged employees mean less productivity and lost profits. But disengaged workers also mean worse products and services for all of us, worse experiences at work for almost everybody, and less productivity in the economy as a whole. One Gallup study estimated almost 2 trillion dollars in lost productivity in the US every year from this issue.

Peter Green

Globally, the situation is even bleaker, with 10% lower worldwide engagement than in the United States. This is a profoundly impactful issue not only for the world economy but for our collective sense of well-being.

In this episode we’ll explore how to ensure your company, team, or even individual work doesn’t suffer. We’ll dive into Gallup’s findings and explore actionable strategies to boost engagement and productivity. But first, this show is a free resource sponsored by the Humanizing Work company.


Humanizing Work exists to make work more fit for humans and humans more capable of doing great work. To that end, we do training and coaching in three areas:

  1. We help leaders lead empowered teams and individuals more effectively, creating high engagement workplaces
  2. We help product people turn their ideas into good visions, experiments, and backlogs
  3. We help teams collaborate better to produce meaningful outcomes on complex work

If you or your organization would benefit from better leadership, better product management, or better collaboration, and if you find our vision for human-centric work compelling, visit the contact page on humanizingwork.com and schedule a conversation with us.


Ok let’s start by looking more closely at the data on engagement. Gallup, the global analytics and advisory firm, conducts an annual survey to measure the level of employee engagement in the United States and worldwide. They sort engagement levels into three categories–engaged, not engaged, and actively disengaged.


Engaged employees are highly involved in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace. They take personal responsibility for creating strong outcomes and performing well.

“Not engaged” employees are unattached to their work and their company. They show up and put in the required hours, but they don’t volunteer their energy or creativity to the work. They often like to float under the radar, and sometimes are referred to as “quiet quitting.”

Actively disengaged employees aren’t just unhappy at work, they are resentful and acting out. Actively disengaged employees often undermine what their engaged coworkers accomplish. They spend time badmouthing coworkers, projects, and leaders. They put in the minimum effort to not get fired and are sometimes referred to as “loud quitting.”


Gallup’s data shows that as of Feb 2024 in the United States, only 30% of employees are Engaged, with 53% Not Engaged, and 17% Actively Disengaged. Worldwide, 23% are Engaged, 59% are Not Engaged, and 18% are Actively Disengaged.

It’s all pretty bad news, and it’s actually on a downward trend since a peak about 4 years ago. But there is some good news as well. Gallup points out that at the best companies they measure, engagement is high at 70%. That level of engagement represents a huge competitive advantage. It also represents a huge positive impact on the lives of the employees of those companies.


So, what can you do to tip the scales towards what the high performing companies see? What if you’re not in a position of leadership authority, but you’re a team member hoping to make things a little bit better at what you can influence? What can be done to improve engagement?

A good place to start is the research on motivation. Engagement, as Gallup uses the term, is sort of the “so what” of motivation. Motivated employees will tend to engage in their work. Demotivated employees will tend to not engage or actively disengage.


Since Douglas McGregor posited his Theory X vs. Theory Y of management in his 1960 book “The Human Side of Enterprise,” researchers have been studying this question. And while there are some variations depending on location, age, and type of work, there are pretty clear themes. Author Dan Pink summarized one body of research, called Self Determination Theory, in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. In Drive, Pink describes three factors.


So, the first of those 3 factors is Autonomy. We’re motivated when we feel like we have some control over our lives and our work. Autonomy, in practice, is nuanced in a couple of interesting ways, though:

First, we tend not to be directly motivated by getting more autonomy, but we get demotivated by having our autonomy constrained more than we feel like it should be. For years, I’ve been asking groups of people in my workshops what motivates them and what demotivates them. I’ve now asked those questions of thousands of people. And almost no one says anything like “autonomy” when I ask what motivates them. They talk a lot about Pink’s other two motivation factors, but not autonomy. However, when I ask what demotivates them, micromanagement pretty much always tops the list. We need autonomy to be motivated, but it’s the “Big Yellow Taxi” of motivation factors—we don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone.

The second interesting thing about autonomy is that we delegate it to other people all the time. When we want to collaborate with someone on something, when we want to have a close personal relationship, when we want to engage a coach to help us grow. In all those cases, we’ve let someone else limit our freedom. And it works as long as we trust that person to use that delegated autonomy for our good or for some larger purpose we care about. I let my boxing coach tell me what to do in a practice session—in fact, I pay him to tell me what to do—because I believe that he’ll use that delegated autonomy towards goals I care about.

So, if you’re a leader and you want to increase your employees’ motivation, you’re going to need to pay attention to autonomy. You’ll need to give employees plenty of freedom within reasonable enabling constraints. Probably not total autonomy, but clear autonomy with clear boundaries, that make sense to them, and avoid limiting areas that employees feel like they should have control over.

The second motivation factor in Pink’s summary of the self-determination theory research is what he calls Mastery. And mastery here includes two things:

  • competence—we want to feel like we’re good at our work, like we’re making progress like we’re accomplishing things
  • growth—we want to feel like we’re taking on new challenges and getting more and more competent

The balance between those varies for different people. Some people are really motivated by competence, and they may be happy taking on the same kind of tasks over and over again and doing them really well. Others care a whole lot more about growth and always want to be tackling new challenges.

Either way, the biggest impediment to mastery that we see in organizations is a culture of overcommitment. When people take on too much work all the time, they rarely get to experience either competence or growth. And that’s demotivating.

Finally, Pink cites Purpose as the third motivation factor. We want our work to have some kind of meaningful impact. The original research that Pink’s summarizing often uses the word relatedness for this, which emphasizes connection to purpose, being able to connect the dots between the work you’re doing and something bigger than yourself.

Purpose, we find, is often undercommunicated. It can feel obvious to leaders, and so they don’t talk about it enough, and in particular, they don’t make the connections between the tactical work that individual teams are doing, and the larger outcomes that that work creates.


Another book that we find particularly interesting related to motivation is Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi’s “Primed to Perform.” Doshi and McGregor summarize those positive motivators that Dan Pink did in his book, with a slightly different approach, which adds a little to Pink’s description. They call the three positive motivators Play, Purpose, and Potential. Play is like a little bit of autonomy and a little bit of mastery. It’s about the ability to explore things at work. And Potential is similar to Mastery in some ways, but it adds the importance of recognition. Not only do we want to be competent and improving, but we want others to notice it, to maybe give us some kudos, and to see a career path that matches that growth.

Then, an absence of any of the positive motivators is naturally demotivating to us, as Richard described with autonomy. Lack of Clarity of Purpose is one of the ones that comes up most frequently when we survey clients. In addition, Primed to Perform describes three factors that are directly demotivating–Emotional Pressure, Economic Pressure, and Inertia. Emotional pressure sounds like “Do the work or else!” It relies on coercion, threat, guilt, or shame to get people to do work. And economic pressure is the attachment of monetary rewards to outcomes. Especially for adaptive, creative work, attaching any kind of economic benefit or punishment to a task turns out to result in worse performance in every study they’ve done. Finally, inertia is the sense that “Nothing ever changes around here.” It often feels or sounds like red tape or bureaucracy, or “We’ve tried that and it didn’t work, everything’s just gonna be the same.”


So who’s to blame for the overall low engagement and motivation numbers? According to most research, including Gallup’s, the one person most responsible for motivation, by a long shot, is your direct manager. Gallup says that “70% of the variance in team engagement is determined solely by the manager or team lead.”

High engagement is nearly always correlated with managers who create a sense of clarity of purpose and expectations, who care enough about the employee to facilitate personal and career development, and who create systems that narrow the gap between task and the impact it creates.


This is just another reason that the Humanizing Work Three Jobs of Management, which are to create clarity, increase capability, and improve the system, are so critical. These directly improve all of the positive motivation factors and give other options for motivating folks beyond emotional or economic pressure, all while demonstrating that inertia won’t be a factor here.


So, for a company, the best thing you can do to move from the 30% engagement you are statistically likely to have today towards the 70% engagement demonstrated by the strongest organizations is to train your managers. They need to care about their people enough to create clarity, increase capability, and improve the system for their people.


If you have direct reports today, as hard as it might be, the core of your job is to help your people succeed by doing these things for them better than you did it yesterday. Pick a small area and work on it in 1:1s. and, ask for feedback on how you can better support them.


And as an individual, be as vocal as it is safe to be in your environment, in asking for more clarity of purpose and expectations, for opportunities to learn and grow, and for better systems that allow you to make progress towards outcomes that matter.


The level of engagement at work is a modern day tragedy. We are treating most people very poorly, and that impacts how they act outside of work, and how they contribute at work. Everyone would be better off if they were given what they needed to make a bigger impact and grow through doing it. And it’s completely avoidable. We know what it takes to improve engagement. We hope you’ll take some step today to improve engagement at work. It may be small, but small positive change is the only way large change has ever happened.

Thanks for tuning in!

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