Employee Engagement Strategies: Part 1 – Understanding The Zones of Engagement


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By: Corry Robertson, PCC

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Employee Engagement Strategies: Part 1 – Understanding The Zones of Engagement

“What’s your focus for today’s call?” I asked David, my client of several weeks. David is an employee in the accounting department of an IT company employing almost 200 people. I was hired to coach several members of the organization, some of whom were HIPOs which is short for high-potential employees. 

Then, there were the employees like David. David was in the group that was on individual performance improvement plans.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t given it any thought. Sorry.”

“Hmmm.  Well, what would make this conversation a really productive use of your time?” I asked.

“I don’t know. What would you suggest?” David replied, lobbing the ball back into my court.

Not a coach to allow my clients to get me to do their work for them, I said: “A coaching conversation isn’t about me telling you what you should focus on. My job is to help you figure out where you want to go and how you want to get there.” 

Then I tried again. “If you could walk away with one golden nugget to make this a productive call for you, what would that look like?”

“I really don’t know.” David’s short tone and lack of energy said more than his actual words.

Giving an inch, I asked:  “How does this sound? Would it be helpful if you talk me through how you are doing with a goal from your performance plan?” 

There was a long silence on the line as I gave David the time he needed to gather his thoughts.

“This conversation is confidential, right?” his voice was slow and heavy.

“Yes, it is,” I assured him.

“Well, I’m just not interested in coming in here every day and being expected to work my butt off so Mr. Big Boss Man up there can get rich. Why should he pull up in a Lexus when I drive a beat-up old Ford? Sorry, but it makes me feel sick. I come in at 9 am to do my job until 5 pm, get paid, and go home. No more. No less. That’s it, that’s all. You may think I’m a jerk, but that’s just how I am. Sorry.”

The “Quit, But Stayed” Employee

This conversation, fictionalized enough to maintain the privacy of all involved, is important because it demonstrates the symptoms known as ‘quit, but stayed’. 

David is a chronic under-performer who, while physically present at work, is contributing the bare minimum of effort to avoid being let go. He’s disengaged and he’s not a rare breed. Actually, he’s just like the majority of all employees.

If you’re thinking “if any of my employees are like David, then I’m happy to show them the door”, you’re not alone. I’ve heard that opinion from many business owners.

Or, you may think that this problem doesn’t apply to you. If that’s so, you would be one of the rare leaders in the world with a well-engaged workforce.

Disengagement Is The Norm

Through its research, Gallup confirms that workers like David are the norm and not the exception.

Gallup found that 87 percent of workers worldwide are either not engaged or actively disengaged (70 percent in the US, 83 percent in the U.K., and 84 percent in Canada).

When disengagement is the norm, the first step to achieving an engaged, high performing workplace is to identify the zones of engagement.

Zones of Employee Engagement

There are three zones of engagement that leaders must be able to identify:

The Engaged Employee

Engaged employees feel connected to their work, colleagues, and the company’s leaders. Their energy is positive and inspires everyone in their wake. The engaged do everything in their power to propel the organization towards growth and success. They are your HIPO’s.

The Disengaged Employee 

Also known as the ‘quit, but stayed’ these employees put in the time, but no discretionary effort, energy, or enthusiasm. They do the minimum they need to do to avoid being let go, but nothing more. This level of disengagement can be hard to spot because these employees are like sleepwalkers who appear to be awake, but their spirits are sound asleep.  Managers can’t call them out on bad behaviour because they are not overtly breaking rules or screwing up.

The Actively Disengaged Employee

These employees are chronically unhappy and frustrated at work. We say ‘actively’ disengaged because they are active in negative ways. These are the ones who undermine, intentionally or not, the progress of others and drag down the entire workplace atmosphere to their level. It becomes easy for others who are disengaged to be negatively influenced by these folks, and difficult for the engaged workers to constantly compensate for their underperformance and toxic energy. 

The damage they do to an organization is more insidious because you can’t really put your finger on the problem or its source so it’s hard to correct. Like an invisible toxic substance that slowly seeps into the culture from person to person, these employees inevitably create an atmosphere that lowers retention, performance, and the organizational culture as a whole.

Understanding Is Just The Beginning

I’ve never met a business owner who didn’t expect employees to be engaged, and who was not baffled by the attitude of the disengaged and resentful of the actively disengaged. My vantage point as the coach allows me to see that the boss blames the disengaged, and the disengaged, like David, blame the boss.

When leaders can take a step back and begin to understand the different employee zones of engagement, their next questions almost always include an assessment of their particular situation:

How many of my employees are driving my company forward?
How many are a stagnant force?
How many are harming my business through active disengagement?
What am I going to do to correct this situation?

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll discuss how to move from understanding and assessing the zones of engagement to actual strategies for improved employee engagement and, ultimately, performance.

Can you identify the zones of employee engagement in your workplace?  Let me know in the comments!


This article is part of a series on Employee Engagement.  

You can read more here:

Employee Engagement Strategies:  Part 1 – Understanding The Zones of Engagement

Employee Engagement Strategies:  Part 2  – Igniting Purpose to Fuel Engagement

Employee Engagement Strategies:  Part 3  – How Leaders Drive Results

Employee Engagement Strategies: Part 4 – Coaching Cultures and Engagement



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Corry Robertson

Sought-after coaching culture expert, Corry Robertson has been helping leaders uplevel employee retention and performance for over 20 years.

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