CEO Confidential

Disengagement Is Expensive and Managers Are Patient Zero

Disengagement is expensive. One study from University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School suggests disengaged employees cost an organization $3,400 for every $10,000 of salary. Let’s do the math on that:

  • The cost of disengagement is $17,000 for a person who makes $50,000 per year.
  • Statistics say as many as 70% of people are disengaged in their work.
  • For a work force of 1,000 working at an average of $50,000 per year, 70% of which is disengaged, the total cost of disengagement comes to almost $12 million dollars.

What would happen to your business if you could recover even a portion of that cost of disengagement in increased productivity, performance and profitability?

Engagement is contagious. When you’re surrounded by cynical people who do the bare minimum in their work (and maybe even try to undermine your best efforts), it’s hard to do your best work and feel highly satisfied and engaged. Conversely, when you’re surrounded by positive people who excel at their work – and help you do your best work – isn’t it hard not to feel more satisfied and engaged as a result?

If engagement is contagious, the manager is Patient Zero. In fact, research shows that managers account for about 80% of employee engagement levels. Hire and promote the right managers and it will show up in your bottom line, as the decrease in the cost of disengagement converts to profits through higher performance and productivity. Here’s what you’re looking for in the managers you hire and what you want to encourage them to do. 

Cultivate positive, personalized relationships. 

This flies in the face of conventional management wisdom, which says: Don’t get too close to your people. The most engaging managers build strong, personalized connections with the people on their teams.

  • They ask questions and learn about each person’s aspirations, interests, sweet spots, needs and challenges.
  • They give people time, not just when it’s convenient for them, but when the people on their team need and want it.
  • They show up – to celebrate milestones like birthdays, weddings and graduations, and to help people through the hard parts of life, such as illnesses and funerals of family members.

Managers who make a difference care about the things their employees care about and genuinely want to help those people succeed and thrive. And because the manager is Patient Zero, that kind of caring becomes the norm and the implicit expectation for how everyone on their team will treat everyone else.

Accelerate people’s growth. 

Highly engaging managers build on those caring relationships to maximize people’s performance and push their development.

  • They know potential when they see it (and they’re always looking for it).
  • They give people opportunities to test that potential and turn it into achievement.
  • In the process, they provide positive, strengths-focused coaching and optimize the fit between people’s natural talents and the expectations for their performance.
  • They perfect the art of asking questions, which they use to tailor their approach to helping each person achieve optimal performance.

Managers who maximize engagement make coaching a priority. Because they make investments in people and because their goal is always to help people grow, the people they manage become more committed and more willing to exercise discretionary effort, instead of just doing the bare minimum. And those people work in ways that optimize the returns on the organization’s investments in them. 

Always express appreciation. 

Research shows that people are less likely to express gratitude at work than anywhere else. Yet 81% of people say they would work harder for a more appreciative manager. How much harder? Actual field work shows they will work as much as 50% harder. Managers who express appreciation inspire the discretionary effort that disengaged people simply will not exert. Here are some simple (but powerful) ways managers can express appreciation:

  • Say thank you. (What could be simpler than that?)
  • Write a handwritten note of appreciation. Be specific.
  • Bring a person into a senior leader’s office and tell the senior leader about something extraordinary that person has done.
  • Take someone out for coffee or out to lunch to say thank you or to celebrate a significant success.
  • If and only if the person likes public recognition, find a way to do that.

The very best managers make a point of emotionally rehiring people. Emotional rehiring is as simple as telling a person why you are grateful to have them on your team and reaffirming your commitment to that person. Here’s an example:

Dear Larry, 

Congratulations on your acceptance to speak at a big conference. This is a huge win for you and our company. I appreciate your preparation and your uncompromising commitment to delivering an excellent experience for every person who will hear you speak. I love working with you! 


 Intentionally shape culture.

Culture is shaped by the people an organization selects, develops and retains. Managers who optimize engagement focus on the right things.

  • They hire for talent, not to fill a slot.
  • Master storytellers, they emphasize “the why” so people have a sense that their work contributes to something greater.
  • They encourage people to have fun and build positive relationships with their co-workers.
  • They address poor performance and bad behavior.
  • When they make hiring mistakes or when people are underperforming, they course correct quickly by recasting people or letting them go.

Highly engaging managers obsess over the chemistry on their teams, and they curate the real-life stories from employees and customers that help people see how doing their work with excellence positively impacts multiple stakeholders. 

Some of the qualities listed above can be taught. Some are more difficult to impact through teaching and training. For example, some people are simply not cut out to invest heavily in relationships with other people. These people should not be managers. As Patient Zero for engagement, the nature of their contagion will not move the needle in the right direction for your organization. If you are a CEO or senior leader, the people you hire and retain as managers have the greatest impact on the engagement of your workforce. When you select managers who value people, invest in relationships, accelerate people’s growth, express gratitude and intentionally shape culture, your organization will reap the rewards of a more highly engaged and more highly profitable workforce.

Written by: Kim Turnage and Larry Sternberg.

 Have you read their book

MANAGING TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE:  How To Engage, Retain & Develop Talent For Maximum Performance.

Larry is a senior executive at management consulting firm Talent Plus and Kim is a senior leadership consultant at Talent Plus.

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Featured Columnists at the CEOWORLD Magazine is a team of experts led by Camilla O'Donnell, James Reed, Amarendra Bhushan, and Amanda Millar. The CEOWORLD Magazine is the worlds leading business and technology magazine for CEOs (chief executives) and top-level management professionals.
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