Management Tools

By Eric Allenbaugh Apr 1, 2003
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HR Magazine, April 2003Vol. 48, No. 4 The Eyes Have It

Recognize the symptoms of your disengaged workers and use these strategies to 'brighten' their outlook.

Which of the following actual employee quotes best represent your corporate culture?

It stopped being fun here 16 years ago, claimed a 42-year-old manager I interviewed in a new client organization. His glazed eyes and numb spirit said it all.

This place sucks, and I can hardly wait to get out of here, stated a bright, yet disenchanted, three-year employee. Her beady eyes communicated a strong message of discontent.

I just love my job and the people who work here, claimed a first-line supervisor working for Southwest Airlines. Her bright eyes and positive spirit communicated a strong sense of engagement and commitment.

The Gallup Organization’s “engaged workers index,” released in September, found that 29 percent of workers were “engaged” in their work, 54 percent were “not engaged” and 17 percent were “actively disengaged.” When 71 percent of employees are either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged,” leaders need to pay careful attention to this corporate wake-up call. Ignoring the human element has a profoundly negative impact on the bottom line. And, it doesn’t have to be that way.

The Invisible Driving Force

Corporate culture is that invisible driving force that reflects the collective values and behaviors of those associated with the organization. Culture greatly influences job fulfillment, productivity, quality, customer service, creativity and even profitability. Shaping corporate culture, then, becomes a core strategy of enlightened leaders. Leaders do not leave formation of culture to chance; they deliberately create a compelling purpose, engage the passion of employees and experience performance results. Those who do not shape the culture will ultimately be shaped by it.

Three company cultures generally emerge in corporate America—and you can often identify the presence of a particular culture by looking into the eyes of employees. While all three employee groups often exist within a given company, a dominant group defines the overall culture. Here is what you will likely see—and experience:

The Glazed Eye Group. About 54 percent of employees fall into this category. The members of this disengaged group are characterized by their lack of spirit and vitality. They are quick to explain why something cannot be done and frequently offer excuses. They look to other people to fix the situation and seldom share creative ideas. They feel discounted, unappreciated and insignificant. You are likely to hear such statements as “Nobody listens to me,” “It’s not my job” and “Nothing gets done around here—the same problems keep coming up over and over again.”

Members of this group avoid risk taking at almost all cost, do the absolute minimum they can to get by and tend to watch the clock very closely. They are neutral to mildly negative about the company, yet do not feel motivated to improve the situation. When a dominating force, this group will slowly drain the vitality out of an organization. In spite of their low productivity, they tend to leave work exhausted.

The Beady Eye Group. Members of this actively disengaged group represent about 17 percent of the corporate workforce, but dealing with their negative energy often consumes a disproportionate amount of time, talent and treasure. These people work against the organization and go out of their way to seek out and find the flaws—and they do find them. They focus on problems and even resist attempted solutions. They feel angry, frustrated and highly disconnected. Blaming, moaning and whining, you will likely hear them say things like “My boss is a jerk,” “This place is the pits,” “The pay and benefits are lousy” and “This is hopeless.”

Many within the Beady Eye group get their power through open resistance and cynicism. Even though they may be relatively small in number, their relentless negative energy drags others down. Their high stress levels contribute to the stress of others. In some respects, they take some degree of pleasure when a leader fails or even when the organization fails. They tend to shoot themselves in the foot and admire their aim in the process.

The Bright Eye Group. This “dream team” represents about 29 percent of the employee population in corporate America. Bright Eye employees are highly engaged and committed to the mission, vision and values of the organization. A “can-do” attitude characterizes their behavior, they go the extra mile in giving and doing their best, and they function in a spirit of partnership. These people have a clear understanding of personal accountability and tend to look to themselves first for resources and solutions. Instead of fixing blame, they fix the problems.

Bright Eye employees feel energized, recognized, appreciated and encouraged to do their best. They embrace change and look for ways to reinvent themselves while continuing to provide high value. They work hard, yet seem to be energized by the quality and significance of their work. They take great pride in their accomplishments and speak well of their company. You will likely hear such statements from them as “I love my job,” “This is a great place to work,” “This feels like home to me” and “I am proud to work here.” You will see large groups of Bright Eye employees at places like Southwest Airlines, Les Schwab Tire Service, Disneyland, the Ritz-Carlton Hotels and other organizations with enlightened, aware leadership.

Creating a Bright-Eyed Culture

Consider the attitude of employees whose talents are underused and those who are actively disengaged from their work. How do you suppose they feel about themselves, about the work they produce and about their employer? Disengaged, underused employees produce work that reflects these conditions. And business cannot afford this ineffective use of human capital. The only beneficiaries for failing to engage your employees are your competitors.

So, how do you go about creating and sustaining a Bright Eye culture? It’s not rocket science. It’s sticking to the basics and doing those basics exceptionally well. Here are six strategies for taking talent to the top:

  1. Hire winners. Take the time to hire well. This is often one of your most important decisions. Southwest Airlines “hires for attitude and trains for skill,” and its long-term results reflect this commitment. When evaluating potential employees, consider the three A’s to ensure long-term success: Attitude: Do they have the right spirit for this job? Aptitude: Do they have the right talent for this job? Alignment: Are they the right fit with our mission and values?
  2. Engage their spirit. To motivate others: 1) Find out what turns people on about their job and do more of that; and 2) find out what turns people off about their job and do less of that. It sounds so simple, yet this powerful tool brings out the best in employees. It’s amazing what happens when you talk with and listen to your employees, as well as following through with assignments that engage their spirit.
  3. Coach for success. Coaching is an ongoing, collaborative process intended to clarify performance targets, reinforce strengths and encourage individuals to stretch to even higher levels of performance. Every professional athlete has a coach, and every high-performing individual likewise benefits from a coach who is tough on issues, yet tender on the person. Building ongoing coaching into the culture produces a high return on investment while engaging people in their own success and effectiveness.
  4. Focus on deliverables. A meaningful mission and challenging goals tend to bring out the creative best in others. People want to do a good job, they want to contribute, they want to make a difference, and they want to have pride in their work. Your job is to make sure people are aligned with and enthusiastic about a meaningful purpose—and to engage their spirit in exceeding expected results. Celebrate successes and look for the learning when mistakes are made.
  5. Clear their path. Like the conductor of an orchestra, your job is to “bring out their music” by encouraging employees’ individual and synergistic best. You don’t play their instruments. You engage their spirit to release the music within. As a leader, a coach and a facilitator, your primary job is to provide them with the resources they need, remove the barriers, make the connections and encourage their individual and collective best. In short, create the environment for them to excel and get out of their way.
  6. Commit to renewal. Maintaining the status quo in a competitive environment is not a viable option. Dinosaurs tried this tactic, and it didn’t work. Similarly, if your team merely stayed at its current state of development for the next several years, it might become an “endangered species.” Ask yourself: “Are we lagging behind in our field, are we just keeping up, or are we one of the progressive leaders?” Even if your team is moving ahead, the speed it is moving must be faster than the speed global business advances. Otherwise, your team will still trail behind. Since most employees want to learn and grow on the job, consider the three R’s of renewal: Release, reaffirm and reinvent. To stay at the cutting edge: 1) What must the team release or let go of to provide room and resources to support growth? 2) What existing strengths and resources does the team need to reaffirm and intensify to support its next growth steps? 3) How might the team reinvent itself to ensure that it remains at the cutting edge in its field?

Creating and sustaining a Bright Eye culture of excellence requires deliberate and sustained efforts by leaders to take talent to the top. Take a look around your own organization. Do you see glazed eyes, beady eyes or bright eyes? How well are you doing in implementing the six strategies for sustaining Bright-Eyed employees? As you act with this positive intent, you will notice something significant in your own mirror—bright eyes.

Eric Allenbaugh, Ph.D., is an author, speaker and president of Allenbaugh Associates Inc., a leadership development and coaching firm based in Lake Oswego, Ore. He can be reached via his web site at

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