Overcoming The Disengagement Dilemma: Helping Organizations Thrive – OpEd


Sir Alex Ferguson, the legendary former manager of Manchester United Football Club — and also a professor at Harvard Business School’s executive program — was known for always being able to get the best out of all his players, and managing a plethora of diverse talents and egos. When asked about what was his mantra for success in a long career which has become a HBR Case Study now, he succinctly put it, “I tried to stop using words such as’ fantastic’ , he said ‘and simplified it down to saying WELL DONE. They are the two most important words in football”

Ferguson’s simple yet practical advice holds true in a modern world plagued by disengagement in every industry possible. Gallup’s engagement survey data published in 2017 found that two-third the U.S. workforce is not engaged. According to a research done by the Polish Journal of Management Studies, COVID-19 has exacerbated the already existing issue of disengagement, with people facing the brunt of health scares, uneven work schedule and a lack of personal connect amongst the co-workers.

Major research has been ongoing on the causes and impact of employee disengagement since 1990, and multiple experts have found out a plethora of causes and possible mitigating steps. However, most of them agree that the major cause for this is employees feeling a lack of motivation. And this has two major components – a lack of appreciation and a sense of belongingness, and lack of motivation to give one’s best. Both these components lie on the opposite end of the spectrum, and yet a combination of two is often the cause of disengagement.

Ferguson’s formula of simply saying ‘well done’ affirms the theory that appreciation often goes a long way in bringing the best out of people,and this has good scientific backing too. A Psychology Today article discusses which areas of the brain are affected by appreciation and gratefulness. The hypothalamus, which controls basic bodily functions such as eating and sleeping, and dopamine, the “reward neurotransmitter” are heavily affected from feelings of gratitude. This in turn effectively enhances the performance and engagement of employees by magnitudes.

I have seen firsthand evidence of the impact of gratitude in the workplace. In my former employer Qualcomm — which is a semiconductor giant and has been consistently ranked among the top Employers to work for by Forbes — there is a strong culture of celebrating successes by employees, ranging from simple ‘Thank You’ mails by senior employees, to creating an open social media platform where employees can write positive feedback about each other. These simple activities have created an environment where folks have an incentive to praise each other, and have the knowledge that seniors in the company are regularly appreciating their worth.

But there is always a second category of employees who are supremely self-confident and lack the craving for attention or praise — what makes them disengaged — a lack of motivation to give the best for the company, and being satisfied with the bare minimum. And we again take refuge in Ferguson’s philosophy to solve this issue. As his team was trailing in half-time in a final and players lacking the motivation, he famously said, “When that cup is going to be presented just remember that you can’t even touch it if you’re the losers — you’ll be walking past it with your loser’s medals, knowing someone walking behind you is going lift the cup.” This rousing speech instantly gave the players the spark they needed, and the team won the trophy eventually.

Just like Ferguson, managers of the future need to figure out their employees first and specifically understand which of the two categories their disengagement falls into, and then go ahead with the appropriate mitigation technique. The key is to realise that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to solve this disengagement dilemma wont work. A potent mix of appreciation and motivation can go a long way in creating greater engagement among the workforce.

Every organisation in the world has their Ronaldos (the star employees lacking motivation) and the fringe players (employees feeling a lack of worth). All that is needed is to summon the leaders’ inner Fergusson to keep the entire workforce engaged, and turn a group of disjointed individuals into a champion team.

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