Management Tools

By Timothy R. Clark Apr 1, 2008

HR Magazine, April 2008 Engaging the Disengaged

In times of change, five basic forces help retain and engage employees.

Too often, we act contrary to what we know. For instance, managers are quick to stipulate the central role of people, but then they go headlong into major change initiatives with little more than lip service for the human dimension. Is it a recent discovery that people are the singular source of sustained competitive advantage? No. Why, then, do researchers keep wiping our noses with it as if it were a new finding?

Consider, for example, Jack Welch, former chief executive officer of General Electric (GE). You may not agree with the aggressive methods he used, such as forced ranking, but chances are you agree with his premise. Throughout his tenure, and from the day he left GE, he went about preaching the gospel of the “human side” with evangelical fervor. Curiously, while he is recognized as the dean of CEOs in the 20th century, relatively few leaders have shown themselves to be thoroughly committed to his basic message that organizations win or lose on people. Yet, when pressed, many leaders confess such a conviction.


We have a tall stack of employee engagement studies that confirm a global truth: Only 20 percent to 30 percent of employees in a typical organization are actively engaged and willing to give their best efforts. As a result, leaders launch most change efforts from a serious deficit position.

Another challenge? Managers’ skill sets in facilitating change. A 2006 PricewaterhouseCoopers study of top executives found that 83 percent believed a lack of change management skills among managers made such initiatives “difficult” or “extremely difficult” to achieve.

Because engaged employees remain key to organizational change, leaders must be capable of mobilizing people on the change journey. But the ability to engage the disengaged has most organizations stumped. Few organizational leaders demonstrate the ability to engage most people most of the time. Those who do engage their employees have perhaps the ultimate competitive advantage.

So what binds a person to an organization and persuades him or her to stay engaged?

Five Forces

Leaders can increase engagement levels by creating, shaping and reinforcing experiences for employees based on five basic forces. Employees require a steady stream of replenishing experiences to connect, learn, envision, earn and contribute as they relate to the organization and to specific change initiatives. These experiences forge an emotional, intellectual, social and economic bond with the organization that allows leaders to retain people and release their discretionary efforts.


Find an engaged employee and you are sure to find connections between that employee and the organization. This simple observation leads us to the first engagement force of connecting. Leaders are primarily responsible for creating a sense of community to satisfy the basic human need for connection. Where there is no connection, people disengage and withhold discretionary effort. Creating experiences that allow employees to build relationships is mostly about the two-way sharing of ideas, facts and feelings.

During times of change, connections are often severed and the sense of community is compromised. Disequilibrium naturally causes employees to want to strengthen their connections to peers and leaders. Remember, organizational change has a social function. It’s your job to create community through multiple points of connection using the normal communications media mix prior to change, and then to increase connection points during change. Here’s the rule of thumb: During change initiatives, communicate face to face with your people at least twice as much as you do when you are managing the status quo.


When employees are learning, they are much more likely to be engaged. It’s your job to create learning DNA in the organization. A culture of learning needs to permeate formal and informal learning systems. This happens most effectively when you embed learning into daily workflow. Help your people understand that an employee who doesn’t learn depreciates in value based on the speed of skills obsolescence.

Teach employees the concept of a competitive cycle. A competitive cycle refers to the natural rise and fall of competitive advantage. Help employees identify where your organization stands in the current cycle so you can forecast change based on the shelf life of your current competitive advantage. When employees understand where their organization stands in the cycle, it empowers them with critical situational knowledge and diffuses much of the resistance that arises when an organization announces that it’s time to break camp. Change is no longer a surprise. Have you noticed that continuous learners in your organization are also the most agile employees? Have you noticed that they rarely fall in love with the status quo and stoutly resist efforts to change it?

Instill a beta mentality. Most organizational elements, including processes, structures and systems, are temporary. We harvest them only as long as they bear fruit. Markets change so quickly that employees must understand that organizational elements have simply become configurable parts that come together to create value. When a particular configuration reaches the point of diminishing returns, it’s time to reconfigure parts or get new ones.


Envisioning represents the third engagement force. Motivation draws strength from vision. The most highly engaged employees have two visions: a personal vision that creates a portrait of who and what they will become, and an organizational vision that outlines a compelling picture of where the organization tries to go. Both are important and interconnected.

Senior managers don’t have an exclusive preserve on envisioning. Envisioning capacity is a competency that can be developed. The skill lies at the root of creativity and innovation. It is a strategic asset to organizations and a vital engagement force.

Total engagement depends on employees having opportunities and experiences that allow them to participate in envisioning. Employees should be the primary visionaries of their own careers and joint visionaries in the enterprise. Create formal envisioning assignments. I’m not talking about corporate strategy or market positioning necessarily. Make the assignments bounded but discrete. Charge a team to look at one process, system, product or service offering and project it into the future.

I often observe leaders at all levels shy away from giving envisioning assignments because they see it as a weakness. They mistakenly believe that if they don’t have a clear vision to unfold, they won’t be seen as willful. Don’t be afraid to squint into the future and confess that it’s not perfectly clear. Understand that envisioning is a life-giving force to employees at all levels.


Compensation and benefits create an economic bond between employees and organizations. It may be strong or weak, depending on the quality of the compensation system and the priorities of the employee. For some, earning is the strongest engagement force. For others, it’s lower on the list.

Years ago, I worked as a plant manager in a large manufacturing facility. Due to an onslaught of global competition and a severe economic downturn, the company was forced into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. As conditions gradually deteriorated, employees disengaged because their ability to earn was at risk. Many of the most talented employees left the organization first.

Organizations with high employee en gagement levels normally provide com petitive compensation packages and opportunities for top performers to accelerate earnings. If an organization’s compensation is below market, disengagement will usually appear on this dimension.


The fifth engagement force—and the heart of the engagement model—is based on the fundamental human need to contribute. To make a meaningful contribution and see evidence of accomplishment motivates most people to apply effort over time. It also deepens the relationship with the organization. To build engagement through contribution, give your people specific and important work assignments that can be accomplished in a reasonable time frame. Contribution builds confidence, creates social acceptance and generates momentum to fuel forward progress.

Every week, thousands of wellperforming and dutiful employees leave their managers. We discover in exit interviews that many leave simply because they were not given the opportunity to contribute as much as they wanted to. Rather than stay and endure the unmet need to contribute, they leave. Along with measuring and recognizing contribution, ask your employees if they believe that they contribute enough. Some will look at you in bewilderment because their plate spills over. But those who disengage for lack of contribution will almost always let you know.

When you identify a contribution gap, find out what causes it. If the problem lies with the organization, fix it fast. Find a meaningful need or opportunity, and assign the individual to it. Keep in mind that in retirement exit interviews, people tend to reflect on their contributions as a lasting reflection of their value. And with top performers in particular, fulfilling the need to achieve remains the key to sustained engagement.

Timothy R. Clark, is founder and chairman of TR Clark Associates LLC, an international consulting and training company, and the author of Epic Change: How to Lead Change in the Global Age (Wiley/Jossey-Bass, 2007).

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