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Employee Disengagement: The Enemy of Every Leader

Employee Disengagement: The Enemy of Every Leader

The world of work is transforming rapidly as a result of many factors, including the increased prevalence of small companies, greater automation of tasks, shorter employment contracts for employees, more temporary workers, increasing outsourcing and/or off-shoring of work, home or remote working, part-time employees, and more shift work, just to name a few. All of these factors make the challenge of engaging employees that much harder to achieve. As a result, employee engagement has become even more critical to secure as individuals have become increasingly mobile and free to choose their own destiny. As employers, we face the potential for historically lower levels of engagement and even active disengagement more than ever before. Ignoring engagement is no longer a viable option. Disengagement should now therefore be the sworn enemy of every leader.

What is Employee Engagement?

We hear this term all the time, but what is Employee Engagement, really? When most people use the term “engaged” the first thought that comes to mind is “engaged to be married.” This is quite a useful comparison when we talk about employee engagement because we are looking for similar levels of commitment between two parties: the employee and the employer. For true engagement to occur, both the individual and the organization for whom he or she works need alignment between their goals and the motivation to work together collaboratively on a long-term basis. A working definition for employee engagement could therefore be:

“The emotional commitment that an employee has to the organization and its goals.”

This emotional commitment implies that the employee genuinely cares about his or her work, their team, and the overall organization. Put another way, engaged employees are not just coming to work for a paycheck, or the opportunity for promotion, but enjoy working proactively and with energy and enthusiasm to achieve the organization’s targets and objectives, using a considerable amount of additional discretionary effort to get the job done. Engagement is the key to positive retention (i.e. retention of the best employees), as well.

Naturally, every employer, whether large or small, wants highly engaged employees who will stay. However, this is extremely difficult to achieve in practice and we are often left with platitudes such as “our employees are our most important asset” but then do little to actually back this sentiment up. We need a different approach that moves the engagement debate beyond the theoretical realm and into practical strategies and tactics that can really make a difference and build a more truly engaged workforce.

What Makes Engagement So Hard?

Most leaders recognize that engagement is critical and disengagement a potential disaster, but what can be done besides throw perks, platitudes and even “parties” at employees to make them happy and engaged?  Unfortunately, un-focused action can badly backfire. The first challenge with engagement efforts is to accurately and objectively measure specific expectations, motivators, and even core values of employees; only then can you begin to formulate specific steps that can be taken to raise engagement levels. A newly developed framework and methodology for engagement assessment has been developed by I/O Psychologist, Dr. Dan Harrison which may be a new way to think about this subject and it is described in brief below.

The Harrison Engagement Model

At the simplest level, for employees to be well-engaged involves finding out what they want in order to thrive and stay with your organization. Dr. Dan Harrison’s engagement model proposes eight categories or clusters of expectations as shown in the chart below:

The Harrison Engagement Model

For the employer, these categories provide a framework at the cluster heading level to start thinking about what factors are most important to the workforce. For example, how much professional development should we make available to people? What remuneration expectations exist so that we can encourage greater discretionary effort? What kinds of authority are employees likely to exhibit and how accountable do they feel for their results? How should we communicate with people about important issues? How much appreciation and recognition should we extend to reward strong performance? If we don’t know what is expected and at what levels, how can we possibly adopt changes that will address expectation shortfalls and thus increase engagement?

Mutual Expectations are Key

Traditional employee attitude surveys can measure employees’ emotional reactions to the organization and even specific areas they feel are lacking substance and attention. The Harrison goes a step further and gathers information about what employees are willing to GIVE in terms of their own energy and enthusiasm and then compares this to what they say they WANT from their employer. This comparison serves as a kind of “reality test” that leaders can use to derive meaning from the overall results. For example, under “Development Expectations” above, employees say that they “Want Development” very strongly, however, their scores in “Self-improvement” (that is, the initiative they are prepared to exercise to engage with self-improvement efforts without prompting) are quite a bit lower. Development is a two-way street, after all. This result may be concerning in that this workforce is looking to the employer to provide development opportunities while they themselves are less inclined to self-initiate learning and development. That is, these employees want more than they are prepared to give themselves. Perhaps this result informs future hiring efforts and this organization should move self-improvement up as an organizational priority when hiring new staff.

How Does It Work?

Assuming that an organization is generally committed to employee engagement as a concept, the Harrison framework provides guidance on what should be a relatively straightforward assessment of the approach that would seem to be most appropriate, so that leaders can then be consistent in their subsequent actions.

Although employee expectations of their boss, their team and their wider organization will generally vary greatly, the Harrison framework (which collects information via a 25-minute online questionnaire) captures individual input at a trait level (which are shown underneath each of the eight cluster expectation headings in the chart above). When these are then aggregated, patterns start to emerge and common expectations are then identifiable. These patterns tend to fall into at least two categories:

  1. Some cluster categories will be deemed to be more important than others to employees and should therefore command more attention from senior management if they want to bring about greater engagement. For example, employees might indicate that work-life balance is more important to them than other clusters and senior management may therefore find it useful to drill into these expectations further and create more flexibility when this need is well-understood.
  1. Within a single expectation cluster, employees may present a more complex set of needs that requires some careful thought in terms of organization approaches that could be taken. For example, in the authority expectations cluster, employees may generally want more autonomy or freedom to act and the chance to take more initiative but at the same time want clear structure in terms of policy and guidelines perhaps in order to steer their efforts.

The point here is that a framework such as the one provided by Harrison can provide much greater granularity around the subject of engagement and therefore provide extremely helpful insights into what possible changes in workplace approach and employee strategy may lead to much better results. This is a considerable improvement on taking a “best-guess” or “one size fit all” approach to engaging employees which may well work for a few individuals but certainly not all (and maybe not even the majority). 


Any attempt to overcome disengagement or lift levels of overall employee engagement will require careful thought and planning but even when this is done, general strategies to encourage greater engagement in employees can be very “hit or miss”. Using a diagnostic framework such as the one developed by Dan Harrison can help make these efforts much more targeted and likely to be effective in the long term. And don’t forget, in these changing times, disengaged employees may well be any organization’s number one threat to its success.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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One Comment

  1. ShimonkephaJuly 3, 2016 at 3:57 am

    This is a great article!
    I believe that leadership should apply the three principles of relationship as stated in my blog:
    And should also brew the most important ingredient in leadership, trust according to this article

About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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