Disengaged Employees cost companies $300 billion. Here is how to fix it.

Most companies struggle to keep employees engaged daily. Leaders struggle to understand what factors will drive their team’s performance and output to new heights. Employees wonder day-to-day if their life has a purpose in the rat race of life and if their current job is fulfilling and meaningful. However, there are some simple things that companies and leaders can do to increase engagement, productivity, and performance; build a Northstar story for the organization, communicate the story clearly and frequently, and drive a culture that allows employees to contribute to that story.

Crazy Numbers

A recent Gallup survey revealed that only 13% of employees and managers across the globe are really engaged with their work. Which means that 87% of employees are either disengaged or actively disengaged! That is a huge proportion of any company’s workforce.


Insanity! These are some crazy numbers to me, 87%!!!! I started thinking about engagement last week and then got an email from a "productivity drink" company pitching me on buying these mushroom tinctures for my employees to pump up productivity. They had a really good pitch. "most employees only achieve 3 out of 8 hours of productive and meaningful work in a day.” If only 13% of my employees are engaged, and they only average 3 hours of productive work a day. That means I am probably running at like 5% efficiency.

Disengagement at these levels costs companies in the US alone $300 billion a year. $300 billion is a lot, but I can't relate to it. I need a more granular and in my face number. Like, “Hey out of the 10 workers you have 1 that is actually engaged, and that engaged person is only really doing 3 hours of work a day. Of the 400 hours of labor available for the project, only about 20 hours are actual productive work”. As a leader and manager, telling me my employees are working 5% of the time is a big wow face for me, and it is relatable. What are people doing with the other 95% of their hours out of the day?

The Gallup poll and the shroom email allowed me to ask myself how do we get productivity from employees and it be mutually beneficial and meaningful to the organization and fulfilling to the employee’s life? Some people find purpose in the work they do, and that service is what engages them. An excellent story to get behind engages others. A solid team with camaraderie and culture can build purpose within groups. While teams can cultivate these three things, organizations need to bring these to the forefront and reiterate them frequently to produce an engaging culture.

Build a story that speaks to everyone.

As a team, we had a product, and our CEO built a bulletproof story behind that product. We all believed it and worked hard to pull it off.

I have worked in the startup space for a while. Part of the excitement that culture fosters is the process of getting a product to market. The story and message of the product we were building got me excited every day to put my heart into the organization. The story was enough to motivate me to want to help (and invest my time) as much as I could to deliver a product that lived up to that vision. In large part, the founder built that message. He dragged it through the ditch of every sales call we were ever on. I even got tired of hearing it, but I loved it because I believed it. As a team, we had a product, and our CEO built a bulletproof story behind that product. We all believed it and worked hard to pull it off.

Another great example of the message and culture driving engagement is the military. I served around a decade and was in it for the benefits, but I bought the "go protect our U.S of A" message at some meta-level. Further, into my career, the vision and message became more granular; protecting the U.S from illegal drug imports, or patroling off-shore for terrorists and pirates, and building the next generation of recruits through high-performance instruction and mentoring. Each of these messages was delivered from the top of the chain of command and trickled down. The Captian echoed it consistently in his speeches and addresses, and our first-line leaders were frequently echoing the same. The message didn’t change at different times or leadership levels; it was clear, concise, and pointed to the Northstar often.

Bring it down a notch.

50,000-foot level messages are good for websites but provide zero clarity for an employee on a production line or a software developer in the back office. “ABC Co, strives to deliver top-notch Health Care services for providers and patients.” As a software developer, that wouldn’t get me excited at all. I don’t even know what we are doing with that message. What about, “ABC Co, would like to revolutionize the way providers and patients communicate by providing both sides of the conversation with open access to medical records and mobile software to communicate in real time and reduce facility burdens on the industry.”

I wrote that one :), and it feels clear to me and better than the first example (man shrugs)? If I were a CTO at this company, I would likely ascribe to the story but pepper additional details about my team's current situation. For example, if we are building out the mobile application, I may add that “the UX designs we are grueling over now will help lots of people down the road have ease of access to faster heathcare and doctor feedback.” This clarity of the mission statement and how it pertains to it could help the team focus on getting through the task and finding a purpose to continue.

Communication is everything, do it often.

Consistency and staying focused on that Northstar are critical.

As I said earlier, the key to being bought into the message and vision for me in the military and startups was a clear, frequently communicated message. Simply putting it on the website or a wall in the office isn’t enough. The CEO has to breathe this message, the sales team should be pitching it on every call, and the CTO should be guiding technical operations and development based on mission direction. Managers and leaders at all levels should be implementing the message, continually priming employees to pursue making the vision happen.

Consistency and staying focused on that Northstar are critical. If you pivot and change the mission and Northstar, you have to start over. But, if you consistently bring the message to the team and check in at all levels to ensure everyone remains on the same page, you can achieve an engagement level that no amount of trust falls and team challenges can bring. People believe what they are working for is meaningful, which drives people to a higher level of benevolence, which is essential to trust, and trust is a vital piece to autonomy. When you have actual autonomy, team performance, leadership confidence, and employee engagement move upward exponentially. It is a win-win.