When the US Gallup organisation published the results of its 2017 ‘State of the Global Workplace’ research, it focussed a laser-sharp light on the reality of an appalling lack of staff disinterest and work apathy around the world. Peter Mills reports.

The headline finding in the 142 country study, is that only 15 per cent of workers globally, or roughly one in eight “are psychologically committed to their jobs and likely to be making a positive contribution to their organisations” or “showing up with the enthusiasm and motivation to be highly productive”. The remainder, are either ‘disengaged or actively disengaged”. A staggering 76 per cent of the workforce here in Australia, self-nominates as disengaged and lacking almost anything resembling commitment. World class.

But is anyone really surprised? The never ending “restructuring “ and retrenchments over the past three decades – the senior management go-to solution for hitting short term financial goals and hence their own personal bonus targets, has left those still standing, feeling both apathetic and cynical.

If business management are looking for KPI’s and a scorecard against which to measure themselves, they have one right here. The Gallup figures speak volumes about monumental levels of lost and under-utilised productivity. It also points directly towards poor management practices, outdated management structures and depriving the lower ranks today of opportunities to be better trained to make tomorrow’s decisions. After all, they are only one round of retrenchments away from calling the shots as restructuring slides out yet another layer of management. Wage creep does that.

What is equally unsurprising, is the lack of reporting and counter-measures put forward in an attempt to address the problem. The overwhelming response has been silence. Not the case in our company thanks, but we’ve heard it is those guys across the road over there – as everyone ducks for cover and looks for faults in Gallup’s measurement tool itself. Unfortunately there’s no hiding here. These studies have been dishing up the same results since the turn of the century.

Then again, who cares? Those who should, care quite clearly don’t. An attitude consistent with the findings and a continuing argument for those who would prefer to bring on the gradual phasing out of humans in business. The disengaged scores in the Gallup Survey are worst globally in Eastern Asia, (Hong Kong, Japan, China, Taiwan, South Korea) where only 5-7 per cent of the workforce nominate themselves as being engaged at work. A score that likely reflects the long established culture of highly defined hierarchical structures, exhaustingly long working hours and inflexible roles.

In the 60s, 70s and 80s Australia’s Sir Michael Marmot, the world renowned Medical and Public Health specialist, guided two landmark social studies of 18,000 workers dealing with the causes and sources of work related health and stress within the British Civil Service in and around Whitehall. It was seen as an ideal environment for testing and the results were remarkable.

It wasn’t those atop the nineteen layers of strawberry sponge-cake hierarchy most at risk for a range of unhealthy conditions. It was those at the bottom that were found to be the primary losers in terms of stress levels, heart and other health factors. Turns out the light and fluffy sponge was bricks and mortar and pressing heavily on those at the bottom.Who would have thought?

The material and psychological consequences associated with a disinterested and apathetic workforce form a long list. On the business side, it’s reflected in weaker financials, poor decision making and general apathy in almost every corner of the business. On the human side, it’s increased sick days, mental health issues such as depression and anxiety and high staff turnover. Then there’s the associated negative behaviours including increased rumour mongering, backstabbing and rampant cynicism; all of which exacerbate the problem. And they all impact business performance. The Gallup study confirms significntly higher productivity and profitibility in those business units in the top quartile of the engagement scale. A fact that would have been self evident to many but low priority to others.

Governments and businesses can bang on all they like about how good they are at improving productivity and slapping themselves on the back at the number of hours we all work but with figures like this, it’s all nothing more than a mirage. The increasingly relentless focus on shareholder value has delivered a workforce unimpressed, unrewarded, uninterested (and at times unpaid), in their daily work life.

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The irony is of course, that it was the corporate world that designed and built its own disengagement tool. An internal cultural ethos that promotes “team-work” and “team-playing” as an integral part of the human resources playbook. And while the talk in the open is of building teams – in quiet meeting rooms, elevators and work-kitchens around the country – it’s openly acknowledged as nothing more than a mechanism for control. Keeping your mouth shut and acting like a team-player is a highly valued trait in the medium to large corporate sector.

Team is the talk and blame is the game. Where success is shared around the team and failure is the trigger for scapegoat hunting.

Jeff Morris, bank whistle-blower

One of the most significant problems the banking sector has experienced over the past twenty five years is a structure and ethos that both demands and rewards silence. Falling into the “team” line is a neat strategy for dealing with rogue individuals in possession of an ethically minded conscience, and dangerous enough to perhaps even act on it. Think CBA whistle-blower, Jeff Morris. His experience was an example of what happens when you have a conscience. Teamwork is really about following the leader without questioning the method, the outcome or the potential consequences. Staff are left feeling very cautious about offering an opinion that differs from, or questions management. In doing so, it deprives the company of a wider range of potential choices when making critical decisions and the possibility of delivering more effective outcomes.

For the lower rungs of the staff pool, its held back many talented people from the feeling of inclusion and a sense of contribution and a greater sense work-value. And so they’re now switching jobs in ever increasing numbers. In the top down hierarchy – the boss knows best structure – the one we’ve had since the Industrial Revolution, younger talented individuals are walking away in ever increasing numbers when they see the deck of cards they’re holding is loaded.

Lack of control and a low sense of work-value are significant factors in the physical and mental health of staff everywhere. Repetitive work, denial of input, lack of recognition and spending the best days of your life in chook-pen sized work-station aren’t necessarily the things that inspire employees to get out of bed everyday.

And we humans have history when it comes to treating those we dominate with less than admirable levels of respect and courtesy. See the outcome of the now legendary Stanford Prison Experiment for starters and the ongoing history of humanity for further details.

Solutions are everywhere of course, except it seems, where it matters. The enormous gains made in our understanding of the natural fault-lines in our own decision machinery points directly to a wide range of options that businesses have yet to uncover.

However, most businesses and particularly large corporations, are so tightly shackled to doing things the way they always have, that even considering change is a struggle. Turning them off-course by even a few degrees takes monumental effort.

The increasing global fascination with Behavioural Economics or unconscious cognitive biases or one of the hundred or so other labels attached to this area of human behaviour, has delivered for most, a vague understanding that we’re all not really the great decision makers we think we are. And that runs parallel to management confusion over what to do with it.

Evidence of which is reflected in the way businesses still operate, which continues to mirror said lack of understanding.

But the leading lights of Behavioural Economics, and in particular Nobel Prizewinner, Professor Daniel Kahneman (and his lifelong research partner Amos Tversky) have given the business world a gift. Unfortunately, for many organisations it has much of the wrapping paper still on it.

Most can’t see their way through the detail.

Kahneman and Tversky, as well as several others in their field (Richard Thaler, another Nobel Prizewinner and others) have delivered a blueprint for better decision making that is already changing the face of some businesses around the world. Its applications are already working their way into all sorts of corners, challenging and changing the way we have always done things and in doing so, delivering greater competitive edge.

From realigning management structures, call centre scripting and marketing messages to sales negotiations and pricing strategies. Its foothold is gaining traction, albeit slowly. It not only delivers more effective decision capability, used effectively, it can be leveraged against competitors.

In an review of ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ in The New York Times on 25 November 2011, Jim Holt claimed their work so profound that it would be …”remembered hundreds of years from now” and “how their work instigated a cultural shift that is already producing astounding results”.

As always, the future rewards those businesses that can adapt and change and pick up clever thinking and weave it through their organisational structures and thinking. The rest will continue to struggle with structures and cultures that not longer reflect employee needs nor tap the reserves of talent capable of contributing so much more and yet sit around waiting for someone to slide off the greasy pole.

Businesses under-estimate the Nobel Prizewinning work’s capacity to change and improve business efficiency by assuming an understanding of it simply requires distribution via email. But implementation of their work requires more than posting links to articles. That’s what Kahneman and Tversky would have expected as a typical human but inadequate solution to the problem. Of course they are right. We just missed the point. Kahneman calls it WYSIATI. What you see is all there is. We don’t look for solutions outside what we already know.

Understanding what limits us, opens opportunities to exercise greater control over that to which we previously had little to none.

The real productivity gains are going to come from a more engaged workforce who see relevance and value in what they do and are encouraged to actually participate and learn.

Many of the solutions to organisational and individual shortcomings are in there. They’re just hiding in plain sight.



Peter Mills

Peter Mills is the Principal at Contrepoint.

He began his career with political polling strategists ANOP before leading research teams at American Express, Westpac, IAG, Optus and Toyota Finance working Internationally for both Amex and Toyota.



Transport vision: more parking fines please!