Guess Who's Most Engaged

Leadership IQ CEO Mark Murphy discusses why employers should be troubled by a recent study that found low performers are more engaged in their jobs than their middle- and high-performing counterparts -- and suggests a few steps they could take to remedy that situation.

Monday, April 8, 2013
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Employers have good reason to be concerned about losing top talent, according to new research. the Washington-based Leadership IQ analyzed the engagement scores of top, middle and low performers at 207 organizations, it found that low performers were more engaged [in their jobs] than middle or high performers at 42 percent of the companies.

If you're looking to improve business performance, this is hardly a comforting finding, says Leadership IQ CEO Mark Murphy.

"Companies obviously want high performers working for them," explains Murphy. "Yet when you look at engagement, it turns out that they're the least engaged."

Companies like to say "People are our most important asset," Murphy says, but the reality is some people are more important to business success than others.

"You could lose five low performers tomorrow and it might not have any impact on the overall organization," he says. "But losing one or two high performers could crush a particular department or work group."

HRE recently spoke with Murphy about Leadership IQ's latest research and what it means for HR leaders. Below are a few highlights from that conversation.

Did the finding that low performers were the most engaged surprise you?

Anecdotally, we knew that this is a potential problem. But it's always a gut check when you see it in black and white. We didn't expect the differences to be quite as severe as they turned out to be.

In light of these findings, what steps should employers be taking to raise engagement levels for middle and high performers?

First, organizations need to focus on defining performance expectations for everybody in the organization. One of the disturbing findings [from this research] is that there's not a lot of clarity as to what actually constitutes great performance versus good performance versus bad performance. For sales, you know that if someone sells X dollars, they're a high performer. But when you move into areas like HR or operations ... there isn't typically one number that spells high performance in that same way. So it's important to make sure everyone is crystal clear as to the line between OK and great performance.

Second, companies need to be able to hold people accountable to those performance standards and make sure that if they have low performers, they're addressing that performance and, if they have high performers, they're differentiating and recognizing the work they're doing.

Third, managers need to ensure they're not avoiding the [difficult conversations] they need to have with low performers. In the conversations we've had with managers at these companies, one of things that became clear is there's a lot of avoidance. When it comes to low performers, managers often simply say, "I don't want to deal with that person." Instead, they'll just go to the high performer and hand him or her the project. But in doing so, what they've done is just lighten the workload of the low performer and made things more burdensome for the high performer, and thereby increased the likelihood of his or her burnout, all because the manager didn't want to have the more difficult conversation.

How should employers modify their performance-management systems to address this?

I think they need to address both systems and implementation. Right now, performance management is a perfunctory, once-a-year activity. There are plenty of good tools out there, but [they're not going to be effective] if companies aren't defining what's meant by great performance.  

On the implementation side, managers need to be much more involved in managing [their people].

Look at how a Wall Street mutual fund manager manages financial assets: They're managing stocks every hour of every single day. It's a very dynamic, constantly monitored process.

Companies like to say people are their most important asset, but how often do they actually manage that asset? How often do they check it? When's the last time they sat down with a high performer and asked the question, "What's really motivating you these days?" Or "What's burning you out right now?" These are the conversation they need to have with high performers, at a bare minimum once per quarter ... or maybe once a month.

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One of the findings in the study indicates that low performers are much more likely to promote their employers as "Great Places to Work." Do you find that a little scary?

I find that very scary. We did a study a year and a half ago and found that employee referrals were one of the top sources of talent. So if these are the people who are more likely to be the ones who recommend their employer as a great place to work, then I can't help but wonder who they are hanging out with and recommending their company to?

If I'm an HR executive, I would want my high performers recommending their other high-performing friends, not the other way around.

What, if anything, does the research tell you about the way companies go about recognizing good, great and not-so-great performance?

First, it's not being done clearly enough. There are organizations that are afraid to differentiate [and] recognize that some performance is better than other performance. If someone isn't performing well, that needs to be addressed.

Ask your high performers whether they would rather work short staffed or with a low performer. Almost universally, they would say short staffed, since they're going to end up doing the work anyway. If they're picking up work from a low performer, they're going to be picking it up at 4 p.m. on Friday. If they just got that work to begin with, they could have fit it into their schedule and avoided the drama associated with it.

Managers often have too much of a "they'll-come-along" [mind-set]. High performers, however, look at it as, "Hey, not everyone gets a chance to play."

What's the biggest takeaway for HR leaders as far as this research is concerned?

Start measuring this. If your CEO comes to you and says, "What's the engagement of our high performers?" make sure you're able to answer that question.

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