Some of the most engaged employees in your organization are your worst performers. And some of the least engaged are your highest performers.
This conclusion comes from new research by the consulting firm, Leadership IQ. The study "matched engagement survey and performance appraisal data for 207 organizations." According to CEO Mark Murphy (who I interviewed via email), "We had long suspected that high performers might not be as engaged as has traditionally been assumed. But seeing that, in 42% of cases, high performers were even less engaged than low performers was a bit of a shock."
This conclusion runs contrary to conventional wisdom as well as many studies (including this one from Gallup) that show high engagement — that is, how much employees are committed to their work — correlates with better bottom line results, including productivity and profitability.
You could think of these low performers as hamsters on a wheel, spinning fast but actually going nowhere. Conversely, high performers may be coasting like swans on a pond, just gliding by. You don't see their effort because it's below the water. As Murphy says, "in our study, high performers gave very low marks when asked if employees all live up to the same standards."
While low performers may be more engaged, their efforts may not be as productive, especially since it's the higher performers — disengaged though they may be — who are doing all the work. The underperformance of the former undermines the effort of the latter. This is especially true, according to the study, when low performers are not held accountable for poor performance. These employees may not even know they are doing a poor job.
Naturally when poor performers are allowed to slide by, it erodes the morale of high performers who feel, again according to the study, "helpless about the trajectory of their careers."
"We had seen plenty of cases where managers avoid dealing with low performers (because they believe the conversation will be difficult), and instead assign work to the employees they enjoy — i.e. high performers.," says Murphy. "And as a result, they end up 'burning out' those same high performers they enjoy so much."
While I find Leadership IQ's findings linking high engagement to poor performers to be contrarian, it is not usual for good performers to feel lost in the system. This is a comment I hear not infrequently in my coaching work.
So what to do about it? Murphy offers two suggestions. "First, leaders need to set very explicit, and behaviorally-specific, expectations for performance. These expectations need to define and delineate good, great, and even poor performance so employees and managers can clearly define and differentiate best practices, teach those practices to others, and then hold people accountable accordingly."
Doing this, according to Murphy, "gives high performers confidence that their manager understands the meaning of 'high performer' and it holds the manager accountable to actually differentiate employees on the basis of their performance."
Second, Murphy suggests regularly monthly meetings (perhaps lasting no more than 20 minutes) that ask managers about what's going on in the workplace and how motivated they feel. As Murphy says, "If a company CEO were told that their best customers were unhappy, it's a safe bet that CEO would be on a plane within hours. If we truly believe that people are our most important asset, shouldn't we pay a bit more attention to the engagement of the best of those people?"
Senior management needs to communicate more clearly, hold people at every level accountable for results, and actively invest time and resources in the talents of high performers.
All too often companies do not know their employees are unhappy until they leave. Exit interviews reveal that they leave because they did not believe anyone cared. Research has confirmed the old saw that people leave bosses, not companies. That makes holding bosses accountable for employee engagement critical.
Senior leaders need to do a better job of teaching managers how to be better managers. And they also need to apply such standards to themselves.