One of the “high sizzle” concepts in my field of industrial-organizational psychology today is “employee engagement.” The basic idea is that employees who are deeply involved and personally committed to their organization in turn do a lot of good things for the organization.

They perform well, they are dependable, they go beyond the mere requirements of the job, they coach and mentor others voluntarily, they build teamwork, and they contribute in a major way to the spread of positive morale where they work.

Some of us are just by nature more prone to be engaged people. Some of us are positive in our outlook, coaches and helpers, conscientious, achievement-oriented, etc. That’s who we are, and we bring that with us wherever we go.

Some of us live at the other end of the scale. We are wired to be pessimistic, cynical, “do-only-what-it-takes” kinds of people.

Most of us fall in between these two extremes, neither universally positive and committed nor universally negative and unplugged. We are not wired to be sunny no matter what, or rainy no matter what. So our current conditions and forecast depend overwhelmingly on our relationship with our organization. More specifically still, our attitude depends most critically on our relationship with our immediate manager.

Assessing connectivity

Several years ago the Gallup organization developed a simple 12-item survey, scored on a 5-point scale, to assess individuals’ level of engagement at work:
• Do you know what is expected of you at work?
• Do you have the materials and equipment you need to do your work right?
• At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?
• In the last seven days, have you received recognition or praise for doing good work?
• Does your supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about you as a person?
• Is there someone at work who encourages your development?
• At work, do your opinions seem to count?
• Does the mission/purpose of your company make you feel your job is important?
• Are your associates (fellow employees) committed to doing quality work?
• Do you have a best friend at work?
• In the last six months, has someone at work talked to you about your progress?
• In the last year, have you had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

In the most recent Gallup data, the percentage of employees who report being “actively engaged” in their jobs is 29 percent. If there is good news in this outcome, it is that the percentage of actively engaged is not lower. I seriously doubt that as many as 29 percent of us are hard-wired to actively engage and bring 100 percent of ourselves to work every day, no matter what the day, no matter what the work. There is just not that much unconditional optimism out there!

At the other end of the scale, the percentage of employees who report being “actively disengaged” in their jobs is 17 percent. Good thing this number of on-the-payroll-sleepwalkers isn’t larger. But I seriously doubt that nearly one in five of us in the workplace is hard-wired to be disgruntled and actively, vocally negative. Some one-time, middle-of-the-roaders must have been poisoned by toxic relations with their boss.

The percentage of employees in the middle (who are, in Gallup terms, “not engaged” — I would suggest, “also not disengaged”) is 54 percent. What a mixed result! More than half the workforce is just “sort of there,” in and out of their work, bringing less — in some cases much less — than they are capable of bringing to work each day.

Long before I ever heard of the concept of employee engagement, I used to “take the temperature” of new client companies by asking lots of folks at various levels of the organization a question like this: “In light of what people here are capable of doing, what percentage actually realize their capabilities on a daily basis?” Across that wide range of industries, average responses were in the 30 — 50 percent range.

Searching for solutions

So where do we go from here? What’s an organization that desires a high level of employee engagement to do? Look back at the Gallup questions. The strong implication — the focus of most of the questions — is that regardless of how you are wired as an individual, it is the different aspects of the environment at work that will pull most folks up or down on the engagement scale.

And who has the most pull? No big surprise here. It is that front line of leadership — the first line supervisor, or foreman, or lead man or woman. If you attend to the selection and training and development of those high-impact positions, they in turn can build a high-engagement organization through their relationships with those around them.

What is a realistic goal? I have heard a rule of thumb that I think applies here. It is the 10-80-10 rule. Ten percent of the population for whatever reasons will do their very best regardless of the situation they are in and regardless of how they are led. Another ten percent won’t sign on, no matter what. They want to come to work, do what they’re told, grab a paycheck, and go home. What remains is the 80 percent in the middle of the pack, the silent majority who can be made to look and act like the upper ten percent or the lower ten percent — depending on how they are led.

Who operates this see-saw, controlling whether eight of every ten workers go up or down in performance and engagement? It’s the first-line leader. To the extent supervisors are engaged — chosen well and led that way — they in turn will build employee engagement, by example, by expectation, and by the way they treat their people.