Keeping the People Report
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E-Letter Volume 17 September 2009

In this issue:

  • Update on the State of Employee Engagement
  • The Limits of Employee Self-Engagement: A Reader's Perspective
Update on the State of Employee Engagement

As I sit down to write on this Labor Day, 2009, I can't help reflecting on some interesting facts and survey results just released within the last month:

  • Since the current recession began in late 2007, seven million jobs have vanished.
  • The U.S. unemployment rate has risen to 9.7 percent, the highest it's been in 26 years.
  • Half of American workers say they have taken on more responsibility because of a layoff, while 37 percent say they are handling the work of two people. ( survey of 4,400 workers).
  • The survey also found that 34 percent of workers are spending more time at the office and 22 percent are working more weekends.
  • While 8 in 10 employers feel that their workers are "just happy to have a job", only 53 percent of employees actually feel this way ( and the Human Capital Institute).
  • 17 percent of workers are thinking of changing jobs in the next 12 months ( survey), and 25 percent of "high potentials" plan to leave (Corporate Leadership Council).
  • One in five workers are "highly disengaged" (Corporate Leadership Council).
  • The effort levels among senior leaders are less than half what they were before the recession began (Corporate Leadership Council).
  • The downturn has exposed a severe skills gap among managers in managing and re-engaging the disengaged--63 percent are now rated as "ineffective" (Corporate Leadership Council).
  • The drop in employee engagement since the recession began has reduced worker productivity by 3-5 percent (Corporate Leadership Council).
  • Disengaged employees are 24 percent less likely to quit than engaged employees (Corporate Leadership Council).

The picture that emerges from all this is of an anxious and fearful workforce and managers who are struggling to keep themselves and their workers engaged. Now is exactly the wrong time to take worker retention for granted. The economy is improving--the manufacturing sector expanded last month for the first time in 18 months. New home sales have posted their fourth consecutive monthly increase. Credit markets are slowly opening up. As the economy continues to improve, many valued, but marginally disengaged workers will begin to leave.

Research by Quantum Workplace has shown the two-thirds of companies have seen declines in employee engagement, while one third have actually increased their engagement scores. If you are interested in receiving a one-page report on the five things that differentiate the gainers from the losers, just send me an e-mail at


The Limits of Employee Self-Engagement: A Reader's Perspective

I deeply appreciate the readers among you who care as much as I do about the issue of employee engagement, and who care enough to send me your sincere, stimulating, and sometimes challenging thoughts on the subject. I feel compelled to share with you an e-mail I received from a friend in Michigan who I had asked to read a chapter on "Self-Engagement" that will appear in my next book (with coauthor Mark Hirschfeld)--Re-Engage! (McGraw-Hill, February, 2010).

In the book, Mark and I address the question of who is responsible for employee engagement--the management or the employee? The answer, of course, is both. Surveys reveal that a minority of employees are fully engaged, so what about the majority that are not? While it is true that they should be keeping themselves motivated and engaged, the responsibility for keeping them engaged reverts to the manager when they do not. That's what managers get paid for--right?

So we devote much of the new book to sharing secrets of employers with the highest employees engagement scores in the country--winners of Best-Places-to-Work competitions in 45 U.S. cities for the last five years. We describe what these special workplaces and their managers have done to build strong cultures of caring leadership and competent management that inspire employees to higher levels of effort and enthusiasm. In the Self-Engagement chapter, we explore the responsibility we all have for staying engaged and for overcoming the internal hang-ups, dysfunctional beliefs, and self-defeating behavior patterns that prevent us from doing so.

After reading this chapter, a friend, whom I'll call Kevin, was compelled to write and share his own perspective based on some earlier life experiences:

"I must preface all my remarks with one observation: Most of the driving energy in a person is unconscious...that's what I've come to believe. Unrecognized needs and little holes drilled (or burned) into our psyche become the true focus of our attention and the real reason for our knuckling down. To see the outline of these forces in you or in others, try this little exercise (it comes from Ernest Hemingway's reported response to a challenge, "Write a short story using only six words.") His story is, and will probably remain, the best ever:

"For sale: baby shoes. Never used."

"When people try this out, they seem to enter another realm, one with obvious, but poorly defined, outlines and rules. (My first 6-word story? "Mother loved me but she died.") Try it on people you know, see what they come up with. If your experience is like mine, you will be surprised at the workplace implications of their six-worders.

"I totally agree with your contention that 'engagement' is the responsibility of the individual, but the notion of engagement is always treated as a conscious one, a 'seeing the light,' a willingness to "put the shoulder to the wheel." I always want to know what happens to those who suddenly become engaged employees, who work their 'darnedest' to fulfill the goals and aims of the company for which they labor so attentively. These actions are designed as much inwardly as consciously, and for definite, but hidden, purposes. Let me illustrate.

"I worked for (a large manufacturer) for 17 years, mostly under one manager, Bill Duffy (not his actual name). Duffy was an old fashioned manager: keep your noses to the grindstone and I'll give out praise only when it is absolutely necessary. But his praise was so thorough that it became the reason most of us put forth our best. He gave me the best performance appraisal I ever had and have ever heard of anyone having. Not praise...appraisal. He began with this statement: 'Over the past few years I have watched you driving toward some personal goals that I would like to discuss first....' He went on for two hours discussing with me "what you do that moves you toward your goals (yours...not the company's) and what you do that gets in your way, slows your progress, and makes you unhappy."

"I was never the same after that. His attention to me made me realize years later how unusual he was in his ability to gather so much personal information from people who never guessed what was going on until he talked to them. But...and this is a big but... There were two colleagues that found him to be oppressive, reluctant, hidden, unpleasant, and demanding. They liked me and trusted me, often coming to my office to complain. My favorite was "Did you notice how Bill looked at everyone in the meeting except me?"

"Bill, me, the two coworkers and all the others in the department were operating at mostly unconscious levels. Bill felt that my two colleagues were petty, demanding, flattering, hateful, gossipy malcontents who never had an original thought or ever took the initiative during their entire working lives. Others did just enough to keep out of trouble. What I gathered from this unique episode in my life is to pay very close attention to what you REALLY want, not what you think you want. That requires a far greater understanding of your own unconscious mechanisms than most people ever even suspect exists. I ran into one of those former coworkers 10 years later, and she still felt resentful enough to let me know, again, how poorly she had been treated. With the benefit of 10 years' hindsight, she still had not reflected on how her own actions might have helped shape the opinions of others about her. I understand this so well, I can describe it in very few words:

They always keep themselves out of their formula.

"Why? Simple. People believe themselves to be only their conscious selves. The person who uses bluster and noise to keep imagined enemies at bay describes others as "chickens." Their own behavior never appears in their descriptions of their lives. "He made me do it." "She makes me so mad I could spit." Here's an example:

"My father left the family one day "to get the paper" and never returned. I was eleven. It took me about 50 years to realize that my demands for a real football (I made one out of a Quaker Oats box with crumpled paper glued on the ends and scotch tape holding it together) did not contribute to his decision to abandon his wife and three children. No one told me it could not possibly be the reason, could not even be a tiny part of the reason, so I reacted in the way best expressed by our Roman ancestors:

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.
(After this, therefore because of this.)

"So, how much of my drive to please Duffy came from Duffy? I now see that very little of it was from him (his appraisal is still the best I've ever heard of). The appraisal? Isn't it obvious? If I could imagine my father leaving over the football, I could easily imagine his substitute giving me the heart-to-heart I never had. There's no recording of the appraisal, only my memory of it, its perfection, its precision, its encouragement, its spiritual qualities. How does someone like me stay engaged if Duffy leaves? I can tell you: five months after he left, I left. Think on it: if someone had bet that my reasons for leaving were logical and sensible, they would have totally missed the point.

"Remember my short story: "Mother loved me but she died." Notice that I skipped over her and went straight to my father. Think what motivations lie inside me, yet to be discovered, if I chose to deeply examine my mother's impact on my early development. I believe everyone in the workplace is laced to their unconscious in ways that cannot be amended by will power alone.

'Understand the basic truth that each of us has the freedom to choose how we respond to stressful events. Train yourself to become more conscious of, and accountable for, making those choices.'

"Your suggestion is true...we do have the freedom to choose. We also have very powerful forces distorting our responses. People can and will engage and be re-engaged, but how much more they engage will be limited by the issues that are hidden from worker and manager alike. Oddly, I am in favor of trying because if nothing changes...nothing changes. And, as I was when I was eleven, I could be dead wrong--I actually want to be wrong.

"I suggest asking managers to write seven 6-word stories about their workers. Have the workers write seven 6-word stories about the manager. Sit the participants together and have them write seven 6-word stories about the workplace.

"The challenge is to use this exercise to surface the issues that may be standing in the way of self-engagement.

"Duffy? He was tough, but he cared."

As Kevin's experience shows, this business of employee engagement is as complex as human nature and yet can be summed up in just two words--care and communicate. My deepest thanks to Kevin for agreeing to let me share his moving life story and insights with the readers of this eletter. I welcome your responses as well. Here are a few questions to consider:

  • Do managers need to understand their workers' personalities and perceptions in order to fully engage them?
  • When do we, as managers, need to engage the worker, and when do we need to challenge the worker to self-engage?
  • Do you have a story to share about a manager who re-engaged a disengaged employee?
  • Do you have a story to share about a disengaged employee who was able to re-engage him/herself?


The Seven Hidden Reasons Employees Leave: How to Recognize the Subtle Signs and Act Before It's Too Late, by Leigh Branham (AMACOM Books, 2005).

Keeping the People Who Keep You in Business: 24 Ways to Hang On to Your Most Valuable Talent, by Leigh Branham
(AMACOM Books, 2000).

To order either of these books click here.

Keeping the People, Inc. helps organizations link employer-of-choice strategies with business strategies, conduct third-party post-exit interviews and surveys, conduct engagement surveys with current employees, and provides the management coaching and training needed to implement those strategies.

For more information, contact Leigh Branham directly at (913) 620-4645, or by e-mail at Also visit the Web site:

Copyright, Keeping The People, Inc, 2008

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Copyright, Keeping the People, Inc. 2005. Keeping the People Report is written and edited by Leigh Branham.