The Disengagement Epidemic




The recent exposé on Amazon’s culture has provoked a torrent of opinions from the business and media punditry. So far, much of the ire has been directed at a predictable cast of characters: CEO Jeff Bezos for designing a demoralizing culture; maniacal middle management for showing a shameful lack of empathy; bitter ex-employees who couldn’t cut it; and sensationalist reporters have all been accused of misdeeds. At Vox, Ezra Klein lamented, “In a company of that size, some bosses are going to be great and some are going to be tyrants.”

Many share Klein’s accepting perspective. As poll after poll show, millions are unhappy at work. People have come to view their jobs as necessary evils, and in response they develop coping strategies to survive the relentless drive for more achievement badges until they earn their way out. Psychologists call it learned helplessness.

You might be thinking that your company or team has avoided the disengagement disease—that insidious, productivity-crippling workplace syndrome marked by apathy and confusion. But the evidence points to a systemic problem that has been worsening for years. It’s everywhere—in startups and giants alike. Before you say, “Not where I work!,” consider the following:

In addition to Talentism’s own empirical analysis, here are some alarming statistics:

  1. Gallup reports only 13% of workers worldwide feel emotionally invested in their work.
  2. Approximately one in five employees are highly engaged, according to Aon Hewitt.
  3. Deloitte reported that 79% of business and HR leaders see talent as a major obstacle to growth—they have a significant retention and engagement problem—but don’t know what to do about it.
  4. Conference Board reports 52.3% of American workers are actively unhappy with their work. Think about that! Tens of millions of Americans spend most of their waking hours disenchanted.

All of these dissatisfied, disinterested employees create an enormous waste of both human and economic potential costing billions of hours and trillions of dollars. It’s a big problem, but it isn’t as inevitable as Klein and others suggests. It’s a solvable design problem. The truth is that companies can maximize productivity by keeping their employees satisfied and engaged—not as an end unto itself, but because it’s a Pareto-optimal path. Everyone wins.

Tragically, despite increasing recognition that business performance is inextricably linked to people performance, very few business leaders know what to do about this realization. Management and leadership analysts like Anne-Marie Slaughter, Dan Pfeffer and Simon Caulkin have accurately identified the problem, but very few have offered practical solutions for the modern workplace.

The Old Way of Thinking

Many leaders’ perception of the problem is distorted and their toolkits are flawed. They’re often too paralyzed by their own confusion to offer clarity. Their responses, which stem from what we call the old business playbook, are typically reflexive.

Attrition problem? Low morale? => Boost compensation. Train and develop. Offer a rotation. Stoke fervor in the mission.

Missed deadlines? Disappointing product development? => Hire. Fire.

These aren’t illogical ideas. Sometimes they work. But doing something—which feels good and productive—is often mistaken for solving the root cause. It’s optics and over sustainable substance. They’re ephemeral fixes, topical palliatives when a transplant is needed.

In most organizations, clarity about the mission, priorities and incentives are not the root causes of disengagement. Those things can be messaged and learned, and data consistently confirm that monetary incentives are conditions secondary to culture, purpose and learning. They reinforce needs closer to the base of Maslow’s pyramid, but are trivial compared to serving one’s purpose through their work.

We’ve been educated and conditioned to be inputs into a workplace machine that is not built to realize the holistic value of human expression. As my colleagues recently put it:

”Mass production and economies of scale had given more people more non-subsistence jobs than ever before, but it had done so by dehumanizing people on a grand scale. This disconnect between the opportunity of our lives and reality of our work is why we hate our jobs. “And we’ve never looked back. Economies of scale have put microwaves in our kitchen and smartphones in our pockets. And the jobs that produce them—not just in the factories but also in offices—continue to dehumanize us. We made a deal with the devil.”

This isn’t a “workers unite” credo. It’s simply a recognition that meaningful work is done when one’s strengths and individuality are systematically supported by the design of the business. The root of long-term, progressive disengagement is not improper incentives or unclear expectations. Rather, it’s a misalignment between the culture (rewards and punishments) in which that work is performed and worker’s essential nature (what s/he is actually like).

Our workplaces are crippled by information overload, complexity and a breakneck pace of change. In such a context, actively engaged employees operating in a state of “flow”—where talent, purpose and opportunity align—offer organizations the clearest path to competitive advantage. Flow, therefore, is a precondition of sustainable outperformance and innovation in an increasingly attention-deficient workplace. But how do you design a workplace in which flow-state is commonplace?

The New Business Playbook

At Talentism, we’ve systematically studied business failures and the latest science in management, psychology and economics. We decoded the psychological and environmental factors that drive peak performance. We then built our own model, Talent Architecture. We want to design businesses that catalyze optimal productivity and employees’ experience.

Imagine that. No more fruitless grinds. No more inconsistency between one’s purpose and professional progress. No more Zerrissenheit, as the Germans put it. Managers will be equipped with the diagnostic and design tools to unlock potential. That’s Talentism.


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