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CIPD Study: Employees Neutrally Engaged

Submitted by  on August 31st, 2012

Blue start buttonrOn-the-job coaching, conducting personal development discussions and regularly providing constructive performance feedback are consistently spoken about as powerful instruments of engagement and of performance improvement. Yet, they persist as a sort of managerial Achilles’ heel: Even when employees get along well with their immediate managers and even when employees are well informed about the organization’s purpose, the poor execution or total absence of this troika of people-management actions continue to block the way to the golden fleece of employee engagement.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) recently (June 2012) completed an online survey into the question of employee engagement, polling a sample of 285,000+ respondents from private, public and voluntary organizations that would be generally representative of the UK workforce. This study is a follow-up on earlier studies and provides useful comparative data to the studies undertaken in the spring of 2012 and the winter of 2011.

The concept of “engagement” in this study goes beyond the conventional job satisfaction indices, in recognition of intrinsic and extrinsic motivational and commitment factors. These factors include good work-life balance; knowledge of, and identification with, the core purpose of the employer organization; positive work-based relationships; enjoyment of the job to the extent of willingly putting in extra hours; a general positive outlook on life; and, indeed, of happiness.

Although the study found that employee engagement has risen in small incremental steps over three consecutive quarters (from 36% to 38% to 39% since last winter), those who were disengaged remained at a steady 3%. A troubling number is 58%, representing the majority of respondents who were found to be “neutrally engaged”. It is a slight improvement over the findings of last winter (then at 60%), but it is hardly an indicator of good organizational health.

The “neutrally engaged” employees are neither engaged nor disengaged. They are likely to do nothing exceptional for their employer, and although less likely to be job hunting than the disengaged employees, 22% of them are looking for jobs elsewhere. Two interesting elements of the finding were that the “neutrally engaged” respondents were reasonably satisfied with their current jobs and with their immediate managers, which presses for a deeper exploration of the causes of their neutrality. If the causes for their fence-sitting attitude were to be better understood, there would surely be scope for shifting them up toward the “engaged” class.

Typically, the first place to look for a deeper explanation would be the relationship with the respondent’s immediate manager. The findings in this report differentiate between the general working relationship with the immediate manager and the manager’s support of the employee’s personal development. Generally, the “neutrals” are positive about their immediate managers and the fairness of treatment they receive (72%). If liking and trusting one’s manager tips the scales towards engagement, then those managerial activities that actively support the individual’s development, such as coaching (30%), personal development discussions (39%) and giving regular performance feedback (46%) drags it back to hovering in neutral territory.

The authors of the report point out that the responsibility for making the employment experience meaningful goes both ways. It is true that management cannot be expected to have all the resources at the ready with the employee being only a passive recipient of the wonderful services on offer. An employee who consciously maintains a neutral stance may well be contributing to management’s failure to encourage their personal development and performance improvement.

Does it not happen that some employees will do what they can to avoid receiving performance feedback? Or that they prefer muddling through to seeking on-the-job coaching? Are there not employees on payroll around the world whose work ethic is to avoid attracting attention – good or bad; who survive in the no-man’s land of “neutral engagement”?

Looking at the other side of the equation, what can we say about current management practices? Whether in mining, manufacturing or in the provision of public services, upper management does not typically shy away from setting and prescribing procedures and measurable standards in their core business. Why is it then that our people management systems, such as on-the-job coaching, conducting personal development discussions and regularly giving (and receiving) constructive performance feedback, regularly fail to deliver engaged employees?

Are these practices mandated by upper-management or optional? Do managers have the requisite skills to be confident in using them? Are managers really attuned to the benefits of spending time on the softer side of employee relations? Do we measure managers’ performance in these areas? Are we setting targets for managers to encourage employee engagement?

What are the practices and success stories you have on these issues? If you have a story or a lesson you’d be willing to contribute, please share it with our readers below.

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Posted in Performance, Research, Talent | Comments (13)

13 Responses to “CIPD Study: Employees Neutrally Engaged”

  1. Karen Carleton Says:

    Engaging article Les (pun intended). In my experience current management in many organizations are unschooled in exactly how to appropriately deliver useful, timely feedback that’s helpful for employee performance improvement. Of course there are always contextual factors – other organizational changes, not enough time, etc. that play a role as well.

    Many managers may not realize the value of ongoing job coaching and development discussions, even though they’re essential for retention especially of High-Pos. Effective feedback skills is something all managers need, including feedback on their feedback! The soft skills are always hard.

    Speaking firsthand, having a boss with excellent rapport goes a long way towards employee engagement. In any case, we cannot ignore that all interactions happen within a system and broader context which we may not have as much control over.


  2. Leslie Allan Says:

    Hi Karen. Your comments about the feedback skills of managers and the value of coaching them on their skills is so apt. I am pleased to say that over the last ten years, there has been a growing awareness of the importance of manager communication skills.

    I’ve just finished reading a book by one of our Associates, Maree Harris, – – on the importance of these skills. In her book, Soft Skills – The Hard Stuff of Success – 8 Key Insights, she makes the case that managers needs these “soft skills” to get the best from each and every employee. You are dead right. Coaching can and does help many managers build these vital feedback skills.

    Kind Regards, Leslie Allan

  3. Bette Yetman Says:

    My observation is that “managers” are in fact employees with demanding jobs that require significant effort and attention. On top of that, they are also expected to be people-managers. They regularly are promoted to managerial positions based on their work abilities, and in my view, when faced with the choice to do “work” that they do well, and people-manage, something for which they have received no training, they do what they do well.

  4. Leslie Allan Says:

    Hi Bette. Unfortunately, my experience matches yours and many experts in the field. How can we get managers and their managers to recognize that managing their people is not an “add on” activity, but essential to the role of manager?

    Kind Regards, Leslie Allan

  5. Delphine du Toit Says:

    We do it by offering them the competencies of people management in the guise of competencies to achieving their ‘hard’ goals.

    My best students have always been engineers who initially resisted the ‘soft skills’ (a term that drives me crazy – I think people-management are the tough skills). Once they grasp the connection between a reduction in stupid time-consuming mistakes and effective listening, clarification, and coaching they become unstoppable.

  6. Leslie Allan Says:

    Thanks Delphine for your encouraging story. There is a real science building around the so-called “soft skills”. I’m hoping one day that we will relegate that term to history.

    Kind Regards, Leslie Allan

  7. Tucker Marsano Says:

    I definitely believe that one of the fundamental keys to success in business is employee engagement. Everyone wants to feel like they are making a difference at work, and empowerment is the key to making employees feel valued. I recently read an article on how empowerment is the key to increasing employee engagement , I think would agree with their views on the value of employee engagement.

  8. Leslie Allan Says:

    Hi Tucker,

    I agree. Employee engagement is a powerful lever for improving productivity and well-being in the workplace. Your link is broken; however, I heartily agree. I wrote an article a while ago about how empowering employees by getting them directly involved with mapping their processes has a powerful effect on business results. The article is based on the work I did for companies such as Fujitsu and Pacific Dunlop. You can read it at

    What other ways can we empower employees? How else can we give them real and meaningful input into their working lives?

    Kind Regards, Leslie Allan

  9. Warren Cohen Says:

    Mintzberg says that the best way to improve one’s practice of management is to reflect on one’s experiences in the light of conceptual ideas and to discuss and share with a small group. The process of discussion and sharing creates the space and environment where managers realize they are capable of making changes, even small ones, but more importantly, that they are responsible for making these changes to improve things for themselves, their team and for the organization. Mintzberg developed CoachingOurselves, his concept for engaging and empowering people that catalyzes the 70-20-10 learning framework.


  10. Leon Noone Says:

    G’Day Les,
    As I’ve remarked elsewhere, I ‘m deeply suspicious of findings of such surveys. Even with vast numbers involved, I remember something a researcher told me decades ago; “A sample of one is perfect if it’s the right one. A sample of one million is useless if it’s the wrong million.”

    I’d also like a guarantee that the word “engagement” meant exactly the same to the researchers, each respondent and the people who analysed the findings.

    I think that Ricardo Semler, CEO of Semco summed it up as well as anyone when he said,” As a leader, my job is to motivate them so that they can go home and be proud of their work.” Semco is renowned as a very successsful company where employees have great autonomy and responsibility for the day to day running of the business.

    I recently published an article about a Melbourne company where great success has been achieved by giving operations staff considerable autonomy and responsibility. The operators are deeply engaged. I’ll send you a copy separately. If any other of your readers would like a copy they should email me, I’ll be glad to send a copy to anyone who asks.

    I wonder if we need at least a revised, if not a new set of constructs for examining both management and empoylees in 21st Century business. I am sure that current constructs such as engagement, empowerment and the like have outlived their usefulness.

    Hope this helps

    Best wishes

  11. Leslie Allan Says:

    Thanks Warren for bringing in Mintzberg. Yes, I agree that it is very useful to use conceptual models to guide behavior. As Kurt Lewin once said, “There is nothing as practical as a good theory.” In my article, How Psychology Can Help You Be a Better Manager, I give a couple of examples of how managers can use Expectancy Theory to solve a problem with employee resistance to change. Managers do need to avoid knee-jerk reactions and base their responses on known, good principles.

    Hi Leon. You do make some good points. The CIPD survey got over 285,000 responses. The respondents need to be a random sample and a sample representative of the entire cohort of employees. I’m fairly confident that this survey meets that requirement.

    The term “engagement” does mean different things to the different research houses. The trick is in seeing a survey result within the context of the survey. You can gather what a survey house means by “engagement” by the questions they ask in the survey. In this sense, “engagement” is operationally defined by the questions.

    Having said that, the researchers, the respondents and the survey analyzers don’t need to strike a deal on the meaning of “engagement”. For the survey respondents, the researchers aren’t asking the question, “Are you engaged?” The questions are around various aspects of their perceived relationship to their work, the people and their employer. With the survey analyzers, if it’s an independent analysis house, they are tasked with applying known statistical measurement techniques to a body of data. Whether the data is about pet illnesses or employee engagement doesn’t impact on how the statistical techniques are applied.

    I suppose I’m more hopeful for initiatives raising “engagement” and “empowerment” levels than you. I think there is still a lot of mileage in these initiatives. What does worry me is organizations that focus exclusively on these, as if they are the magic elixir, to the detriment of paying attention to processes and strategy. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and giving us all a jolt.

    Kind Regards, Leslie Allan

  12. Mitchell Morrison Says:

    This begs the question can we expect that everyone will be engaged. Some people go to work for the pay check only. Is the issue around how do we engage those who are “neutrally engaged” or is it how do we keep them from becoming dis-engaged. I do not think that we can expect everyone to be fully engaged. There are a large number of people who work the pay check only and are NOT intrinsically motivated.

  13. Leslie Allan Says:

    Thanks Mitchell. You raise a really important point. You are right. We can’t expect everyone to be fully engaged. For those employees who come to work for a pay check, I think we can do two things. Firstly, we can prevent some of them from becoming disengaged, as you point out. We can do this by encouraging/requiring our managers to put in practice some basic managerial skills, such as coaching, goal-setting and performance feedback.

    Secondly, and I am perhaps more optimistic on this point than you, we can move some of the neutrally engaged to partly engaged. We can do this by applying some of the managerial practices I mentioned and promoted in the CIPD report. In addition, to move the neutrally engaged to positively engaged, we can enrich their jobs with greater variety, more challenge and more say in how it is done.

    I’ve seen this move from neutral engagement from pay-check collectors to positive engagement as I formed, developed and worked with process improvement teams made up of casuals and low-skill workers. Did we engage everybody? No. However, I and my colleagues saw that spark in many process workers’ eyes where before there was but a dull expression.

    Kind Regards, Les Allan

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