Today’s podcast episode is about the four categories of engagement. Listen to the show on iTunes or Stitcher.

Don: [00:00:00] I’m Don Rheem, CEO of E3 Solutions and author of the book Thrive by Design. I speak across North America on the neuroscience of engagement at work. I’m passionate about helping leaders at every level to create engaging workplace environments where employees feel safe, recognized, and validated. Employees who feel safe at work are happier, healthier, and more productive. Each week my team and I take on topics impacting managers and offer solutions to your biggest workplace challenges. This is the Thrive by Design podcast.

Kelly: [00:00:39] Welcome to Thrive by Design, the podcast. I’m Kelly Burns and I’m here with Don Rheem, CEO of E3 Solutions. We created this show to give managers, CEOs, and leaders the tips, strategies, and tools you need to create an engaged culture at work.

[00:00:57] Last week we discussed the importance of measuring engagement at your company. Today we’re talking about four different categories of engagement we see at every company we’ve ever measured. We’re covering these different groups at a high level today and we’ll take a much deeper dive on each of them in an upcoming series on understanding and leading each category. For now let’s focus on the bell curve we find when measuring engagement.

[00:01:21] Good morning, Don.

Don: [00:01:24] Good morning, Kelly.

Kelly: [00:01:26] Don, I’d love for you to explain the bell curve of engagement to our listeners.

Don: [00:01:31] When you measure engagement, like a lot of things in living systems, a majority of the things you’re measuring – the outcomes you’re measuring -are huddled around the middle. That’s why they call it a bell curve. Most most employees when you measure engagement, are in the center of the bell curve, but there are outliers at each end. Negative outliers on the left and positive outliers on the right.

[00:01:53] We’ve taken these four categories and we’ve labeled each one of them. Starting on the far right, which is the positive side of the bell curve, we have what we call the Actively Engaged employees. They typically represent 5 to 15 percent of employees the first year a company measures. The second engaged group is just what we call the Engaged. This is a great group. It’s the backbone of every high performance culture. They typically represent anywhere from 20 to 35 percent of employees. Then we crossed the threshold between employees who are regularly engaged and those that are typically disengaged when they get to work. The biggest category to the left of this threshold is what we call the Somewhat Disengaged. This is always the largest cohort within a company. Anywhere from 30 to 55 percent of a company’s employees can be Somewhat Disengaged. Then over on the far left side of the bell curve are these negative outliers we refer to as the Actively Disengaged employees. They also represent somewhere between 5 and 15 percent in the first year, although we’ve seen it as high as 34 percent.

Kelly: [00:03:03] Don let’s dig into each one of these categories a little bit deeper. Can you start over on the far left side? Let’s talk about the Actively Disengaged employee. What do they look like? Tell us about them.

Don: [00:03:14] If I just walked into an organization, they could look like every other employee. You physically may not be able to detect a difference, although sometimes you can. Some companies talk about how they tend to be more disheveled. They’re less concerned about their appearance. They are less likely to show up in what you would consider a business-ready attire or appearance. I thought when we originally founded E3 Solutions eight years ago, that these Actively Disengaged were going to be slackers. Not doing very much, sitting behind their workstation hoping no one notices them. But what we have found is that sometimes they can be very mobile. They can be very active in the way they move around physically. It’s just that they’re not getting anything done. It’s just a lot of moving around with little without a lot of productivity. Smoke and mirrors. The typical Actively Disengaged employee will look shut down, will avoid direct eye contact, does not engage readily in conversations. They might look and feel a little isolating. They’re disengaged not just from the sense standpoint of the work and getting work done, they also tend to be disengaged with the people around them.

Kelly: [00:04:30] When we talk to clients about the Actively Disengaged and we ask them to describe what disengagement looks like, we see some very similar answers coming up no matter what client we’re talking to. I’ll list a few, maybe you can jump in. They’re negative, they’re toxic, they gossip, and they try to create a band of employees around them who are also disengaged. What else do you see?

Don: [00:04:52] They tend to have excuses when things don’t go well. They tend to deflect. They complain a lot and then when they complain about others, we call them blamers. There’s a lot of blaming, a lot of finger pointing. To use a therapeutic term, they’re also typically very highly defended – meaning that if you go to them you say, “Hey what about that project or what about this or that outcome?” They’ll do rather than lean in and say “Oh wow yeah, that’s not what I wanted” Or take ownership of it, they’ll become very defensive. In fact they they can become very belligerent and angry in that defense.

Kelly: [00:05:25] So now that none of us want any of these employees in our organization how many do you think we actually have in our typical organization?

Don: [00:05:34] We’ve seen it range anywhere from 5 percent and really extraordinary companies that have high levels of engagement in their first year. I mentioned one organization that we’ve worked with, it was 34 percent in the first year. That is, one out of three of their employees were in this category and we described the category shorthand as these are the employees that quit. They just didn’t tell anybody and they’re still showing up and collecting a paycheck. When one out of three of your employees are showing up and operating like that, you just know you’re not getting anywhere close to what individuals are capable of.

[00:06:10] Productivity levels are gonna be lower. Then it’s the outcomes of that behavior, that often triggers CEOs to take action. Outcomes can range anything from increased scrap, redos, general quality issues, more disruptive, there’s higher levels of drama. There’s less esprit de corps among amongst the team. What happens naturally for human beings when we encounter these people that the brain literally considers as toxic and negative, the natural response of the brain is to create what what is called healthy boundaries. You want to protect yourself from that person. Team members start to avoid this individual. That’s where we get work arounds. They are really big impacts on teams as well.

Kelly: [00:07:03] You’re saying that it’s not just that bad impact that they have on the bottom line of the organization, but also a significant impact that they have on the culture. Can you dig in more to the team impact that they have?

Don: [00:07:16] In the field of organizational development, there is a subset of academics that just look at an issue that’s titled typically “team efficacy.” That is the efficiency, the efficacy of a team. How effective is a team? That’s really important in business today because you want the most effective, efficient teams possible. One of the things that have been attempted in that research is you take a group of employees. You have your Actively Engaged, your more engaged employees – your top players – and then you put on someone from this Somewhat Disengaged or Actively Disengaged, you put them on the team. Ostensibly this is to raise their level of effort, that they would climb to the level of effort of the top players on the team. But what the research actually shows is the top flyers, that the top performers, when put on a team with these low performers the performance drops typically to the lowest common denominator. It can be very devastating to the effectiveness of a team because it just depresses everything from commitment to performance.

Kelly: [00:08:20] What causes somebody to act like this? What what fosters active disengagement?

Don: [00:08:27] There’s a multitude of causes. There is no one size fits all. But let me step back a little bit and look at it at a higher altitude. Literally ever since the beginning of the industrial revolution, for two hundred and fifty years, companies, managers, leadership have blamed these employees for their behavior as if they were broken and something was wrong with them.

[00:08:49] What we know in our work in companies when we measure engagement is most of the time, these low performers aggregate under specific managers. Let me give an example. Let’s say you have 100 employees in your company and you measure for engagement. You use our tool, for example. You discover that out of those hundred employees, 18 of them are Actively Disengaged. That wouldn’t be uncommon. Then you think, “Well ok, those Actively Disengaged – we’ve got to go get rid of them. We need to fire them because they’re toxic and contagious.” Which is true, but that’s not our advice to leadership. Because when you look at the data – we measure engagement by work group. For any manager that has at least five people reporting to them, we’ll give them their individual bell curve score. So of those 18 Actively Disengaged employees in the organization, you discover that 12 of them report to three managers. Now if you go in and fire those 12 employees what would you have next year when you measure again?

Kelly: [00:09:50] 12 more employees it sounds like.

Don: [00:09:51] 12 more! And maybe even more because the others that were on the fence realizing that nothing’s changed over the last twelve months. They’re now depressed at work as well.

Kelly: [00:10:01] And they’ve all just lost their colleagues to getting fired. That doesn’t make them feel safe.

Don: [00:10:05] Yeah exactly. That felt sense of safety goes down. We’re very careful in how we advise leadership to deal with this category because again we have found that the majority of them their behavior actually makes perfect sense when you understand who they report to or the conditions that they report to when they get to work.

Kelly: [00:10:26] It sounds like we could very broadly break the Actively Disengaged down to two categories. One: they’re Actively Disengaged because of the environment they’re in, potentially with and maybe most likely with, the manager they’re reporting to you. Or two: they’re just by nature are more toxic person. They have more negative behavior. Maybe they have something going on at home, something that fosters that kind of environment. If we think about those two categories, can we get to a couple of practical ways that we lead an employee that’s Actively Disengaged – one in each of those categories?

Don: [00:10:59] The best way to lead the employee that is disengaged because their environment they’re in, is to change their environment. That’s why we focus so much on giving managers better skills. Managers today typically do not have the natural ability to lead other adults through tough times. Either a lack of accountability, or the idiosyncrasies of human behavior. Most managers are not given any skill sets in that category. Companies give people a title, “Hey Kelly, you’re a manager now.” But they typically don’t give you a portfolio of new skills at the same time about how to deal with these people you’re now in charge of. This is rampant across the country in virtually every organization we’ve worked in. If you want to do a better job leading the Actively Disengaged that are there because of the environment they’re in, change the environment. Give their manager better skills. If they have a particular talent or expertise, you might want to move them into another area so you don’t lose them.

[00:12:02] Now the other category, these are folks that are shut down. They may be shut down by nature. That could be, for example, a child a trauma survivor or they might be at an adult trauma survivor. They might live in a toxic environment. They may have been raised by, for lack of a better term, toxic parents. Parents did not know how to raise a child in a healthy way. For those folks, they’re kind of shut down – you can shift their experience. It just takes time and lots of attention. And until this current labor crisis we’re in, I couldn’t find too many CEOs who wanted to take that time and attention. You would simply release them to the market.

[00:12:45] This is a new lens to look at this issue through. There are many of these Actively Disengaged players, we sometimes refer to them as the “D players” in the organization. The longer you wait to release these players to the market, the more difficult it’s going to be to replace them with talent because there’s just very little talent left in the economy. We are at the lowest unemployment rate we’ve had since the Vietnam War. Companies, whether they know it or not, are in a talent war. The longer you wait to replace these underperformers the harder it’s going to be to find people that perform at a higher level to replace them with.

Kelly: [00:13:27] Let’s move further to the right of the bell curve. The Somewhat Disengaged employees – what do they look like? How are they different than actively disengaged?

Don: [00:13:34] You know I like the Somewhat Disengaged as a category because these are not employees who are intransigent and have shut down and clocked out. They’re still committed to the organization to a certain degree, and on some days – one or two days a week – they may act and look just like an Engaged employee. But the majority of the time, they’re not giving the organization anywhere close to what they’re fully capable of giving. I talk about in the book and we talk about in our Boot Camp for Managers – every employee comes to work every day with discretionary effort. That is a level of effort that they could volunteer to the organization. The issue with these Somewhat Disengaged is they’re just not volunteering much, or they’re volunteering it infrequently and in short intervals of doses. The good news about this group is they have not completely checked out. With a change in the way they’re led and managed, we’ve seen this group move in very high numbers over to the right.

Kelly: [00:14:38] How many Somewhat Disengaged are typically in normal organization?

Don: [00:14:45] It ranges anywhere from 30 to 55 percent.

Kelly: [00:14:49] So this is going to be the bulk of our employees?

Don: [00:14:50] Oh yeah. This is usually the largest group. We’ve seen it as high as 80 percent. This is where the majority of employees are. When we look at the strategically, if you want the highest ROI, I want to focus on those employees that are are still movable. They haven’t made a decision to just totally check out and those are the ones that I want to focus on. When you look at their numbers, you can also see them aggregate under specific managers.

[00:15:21] We’re talking about these four categories. Here’s something that is important to share on this issue related to how to lead them. We have an almost every organization, maybe 80 percent of the organizations we’ve measured, you have managers that have 100 percent engaged teams. Every one of them. In the same organization, same pay scale, same culture, we have work groups that are 100 percent disengaged. What’s the only difference between those two work groups?

Kelly: [00:15:49] Who they’re led by.

Don: [00:15:49] Who they’re led by. The manager. If we can give managers a few new skills to shift this group of the Somewhat Disengaged to the right, that’s where we’re going to see our largest movement.

Kelly: [00:16:01] Let’s get really practical. Say somebody is listening to the podcast right now. They can mentally process one or two names of their employees who probably fall into this category based on how you’re describing them. When they show up to work on Monday morning and they think about helping shift this category from Somewhat Disengaged over to the Engaged category, what are one or two things that they should do to those specific people that they’re thinking about, or for those specific people, that might help encourage their growth into the engaged category?

Don: [00:16:33] Great question. I’m going to answer it in two different ways. One of the things we’ve discovered for these Somewhat Disengaged is that they are what I would call natively engaged. They normally would be an engaged employee, but because they’re working with someone who’s Actively Disengaged on their team, next to them, that just pulls them down. In this case it’s not directly a leadership issue in the sense of how the manager leads, but this is a case of where a manager is allowing a D player, someone who’s Actively Disengaged to stay and they poison the team.

[00:17:10] I was trained as a biologist and ecologist and I see companies as social ecosystems. These D players, these Actively Disengaged, are metastasizing tumors and when they work in contact with other employees it would otherwise be good performers, they pull them down. That’s one category.

[00:17:28] Let’s get these Actively Disengaged employees out of the system. Secondly, I have someone who’s coming to work they’re Somewhat Disengaged. How do I change that? One of things we ask managers to do is look for days when they’re really happy. Something has happened that they feel good about, they might literally be high fiving another member of their team. A manager should look at when do they smile? When are they excited? And then be curious. What was it about that instance, that day, that really got them excited? Now we’re getting to their intrinsic motivators. You get different answers. You see an employee who’s feels really good and when to say, “Hey, what’s what’s going on?” They say, “Oh the team really came together and solved that problem. We just nailed it.” So now you know it’s the team working together and they’re being in a team. Another one might say, “Hey this is a tough problem. I worked on it. I was just so persistent and I finally figured it out.” So now you know it’s about challenge or persistence and that’s what you’re going to honor. Others it might be, “I’m just so thrilled we got that product out to the customer. In terms of customer service, we just nailed it on this one.” For them, it’s pleasing the customer. Managers should do a better job looking for incremental moments of joy and be curious about what triggered them. And then use that to create more of them.

Kelly: [00:18:54] Absolutely. Let’s move to the Engaged side, the more positive side of the bell curve. Talk to me about the Engaged employee.

Don: [00:19:01] This group represents anywhere from 20 to 35 percent of employees. These are good, solid employees. That old phrase, “a decent day’s work for a decent day’s pay.” They’re doing a great job and they’re the backbone of any high performance culture because they’re typically the doers at a worker level. They’re taking the great ideas of the great leaders, and they’re implementing them. They’re making them happen. Behaviorally, they are resilient. They’re committed. They typically understand the core values and it’s important to them. They’ve connected with the mission and vision, either of the company, or they’ve connected with their leader. They’ve connected with their team. Where the fourth area of connection is – they really connect with their job. They are more likely to identify their personal sense of purpose and value with the work that they do. This group is started to connect the workplace with themselves. They tend to be more highly intrinsically motivated. They’re going to buy into the mission and vision of the organization more readily. They’re not going to be your total high flyers. They may get there right at 9 and leave right at 5, but that’s OK. If I could have more of these folks, I would.

Kelly: [00:20:25] When you talked about the Somewhat Disengaged, you mentioned that they’re more transient, they’re more movable between their category. Is that true of the Engaged, as well?

Don: [00:20:33] Yes. One of things we’re trying to do for clients is you measure in the first year, and then you want to you want to shift those disengaged employees over to the right. We’ve seen that shift, that is from disengaged employees to engaged employees, to go up as much as 75 percent just in three years. What’s happening is the Somewhat Disengaged, what we’d call the C players, will move to be B players, these Engaged employees. Then these Engaged employees will shift farther to the right, in what used to be an outlier category of the Actively Engaged, and that category can grow. It can grow anywhere from 5 percent all the way up, I think the highest we’ve measured now for Actively Engaged in a company is 36-37 percent. One out of three employees. They’re coming over from this category of the Engaged.

Kelly: [00:21:31] If they’re able to move up to the Actively Engaged category, I assume the reverse is true. Given various environmental factors, they could move down towards the Somewhat Disengaged category. Which tells me that we shouldn’t take this group for granted and let them just exist where they are, knowing that they could move the wrong direction if we’re not careful or intentional with them.

Don: [00:21:55] That’s actually the norm in most organizations, and we know that because when we measure engagement, we’re also identifying when they started with the company. We can, in a company, breakdown engagement by tenure. The most Actively Engaged employees in an organization are the ones who’ve been hired within their first six months. It stays pretty high for up to the first two years.

Kelly: [00:22:19] I think that’s called rose colored glasses.

Don: [00:22:21] Yes it is. They’re very excited. They were wooed in the hiring process. We sometimes call it the honeymoon period. They’re really hoping that this place will be better than the last. They are the most engaged. But then what happens in most companies is, after two years, then three, four, five, engagement goes down. The natural progression is people starting as Engaged, and then what happens to them in the organization actually shifts them out of the category. It may be that they’re forced to work with slackers and people that are disrespectful, have anger issues, whatever it is. They stick it out. They try to endure. But I tell you, it looks like after about two years, the metabolic capacity to deal with that declines.

Kelly: [00:23:10] We want to shift them into the Actively Engaged category as much as possible. Let’s talk about that category. What do they look like?

Don: [00:23:18] Actively Engaged are highly productive. They tend to be three times more productive than the Actively Disengaged. They’re more productive, they’re getting more done in a day, they’re much more efficient. They do buy in typically to the mission and vision of the organization at a very high level. They’re most likely to identify how they value themselves in the work they do. They tend to do the right thing even when no one’s looking. And they’re performing at this level, and it’s not because of what they’re paid.

[00:23:56] I always love it when I’m with a group of CEOs, and I was just with a group of about 15 CEOs last week, and I said think about these Actively Engaged players. Are they Actively Engaged Because of what they’re paid? There’s a little bit of a pause as they process it, and then all the head start shaking no. We just know intuitively these top performers aren’t top performers because of their compensation package. That’s a myth.

[00:24:23] They’re top performers because of how they’re hardwired. When we see these top performers, we say it’s either nature or nurture. The nature is they’re just hardwired to be an A player. Mary is an A player at work. She’s an A player when she’s coaching her daughter’s soccer team on the weekend. That’s just how Mary is.

[00:24:43] Nurture is slightly different. Nurture is when we have someone who is what I would call a native B player. They’re not an A player by wiring. But the environment they’re in, the team they work, with the goals they’re achieving, the mission and vision of organization, is so compelling for them that their level of effort has actually risen to a higher level of performance than they would do naturally on their own.

Kelly: [00:25:08] A players are more likely to show up early, stay late, work weekends, they’re going to pick up the slack of other people around them who may fall into the disengaged category. They’re going above and beyond and offering significant amounts of discretionary effort. Something that we will get into you when we dive deeply into this category in a future episode, is how to prevent burnout for that group of people. Because that’s a really serious problem with your Actively Engaged when they are working that hard. But could you give just a high level overview of how to protect and encourage those Actively Engaged employees to stay Actively Engaged and prevent burnout?

Don: [00:25:45] As an ecologist, and I look at a company as a social ecosystem, I look at these members of the system, these A players, and then you discover they’re not there because of what they’re paid. What I then want to know is what’s the nutrient that keeps that group going? How did they restore the metabolic contribution they make every day? It’s so much higher than everybody else. You discover that the primary nutrient of these A players is simply attention. Simply being recognized, seen, and valued for what they do. They don’t need red carpets and fanfare, but it is really important that someone acknowledge their level of effort and comment on what they’re doing.

[00:26:29] You mentioned this a little bit earlier, you used the phrase we take them for granted, I think with the B players. This is also the case for A players. When I asked a group of managers, “If you have a project that you need to get done and you don’t have time to oversee it yourself, who do you give it to?” And they all say they give it to an A player, because they can get it done with any intervention. The challenge with that, we have found in organizations, is that managers do give them the project and then don’t circle back to even think them when it’s done. We assume they’re like on autopilot and they don’t need any recognition and validation. But in fact they do. One of the most restorative, replenishing things that a leader can do is acknowledge these A players for their level of effort.

Kelly: [00:27:13] Just as the Actively Disengaged have a significant negative impact on the bottom line of the company and the culture, I would assume the Actively Engaged and even the Engaged category, would have a positive effect on the bottom line and the culture, as well. How do we fill our walls with those Actively Engaged and Engaged players? How do we use the ones that we have in our company to help shift the culture from the people who are on the left side of the bell curve?

Don: [00:27:43] Let’s say you had an organization of 100 people and 15 of them were Actively Engaged and 15 of them were Actively Disengaged. Sadly they don’t cancel each other out. The Actively Disengaged have more of an impact on the culture, because the impact is negative. Unfortunately, negativity in the human brain plays a much bigger role, outsized role, than the positive does. We want to make sure we don’t lose our top performers. We want to make sure they’re getting the attention, validation, and recognition that they deserve.

[00:28:16] If you want to run a meritocracy as a manager or as a leader, you need to treat them differently. We’re still going to give validation just to the C and D players, just recognizing them for their presence. But the focus needs to be on these A’s and B’s. A’s need B’s to get the work done. B’s need the A’s to provide the leadership, the energy, the affirmation, the positive environment. When we do the right thing for the A’s and B’s, C’s start to move over.

Kelly: [00:28:44] We are out of time for today. Thank you so much for digging into each one of these categories. I look forward to going much deeper on each of them in upcoming episodes. Really appreciate your time today, Don.

Don: [00:28:55] It’s been my pleasure, Kelly. Thanks very much.

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