← IC Matters · Engagement

Disengaged employees and the danger of the ‘meeting after the meeting’.

Dr Trish HollidayDr Trish Holliday·

I married into a family of coaches. My husband is a tennis coach and former football coach. My late father-in-law coached high school football for the better part of his 50 years in education.

While my interest in football may have been passive at best, my interest in the inner-dynamics and functioning of a team has always been very high.

 On multiple occasions, I’ve heard both of them use language like “he hasn’t bought in” when talking about one of their respective players or we got better through “addition by subtraction.”

It excited me to know that they were speaking my language! They were talking about their football teams and problem-solving, not from an X’s and O’s perspective, but from an engagement level.

Their conversations about how one or two players not buying- in can affect each of their teams were no different than workplace concerns about uninterested or disengaged employees and their negative influence on their colleagues and work culture.

According to some of the latest research on employee engagement, Gallup reports that only about one-third of employees are engaged.

What’s the big deal?  Isn’t it enough that employees just come to work and do their job? In short, no!

Employee engagement is paramount to achieve the benefits that all organizations desire:

  • Employee Satisfaction
  • Higher levels of Customer Service
  • Stronger relationships with customers
  • Increased productivity
  • Increased performance and business outcomes
  • Increased profitability

Therefore, the challenge of any leader is to be able to identify the behaviors of engaged employees. Engaged employees find personal meaning in their work, take pride in their work, believe they are valued by the organization, go above and beyond the call of duty, expend discretionary effort to deliver exceptional performances, and support their colleagues.

Conversely, we have all been a part of meetings where an agenda or an initiative is proposed by the person leading the meeting, an hour or more of time is spent, nothing is decided and then “the meeting after the meeting” takes place.

Many of us have been involved in this so-called “meeting after the meeting” and have observed that employees speak much more frankly than at the “official meeting.”

And even worse, sometimes the more candid conversations turn into a type of venting, the type of venting that is corrosive to any organization. Even more unfortunate is that sometimes these informal meetings affect more change and are more influential than the discourse of the original meetings.

The challenge of any leader is to recognize that this is a behavior of disengaged employees.

It the same Gallup study that tells us that one-third of the workforce is engaged, it also states that only about half the workforce is unengaged, leaving over 15% being actively disengaged. And, it’s these 15% that we must find and identify.

It’s these 15 % that are leaders engaging in the negative talk in the “meeting after the meeting.” It’s this 15 % that are actively recruiting others from the disengaged pool of employees, threatening the actively disengaged number to grow.

So, what do we do?

We must reduce the number of our actively disengaged employees and create more actively engaged employees. Unlike my husband and father, for many of us, it’s not always as simple as “addition by subtraction” or removing the actively disengaged employee.

Sometimes that may be necessary, but often, leaders must do some introspection and ask themselves what’s often the toughest question of all – Why? Why are these employees disengaged?

Too frequently, we have not done a good enough job implementing initiatives that provide continuous learning. As Chief Learning Officer for the state of Tennessee, I have the privilege of collaborating with leaders to focus on how we can create a learning community within state government.

An organization that focuses on creating a learning community differs from a more traditional organization by adapting to a changing culture, attracting and retaining a talented and committed workforce, embracing diversity and innovation, and promoting emphasis on learning and growth.

Perhaps most telling is that learning organizations do not stifle creativity but create a culture that invites it. Learning organizations assume that learning is an ongoing process, not simply a one-time event. Learning becomes part of the very culture of the organization, a way of life for all employees.

Learning is not just for a select few, but learning opportunities are created for all members of the organization, holding to the belief that enormous human potential lies locked and undeveloped in the organization.

Learning is ongoing, and one never truly stops developing in the knowledge and skills needed to become more effective and efficient. In Tennessee state government, we believe, and our assumptions have been affirmed that a learning employee is an engaged employee.

Who wouldn’t want to work with a group of people where everyone experiences job satisfaction? Or, where customer relationships are strong and customer service is high? Wouldn’t everyone like to be part of a highly productive team? Of course.

Disengaged employees cost the United States somewhere between $483 billion and $605 billion in lost productivity; therefore, it is imperative that addressing employee engagement not be a passive activity.

While learning opportunities may be the best solution to addressing issues of engagement – steps must be taken to measure current levels of engagement within the organization so that a customized action plan can be put into place to determine where and how to implement specific learning because a learning employee is an engaged employee.

When I think back to those conversations between my husband and his father, I wonder if the players they described as “not buying-in” would find other players to complain to in the locker room or would question the motives of the coaching staff with his teammates.

I wonder if those players second-guessed the coaches or team captains. I wonder if those players approached their workouts with the same effort when working alone as when the coaches were watching, or even strive for perfection in practice as well as at game time.

What I know for sure is that in all their combined years of coaching, their fondest years are when they felt like their teams and the players on that team actively demonstrated characteristics of being actively engaged and, not surprisingly, those teams produced the best results on the field.


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