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Leading disengaged workers: Have your managers checked out?

June 25th, 2014

by Darlene A. Cunha

I recently attended a gathering with many healthcare professionals and was saddened to hear one of the participants state, "My managers have checked out. They are doing what is minimally required and are biding time until their retirement."

Does this sound familiar? Have you ever looked at your work schedule to see whom you would work with on any given day, and then thought to yourself, "Tomorrow is not going to be a good day, Jane Doe is working." Unfortunately, this phenomenon continues to plague most, if not all, organizations, but why haven't we been able to get it right?


Although settings and circumstances may differ, there are many healthcare teams that operate with only partial engagement from their members. The 2013 State of The Global Workplace report, which studied 142 countries, found only 13 percent of employees were engaged at work. In the United States, Gallup data depicted 29 percent of employees as engaged, 26 percent as disengaged, and 18 percent as actively disengaged, or unhappy and unproductive at work. This means nearly three-quarters of employees are not fully engaged at work.

So what does engaged mean? Gallup defines engaged employees as "psychologically committed to their job and likely to be making positive contributions to their organizations."

I understand engagement can ebb and flow for a variety of reasons, such as layoffs, reorganizations and benefit cuts. Having worked in a variety of healthcare settings--acute, post-acute, ambulatory, outpatient and physician practices--I witnessed first hand how disengagement was closely tied to the employees' direct manager. Let's face it, people do not go to work each day to do a bad job. How many people do you know who want to go home at the end of the day and feel as if they failed? Most disengaged employees want inspiration. They search for meaning and they want to have someone or something to believe in. They want to make a difference and they're looking to their manager for that inspiration.

Based on interviews and survey data from its consulting practice, Gallup says actively disengaged workers cost employers $292 billion to $355 billion a year. Furthermore, Gallup concludes that disengaged workers miss more days of work and are less loyal to employers. With this in mind, let's look at a couple of areas where balance is critically needed for employee motivation in organizations today.

  • The solution: We need to look deeper at the employee/employer relationship and figure out what each party needs and wants on a higher, more personal level.
  • The employee: While a paycheck is important, it is equally rewarding to have positive work relationships, peer recognition and potential for personal and career growth.
  • The company: It is critical that workers meet the demands of their respective job descriptions for the organization to survive. However, an organization can only thrive when its people can offer their full potential.

So what's the answer? The answer most often lies in managerial relationships. The No. 1 factor influencing engagement and disengagement was the employees' relationship with their immediate supervisor. We all intuitively know our attitude toward our boss has a major impact on our feelings about work, but why is the manager-employee relationship still so chronically problematic?

Typically, when organizations select managers and executives, they often overlook the qualities for building positive, productive, engaged employee relationships. So what are the qualities that foster engaged, productive employees, as well as build positive manager-employee relationships? The most effective and inspiring managers and executives I know share these characteristics:

  1. They are good listeners--less focused on imposing their own will than on hearing what others had to say.
  2. They are perceptive--able to understand the sometimes subtle issues their direct reports were dealing with, as well as what motivated them and what didn't.
  3. They are open communicators--approachable, candid, easy to talk to and available when needed.
  4. They possess a calm demeanor--able to remain calm under stress.
  5. They are genuinely concerned about their direct reports' well-being--men and women of integrity who care about their employees and could be trusted to keep their word.
  6. They express a passionate commitment to serving their team.
  7. They communicate a bold, specific and consistent vision.

Just to be clear, I'm not advocating being "a nice guy" makes you a good manager. Managers who do not address negative behaviors and attitudes of their subordinates may lose the respect of other employees. It's easy to look the other way and focus on other priorities, but this attitude carries dire consequences.

People spend a substantial part of their lives working, whether in a high-profile position or as a laborer. The quality of their workplace experience is inevitably reflected in the quality of their lives. We must raise the bar on employee engagement. Increasing workplace engagement is not only vital to ones personal happiness and well-being, but to achieving sustainable growth for organizations as well.

Darlene A. Cunha, MMHC, BSN, RN, is an accomplished senior healthcare executive, who focuses on population health management and the patient caregiver experience.


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