Maren Hogan, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Contributor

Maren Hogan, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Contributor

Here in the HR/Recruiting blogosphere (and its related cousin, the consulto-sphere TM) we spend a lot of time around engagement. Defining it, learning about it, chasing it and trying to innovate it. In fact, John Hollon’s 2012 synopsis of a Bersin report on engagement found that after spending $720 million we:

  • Can’t agree on how to define it. (HR Pros)
  • More than half of us aren’t feeling it. (63% of workers aren’t engaged…whatever that means.)
  • Are planning on doubling our spend on it. (Only 50 percent of the potential market has been tapped, with half the organizations stating an interest in engagement programs actually investing.)

But there is good news! Just kidding, it’s not good news. A recent WSJ article actually cites a study in which the most engaged employees are among the lowest performers. Does anyone else feel like they were just punched in the gut? A little? Okay, a lot?

A new study finds that, in 42% of companies, low performers actually report being more engaged – more motivated and more likely to enjoy working at their organization, for example – than middle and high performers do.

Well, isn’t that something? Not only are these low (not middle, not high) performers super engaged and likely to stay at your organization, they really like it.  And according to Mark Murphy, the gentleman whose consultancy, Leadership IQ, headed up the study, it’s for some pretty scary reasons.

“Low performers often end up with the easiest jobs because managers don’t ask much of them,” he (Murphy) said, so they’re under less stress and they’re more satisfied with their daily work lives.” Crap. Translation: They like they’re job because no one bothers them because every time someone asks them to do something they screw it up.

Sound familiar? Have you ever worked in a position where you had to pick up the slack for an underperforming co-worker?  Did you eventually move on? Yeah, that’s what I thought. In fact, most of the folks in my informal survey (read: my family and friends) stated the same. While the lower performers report high job satisfaction, it actually drives away your high and even middle performers. Scary news for companies who find their engagement scores soaring but their bottom line shaky as hell.

Well, that is perhaps hyperbole. What is missing in the lead of the WSJ article is that in 58% of the companies surveyed, the highest performers were also the most engaged (or at least even-Steven with the rest of the employees.) What’s that you say? The respected Wall Street Journal should have led with that headline? Yes, I agree, which is why I used the same riveting headline up top. Moving on…

Some other cherry pickings from the study prove useful to HR pros (and parents). For instance, the most often reported low engagement was from the middle performers. Neither the best nor the worst, the B- and C-players (like many middle children) are ignored by managers, proving self-sufficient enough not to screw up but also not impressive enough to warrant any special attention. So they plod along, neither engaged or inspired to improve their performance.

Another interesting tidbit is that while HIPOs had varying degrees of engagement, they were far less likely to recommend their workplace as “a great place to work”. This is a trend for employer branding advocates and folks designing an employee referral program. If we are the sum total of the five people we hang out with most (it’s true, I read it on a someecard) then we can expect HIPOs to refer other HIPOs, but they won’t because they hate it there (well, 42% do).

So what’s the solution? Well, a lot of folks would have you believe that it’s chucking all the learnings and investment in employee engagement out the window. I disagree. Much of the dysfunction hinted at in the above paragraphs falls more on managerial shoulders than anything else.

As the world of work changes, so too must the way we manage the people in our workplace change. Sure it’s easier to put all the tough work on the back of the employee who won’t actually screw it up, but is it fair? And if you engage in such a practice, how will that affect your long-term workforce planning? Finally, if you penalize or reward ALL employees instead of those who are abusing the system or flying under the radar (cough** Marissa Mayer **cough!) could the resentment ultimately cost you those managers who would move up and lead the enterprise into the future?

I think all of the above situations are happening, both because the studies seem to be lining up to confirm what I believed 7 years ago when I walked off my corporate job. High performers aren’t interested in staying where they are overworked and under-appreciated. They’ll just leave, start their own business and make money consulting with your company when the low-performers drive it into the ground. The issue is not that employee engagement doesn’t work, it’s that it may be too little, too late for your most valuable employees.

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