Are Half Your Employees Unmotivated?

A new survey suggests that the number of "disengaged" workers is already high—and growing.

It’s been a big question on the minds of leaders since late July, when a 17-second TikTok video introduced a certain now-popular term. How many workers are really unwilling to go "above and beyond" their specific work duties—and how many are not? The answers matter, since experts have long said modern corporations need motivated workers who want to make a big impact both for themselves and their employers.

A new, attention-grabbing survey offers some answers, but raises questions too. According to polling firm Gallup, about 50% of the workforce is “disengaged”—composed of people who do the bare minimum and are psychologically detached from their job. Another 18% of workers are “actively disengaged”: essentially checked out from their current employer and looking for another job.

The lack of engagement is the lowest since 2014, though by a small margin. Either way, the latest data seems to reaffirm that organizations in the post-pandemic era continue to have a tough time connecting with and motivating their employees. “If you think about it as a lack of engagement, that statistic, while maybe a little high, is not surprising,” says Alina Polonskaia, a global leader of Korn Ferry’s Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion practice.

To be sure, calling so many workers disengaged or “quiet quitters” may be a stretch, as many say the phenomenon has to do with seeking a better work-life balance. Some workers who might not be actively engaged will still, if needed, take on extra hours or projects. Others will pick up their efforts if they are gunning for a raise or promotion. At the same time, many employees have spent the last two years rethinking how they want to balance their personal and professional lives. “If you think of the pandemic as a big reset, then people are putting in new boundaries,” says Elise Freedman, a senior client partner and leader of Korn Ferry’s Workplace Transformation practice. “There are just more and more folks saying that there’s more to life than just work.”

Defining engagement is difficult as well. The most recent Korn Ferry study, which ran from 2019 to 2021, found a much higher rate of engagement—with six in ten of workers highly engaged in their jobs. Gallup’s perspective “tends to be gloomy,” says Mark Royal, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and engagement expert. “That’s a more encouraging picture,” he says of Korn Ferry’s study. “At the same time, it signals significant opportunities—with 40% of employees experiencing engagement gaps.”

Whatever the percentage, low engagement is the last thing leaders need today, given that they are already contending with a slowing economy worldwide, a stock market down 12% year over year, high inflation levels, and struggles over return-to-office plans. In response, Royal says, firms can help employees see how their organizations are preparing to emerge successfully from the pandemic and show them the career opportunities ahead. “Continue to listen to employees and show empathy for the issues they face and enable employees to work efficiently as well as hard,” he says.

Flo Falayi, a Korn Ferry associate client partner and executive coach, says the simple task of defining job roles and expectations from the start can go a long way. “It’s easy for people not to actively show up if expectations aren’t clear,” he says.