Actively Disengaged Employees: Nature or Nurture?

Business conversationsAmong disengaged employees, the most enigmatic and frustrating group is the actively disengaged.  They frustrate everyone… colleagues, clients, customers, suppliers, supervisors, even their families.  They are deeply unhappy with their working conditions.  They are outspoken critics of their employer. They actively sow discontent in the workplace.  They may even engage in acts of sabotage.

They don’t believe in the values or principles of their organization.

They employ their energies to attack existing structures and processes… whittling away at morale and productivity. And they seldom seek or find opportunities to improve their situation.  Even with their extreme unhappiness and discontent, they seem unwilling to seek alternate employment that might be a better fit for them.

According to researchers, approximately nineteen per-cent of employees in public and private sector organizations are actively disengaged.

Are organizations hiring the wrong type of people?  Is it that organizations don’t have effective performance management practices designed to weed out or convert the “wrong type” of people? Or could the problem be something else entirely?

While poor recruitment and performance management practices are contributing factors, there is strong evidence that these shortcomings are only part of a much larger context which is responsible for the creation of actively disengaged employees.

It’s an interesting fact that the likelihood of disengagement grows with the length of time an employee has been with an organization. There are exceptions of course, but many employees start out engaged and gradually grow less engaged with increasing tenure.  Most new employees are thrilled with their job and are gung-ho about making a valuable contribution.  Over time, a different reality sets in and employees become less energized. This erosion of energy suggests the problem is not entirely the result of selection processes or failing to convert these “types” of people. In fact thinking of the problem solely in terms of “types” is probably limiting because it blinds us to the influence of context on human behavior.

There is a widely accepted crime theory known as the Broken Window,  developed by two criminologists, James Wilson and George Kelling. The theory suggests that destructive and even criminal behavior can be induced in people by context.  In a sense, Wilson and Kelling call into question the notion that all destructive and criminal behaviors can be explained as the result of anti-social personality types. They argue that a house with a broken window which is left unrepaired will become a target for further vandalism.  Even so-called good people will succumb to the temptation of doing further damage since it seems no one is in charge and no one cares. Once a milieu of unconcern is established more people will join in the destructive behaviors in order to fit in, to avoid ostracism, to indulge their baser instincts, or to avoid appearing weak.

Psychologists sometimes speak of the Fundamental Attribution Error. What they suggest is that when interpreting the behaviors of others we are often guilty of overestimating the importance of fundamental character traits and underestimating the importance of context. For example, we might look at the behaviors of actively disengaged employees and too easily conclude the behaviours are the result of fundamental character traits such as laziness, dishonesty or the ever more popular generation  X or Y, or even “inability to function as a team player”.  In so doing, we may be overlooking the importance of organizational context.

Is it possible that actively disengaged employees simply see their employing organization as one in which no one seems to be in charge or to care?  Is it possible that they perceive of themselves as striking back against an organization that doesn’t seek their engagement? Could they be decent, capable people who are responding to the context in which they work as they see it?  Could changing the context change the behaviors?

In over twenty years of listening to people we have found that the answer to these questions is yes. Ironically, the reason some actively disengaged employees don’t seek other employment, is the hope that their calls for change or improvement might one day be heard, and that they might one day be part of a great team where they are empowered to make their company great.