Building a Highly Engaged Workforce
From the Gallup Management Journal
How great managers inspire virtuoso performance
A GMJ Q&A WITH CURT COFFMAN
Co-author of First, Break All The Rules: What the World's Greatest
Managers Do Differently (Simon & Schuster, 1999) and
Follow This Path:
How the World's Greatest Organizations Drive Growth by Unleashing Human
Potential (Warner Books, 2002)
When employees join an organization, they're usually enthusiastic,
committed, and ready to be advocates for their new employer. Simply put,
they're highly engaged.
But often, that first year on the job is their best. Gallup Organization
research reveals that the longer an employee stays with a company, the
less engaged he or she becomes. And that drop costs businesses big in
lost profit and sales, and in lower customer satisfaction. In fact,
Gallup estimates that actively disengaged employees -- the least
productive -- cost the American economy up to $350 billion per year in
What can managers do to enhance employee engagement? What are the signs
that employees are becoming disenchanted, and what can managers do to
reverse the slide? We asked Curt Coffman, Global Practice Leader for Q12
Management Consulting and co-author of Gallup's best-selling book on
great managers, First, Break All the Rules, and
Follow This Path, to share strategies from the
world's great managers.
GMJ: What can managers do to boost engagement levels in their
Curt Coffman: First, it's important to note that most managers aren't
against employee engagement. These managers (great, good, or average)
want their employees to feel that they're a significant part of the
business. In fact, almost everyone joins an organization as an engaged
employee. What managers do from that point on determines the path the
employee will take -- toward continued engagement or toward the ranks of
the "not engaged" or "actively disengaged" groups.
GMJ: Define those terms.
Coffman: Since 1997, Gallup has studied the responses of about 3 million
employees that have participated in the Q12 survey, Gallup's 12-question
assessment of employee engagement levels. We've found that employee
responses to these crucial 12 items tend to fall into three distinct
Employees who are "not engaged" aren't necessarily negative or positive
about their company. They take a wait-and-see attitude toward their job,
their employer, and their co-workers. They hang back from becoming
engaged, and they don't commit themselves.
The "actively disengaged" employees are the "cave dwellers." They're
"Consistently Against Virtually Everything." They're not just unhappy at
work; they're busy acting out their unhappiness. Every day, actively
disengaged workers undermine what their engaged coworkers accomplish.
GMJ: How do engaged employees differ?
Coffman: "Engaged" employees are builders. They want to know the desired
expectations for their role so they can meet and exceed them. They're
naturally curious about their company and their place in it. They
perform at consistently high levels. They want to use their
strengths at work every day. They work with passion, and they have a
visceral connection to their company. And they drive innovation and move
their organization forward.
GMJ: Most people join an organization as engaged employees. What do
their managers need to do to keep them engaged?
Coffman: To start with, employees must have a strong relationship with,
and clear communication from, their manager. They need a manager who
will clear a path for them, so they can concentrate on what they do
best, and do more of it. They also need strong relationships with their
coworkers. They must feel a commitment toward their coworkers and from
them, because that commitment enables them to take risks and stretch for
Managers also have to challenge employees within their areas of talent,
then help them gain the skills and knowledge they need to build their
talents into strengths. And managers should help employees develop
ownership of their goals, targets, and milestones, so employees can
enhance their contributions to the company and increase their impact.
GMJ: But we know that some employees' engagement levels deteriorate.
Gallup's most recent research suggests that 29% of the U.S. workforce is
engaged, 55% is not engaged, and 16% is actively disengaged. Why does
Coffman: One reason is that engaged employees tend to get the least
amount of focus and attention from managers, in part because they're
doing exactly what their manager needs them to do. They're not "squeaky
wheels." They set goals, meet and exceed expectations, and charge
enthusiastically toward the nearest tough task.
Some managers mistakenly think they should leave their best employees
alone. Great managers do just the opposite. Great managers tell us again
and again that they spend most of their time with their most productive
and talented employees because they have the most potential. If a
manager coaxes an average performance from a below-average employee, she
still has an average performer. But if she coaches a good employee to
greatness, she gains a great performer.
The challenge comes when managers see some of the first symptoms that an
engaged employee is wavering toward the "not engaged" category. Then
they need to act immediately.
GMJ: What are those symptoms?
Coffman: One is that the relationship between the employee and the
manager begins to diminish, and it isn't meeting the employee's needs.
The second is that the employee begins feeling that their potential is
being wasted -- that they don't make full use of their talents and
strengths in their role.
GMJ: What should managers do when they spot an employee whose engagement
levels are slipping?
Coffman: Go back to the basic principles of the Q12. Start with
expectations. Has the employee lost clarity about his role? Is he
confused about what the manager, and the business, need him to
contribute every day? Then make sure he has the right materials,
equipment, and information to move toward those outcomes.
Next, refocus on that employee -- on his skills, knowledge, and talents.
Employees who get to do what they do best every day move toward
engagement. And last but not least, catch him doing things right.
Recognize him for excellence. Recognition is personally fulfilling, but
even more, recognition communicates what an organization values, and it
reinforces employee behaviors that reflect those values.
Set clear expectations, give employees the right materials, focus on the
employee, and recognize your best performers -- those are the strategies
that drive engagement.
-- Interviewed by Barb Sanford
2003 The Gallup Organization, Princeton, NJ. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission. Visit The Gallup Management Journal at