Bad apples

I was recently talking to a group of managers and the subject of employee engagement cropped up. As often happens, the discussion ended up focusing on ‘getting rid of bad apples’.

This seems to place the blame for disengagement firmly in the the employee’s court, with the heroic manager needing to fix it through robust performance management measures. But people rarely turn up fully formed as bad apples; something causes them to rot. What then is that turns well-intentioned people into a manager’s worst nightmare?

Gallup regularly produce reports on the state of employee engagement. The latest figures I’ve seen show that in the UK, 17% of employees are engaged, 57% are not engaged and 26% are actively disengaged. But what does this mean?

  • Engaged people are psychologically committed to their jobs and likely to be making positive contributions to their organisations
  • Those who are not engaged lack motivation and are less likely to invest discretionary effort in organizational goals or outcomes
  • Actively disengaged people are unhappy and unproductive at work and liable to spread negativity to coworkers

A short video from a company specialising in the subject nicely illustrates this with the image of people in a rowing boat: some are busting a gut propelling the organisation forward, some are looking around at the scenery, whilst some are trying their best to sink the boat.

There seems to be an expectation that people should remain positive and engaged no matter what, and if you don’t commit 110% at all times, it’s often seen as a character flaw. Yet I can easily identify times when I’ve been engaged, not engaged and unfortunately actively disengaged. What caused it? It’s never been one single thing, but rather the alchemy produced by combining me, my manager and the organisation.

So although I’ve been able to influence some of the factors leading to my engagement (or lack of it), there’s a lot that’s been outside my control. Similarly, there are things a manager can do to stop the rot (and perhaps more importantly prevent it starting in the first place); but there are also things they can’t do.

Sometimes, when every avenue has been explored, the only option is to part company. It may feel like failure, but it’s often accompanied by a huge sigh of relief all round.