The Disengagement Dilemma

Strategic Security
The Disengagement Dilemma

Bob works for a large company but he feels small—more like a number than a person. Like any employee, Bob needs to feel valued, like someone who matters to his managers and the company. He wants his supervisors to know him as an individual, and to understand what he wants in his career. He wants to feel like he is part of something bigger than himself.   

Instead, Bob feels expendable. While he would like to develop his career with the organization, his loyalty to the company is challenged by the perceived indifference of management. In a word, Bob is disengaged.

He is not alone in feeling this way. In a recent study, Build a Better Workplace: Employee Engagement Edition, conducted by the Canadian Management Centre (CMC) and Ipsos Reid, only 27 percent of employees surveyed said they were highly engaged, and one in five reported they were not engaged at all. These statistics are consistent with an older Gallup survey, which found that 71 percent of American workers are either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged.” 

Every business benefits from the buy-in of its employees, as employee engagement leads to a motivated, productive, and committed workforce. And yet, high disengagement rates persist across industries and continents. This is the disengagement dilemma, and it is one of the biggest challenges facing companies today. Organizations around the globe, and HR departments in particular, have struggled to address this difficult problem.

Disengaged employees are more likely to leave an organization, proving that engagement and retention are directly linked. Businesses suffer when this happens. The cost of hiring and training new employees is high—not only in monetary value, but in morale. Only a distinct minority of organizations have a truly engaged workforce. 

How can an organization in the security industry make engagement a priority? To answer this question, we explored the research and studies conducted on this topic, and we discussed these issues with human resources experts, who offered some advice and best practices.  


“Does Money Really Affect Motivation?” is a 2013 Harvard Business Review article by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London, that examines the allure of lucre by reviewing 120 years of research and synthesizing the findings from 92 quantitative studies. The combined dataset includes more than 15,000 individuals.

The results indicate that the connection between salary and job satisfaction is weak. In addition, a cross-cultural comparison included in the article revealed that the relationship of pay with job satisfaction is pretty much the same everywhere. For example, researchers discovered the same results in Australia, India, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The finding is consistent with Gallup’s previous global surveys on engagement, which in 2011 found no significant difference in employee engagement by pay level. Moreover, Gallup’s findings were based on 1.4 million employees from 192 organizations across 49 industries and 34 nations.

Clearly, money is not the answer. In fact, if managers want employees to be happy with their compensation, more money is still not the answer.  

If money does not drive engagement, what does? In the CMC-Ipsos Reid study, trust and confidence in senior leadership proved to be crucial in sustaining engagement. 

The study covered 1,200 Canadian workers, including a parallel study of 484 professionals that offered side-by- side comparisons of professional occu­pations. Only four in 10 employees sur­veyed believed that the leadership in their workplaces did a good job communicating what was happening in the organization. A full 61 percent reported that they did not trust their senior leader; that distrust was most prevalent among Generation X employees and baby boomers. The highest level of confidence in senior leadership was reported by employees in the high-tech/IT sector at 55 percent, while employees in retail (39 percent), government (35 percent), and transportation (32 percent) reported the lowest levels of confidence.

Clearly, managers must be considered trustworthy to retain an engaged workforce. But being trustworthy, in and of itself, does not automatically generate commitment. It takes active effort on behalf of management.  

“The most effective way leaders can retain their top employees is to create loyalty by strengthening their emotional connection to their job, environment, leader, and organization,” says Berna­dette Smith, vice president of talent development solutions at the CMC. 

According to Smith, the Build a Better Workplace study lays out an engagement model that cites three contributing factors for fostering the type of connection that creates loyalty to an organization. The first is involvement. “Employees want to make a meaningful contribution to the organization and want to know that their input is valued,” says Smith.

The second is alignment. Some companies support this through an effective performance management program that aligns an employee’s individual work with organizational goals. The key to success with these programs is ensuring an effective communication process at all levels to make everyone aware of the objectives. 

“Employees need to support the direction of the organization and understand how they contribute to achieving its objectives,” she explains.

The third is satisfaction. “Satisfaction indicates how content an employee is with their role and everyday environment. All three factors need to work together to create highly committed and engaged employees,” she adds.​

The Management Effect

Naturally, most managers want a dedicated workforce, and they can expect heightened productivity and performance if they succeed in keeping their employees truly committed. But what engagement strategies are effective, and what should managers focus on when approaching the issue? 

These questions are touched on by another Gallup survey, in which the polling organization asked more than 8,000 employees about their relationship with their manager. The results were discussed last August in an article: “Should Managers Focus on Performance or Engagement?” by Anna­marie Mann and Ryan Darby in the Gallup Business Journal. 

The questions Gallup asked included: Can the employee approach his or her manager with nonwork-related issues, and talk about anything? Can they get prompt responses to requests? Gallup also asked questions related to how managers inspire performance and accountability. Does their manager know what projects or tasks employees are working on? Does he or she help set work priorities or set performance goals and hold them accountable to those goals? 

Through these surveys, Gallup found that managers do not have to choose between focusing on creating strong and committed teams and focusing on maximizing performance and accountability. High-performance managers focus on both; they are engagement-focused, but they are also strengths-based and performance-oriented. They develop deep interpersonal relationships with their employees and focus on performance. In contrast, managers who emphasize one approach and ignore the other risk both lowering engagement and damaging their team’s performance. 

According to Amelia Chan, founder of Higher Options Consulting in Vancouver, British Columbia, such a dual-focus managerial approach is crucial to sustaining even the best laid strategies. As a Canadian immigration and HR specialist with experience in small to mid-sized businesses, as well as governmental, private, and nonprofit sectors, Chan is unequivocal in her support of managers as the sustaining link to abiding engagement.

“The greatest impact on engagement is the direct management relationship. The cliche about how ‘employees don’t leave their jobs, they leave their managers’ endures for good reason,” says Chan. “Studies show that the attitude and actions of the immediate supervisor can enhance employee engagement or can create an atmosphere where an employee becomes disengaged,” she points out.

Chan is clear in her view that improving employee relations is something any manager can do simply by listening and accepting input from staff, by being clear about the organization’s direction, and by providing consistent, open communication.

“It’s in any business’s best interest for managers to develop an HR mindset. Businesses that retain a sustainable competitive advantage realize that employees are its biggest assets,” says Chan.

Ironically, while engagement is most often a topic broached in relation to large businesses, Chan sees it affecting smaller organizations, as they are the ones who can least afford to lose quality employees or to receive negative feedback from previous and existing employees. “Economies of scale put an even greater pressure on small businesses to adopt more strategic HR thinking in regards to retaining, engaging, and getting the most out of their teams,” she says.

Career development

Engagement strategies may vary from company to company, and may depend on how much the organization invests in developing company culture. Besides managerial initiatives, the reputation of an organization also helps with engagement—particularly when even those who do not work for the organization believe that it is a great place to work. 

According to Jamie Read, HR director of Commissionaires BC, a provider of security officers, such perceptions are powerful tools. However, those perceptions are unlikely to take hold unless they are internally supported by progressive practices and processes.

That investment in the workforce is ongoing, and returns come in the form of engagement and goodwill. “Throughout their careers, we continue to support personal development, career planning, and a sense of community. Promoting from within is our practice for supervisory positions,” she explains. She elaborates that career development at her firm is driven by spotting high potential from within, and then tailoring training programs to encourage growth and loyalty. Following this practice helps keep staff interested in growing with the company.

Virgin is another company whose reputation is enhanced by supportive workplace practices. Virgin CEO Richard Branson recently made headlines with an engagement strategy that points to a loosening of control as key to boosting corporate culture. Branson said that his staff of 170 could take off whenever they want for as long as they want. He added that there was no need to ask for approval, nor say when they planned to return, the assumption being that the absence would not damage the firm.

Branson said he was inspired by his daughter, who read about a similar plan at Netflix. “It is left to the employee alone to decide if and when he or she feels like taking a few hours, a day, a week or a month off,” Branson wrote in his recent book The Virgin Way: Everything I Know About Leadership. “The assumption being that they are only going to do it when they feel 100 percent comfortable that they and their team are up to date on every project and that their absence will not in any way damage the business—or, for that matter, their careers!”

He added that he had introduced the policy in the United Kingdom and the United States “where vacation policies can be particularly draconian.” If it goes well there, Branson said he would encourage subsidiaries to follow suit. “We should focus on what people get done, not on how many hours or days worked,” he said.  

Andrew Woods, MBA, is based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. He facilitates management development programs and has presented workshops, including security-related courses, in 18 countries. He is the author of BOOM! Engaging and Inspiring employees Across Cultures. Woods is a member of ASIS International.