Skip to content

How Organizations Prompt Different Levels of Engagement

​George Bradt, management expert and leadership columnist for Forbes magazine, divides the engagement continuum into four levels: disengaged, compliance engagement, contributing engagement, and committed engagement. 

Most organizations, he argues, get the level of employee engagement that they deserve—they provoke it by the way they treat employees.

How can an organization prompt disengagement? Bradt offers the following example. In the current U.S. workplace, reorganizations are very common. Often under an “evolve or die” ethos, companies feel they need to change to compete more successfully. These reorganizations can include various types of changes, including layoffs, amended job responsibilities, rearranged chains of commands, expanded or streamlined work processes, and altered goals and objectives. 

However, these changes often leave employees confused and uncertain. “Then [company leaders] are surprised when people start becoming disengaged,” he says with a laugh. This disengagement often leads to more turnover. “People don’t know what they are supposed to be doing,” he explains. “So they find happiness elsewhere.”

The next level up is compliance engagement. In this state, employees stay engaged with their work just enough to fulfill their responsibilities and keep their jobs. For some organizations, this level of engagement works; the U.S. Navy and Air Force often operate along these lines, because both have strict command-and-control structures in which people are prompted to do exactly as ordered to minimize mistakes, Bradt explains. Assembly lines in manufacturing plants, and some lab testing facilities, have followed a similar philosophy, and many have been productive doing so. Here, clear policies for each individual job are important.  

The third level is contributing engagement: employees who are going beyond fulfilling their job responsibilities, but actively trying to improve operations. For many organizations, this is the sweet spot of engagement, and they would like to turn their disengaged employees into contributing employees. 

But to achieve this change, the organization must establish the right conditions for such contributions. “You have to invite them [to contribute], and you have to reward them,” Bradt says. 

For example, let’s say a manager invites an employee to contribute to a special project. The employee does so and makes a substantial contribution, but the time spent on the project means less time for the employee’s normal duties, and his or her regular work slips a bit as a result. Penalizing the employee for that could discourage future contributions, and increase the changes of lowered engagement. 

Instead, the manager’s invitation to contribute should also include a conversation on how the employee can best manage the workload, with the manager open to the approach of, “What can I do to ease the burden?” Bradt says. 

Stage four of engagement is the committed stage. This is the small percentage of employees who are so committed and emotionally invested in a professional cause, that they need no prompting or invitation to contribute. 

“You just have to get out of their way,” he says. Their accomplishments can be stellar, but they can also be more committed to their causes then to the organization. “Committed people are going to run over you,” he says. “Unleash them and they are gone.”