What to Do When Your Star Performer Stops Performing

Star performers can make an incredible contribution to an organisation, with the top 10% of performers typically responsible for 30% of the total production output in their industries¹. So, what do you do when your star performer stops performing?

Star performers

Defining a Star Performer

Those of you who caught my article on retaining top talent will know that star performers are in a league of their own. They make up 10-15% of the workforce, can be found in every industry¹, and consistently deliver at the top of their game, often exceeding the productivity of their colleagues by as much as 400%².

They are self-motivated, show a stronger tendency towards self-learning and development than other groups² and are more likely to stay in a role long-term if there is the potential to learn new skills². As a result, they are receptive to feedback and, while they value recognition, are keen to focus on areas where they can improve. You’re unlikely to see a star performer repeat the same mistake twice since they generally listen to assessments and successfully apply feedback².

Contrary to popular belief, high productivity is not the sole definition of a star performer. Unlike workaholics (another group that can deliver high outputs), star performers know their value and don’t need external validation³. They also have a high emotional intelligence with an increased tolerance for stress, and typically display traits including empathy, assertiveness, and optimism⁴. They prioritise their workloads, are highly efficient, and are less likely to suffer burnout as a result³.

The Difference Between Star Performers and High Potentials

Don’t confuse your star performers with your high potentials. Star performers can be great at their job – and a real asset to your team – but it doesn’t necessarily follow that they have the desire (or ability) to assume management roles. As leaders, we have to know the difference between high potential and high performance if we want to identify, develop, and retain talent. Check out my recent article on promoting high performers for a more detailed look at how to make the most of your high potentials.

Why Do Star Performers Stop Performing?

It is unusual for a star performer to stop performing completely. They can (and do) become disenchanted with their work⁵, but it’s not always easy to spot disengaged stars. Unhappiness at work won’t necessarily translate into poor performance, and star performers can still meet and exceed targets when they are not engaged or invested.

Environments that would affect productivity in other groups are less likely to result in performance problems with stars, who will simply seek a new employer. A 2014 study found that less than half of high performers are satisfied with their jobs, and 20% are likely to leave in the next six months².

So, if your high performer isn’t working at their best, then the chances are the issue is down to more than simply the working environment or management style. High performers’ productivity can be impacted by a number of situations, including:

  1. A problem in their personal life affecting their work.
  2. Misdirected effort.
  3. Lack of challenge.


Address the problem

The only solution is to get to the root of the problem. Managers need to handle the situation carefully, especially if the issue is a personal one. A one-to-one conversation is the first place to start. The general rules of feedback apply here, and you need to avoid making the conversation personal, instead keep it specific and forward focused:

“I noticed that we are behind on X. Is there anything I can do to help, are there any roadblocks in your way?”

Provide direction

Aligning star performers with organisational goals is crucial. Misdirection is a common reason for poor performance, and ensuring your star performers are aware of the big picture means you can make the most of their ability to prioritise goals and think around a problem¹. If managers fail to provide a clear understanding of what they are working towards and why, star performers simply don’t have the information available to perform at their best.

Giving star performers the freedom to work autonomously and deliver on set objectives is a great way to reward their work and reinforce their value, capitalising on their talents and increasing their worth to your organisation in the process. Too much autonomy, however, can lead to misdirection and lower productivity, with individuals working against organisational objectives or at cross-purposes to each other. To maximise productivity, an autonomous approach should always be accompanied by regular check-ins and a clear understanding of organisational goals.

Be sympathetic

If your star performer is struggling with a personal issue, giving them time off to address it is often the quickest way to get them back up to speed. A sympathetic approach also demonstrates exactly how much you value their contribution to the team.

Provide new challenges

Star performers are great creative thinkers¹, so provide them with new challenges if their current work is becoming repetitive. Just ensure the new assignment is aligned with the organisation’s long-term plans and fulfils a real purpose.


The ability to independently judge their value means that a lack of feedback or praise can make star performers feel unappreciated. These guys are well aware that they perform above the rest of the team, and they need to know that you appreciate and value that contribution. Show them how much they are valued and set up regular check-ins to make sure they have the support they need to perform well.

To Sum Up…

Star performers exist in every industry, and can make a significant contribution to organisational growth. Managing them requires a unique approach, and leaders need to focus on developing skills and retention rather than performance.

Any tips and tricks for managing star performers? Feel free to share them in the comments section.


¹Aguinis and O’Boyle, 2014. Star performers in 21st century organisations. Personnel Psychology, 67. pp. 313-350

²Willyerd, K. 2014. What high performers want at work. Harvard Business Review.

³Gordon, 2014. High performers vs. workaholics, 7 subtle differences. LinkedIn Pulse.

⁴Durek and Gordon, 2009. In: Hughes et al. ed., Handbook for developing emotional and social intelligence. Chapter 9: Zeroing in on star performance. pp. 185. Available from: IMD.

⁵Kibler, 2015. Prevent your star performers from losing passion for their work. Harvard Business Review.

Turning Poor Performers into Productive Team Members

A whopping 65% of Australian HR managers admit to hiring an employee who failed to meet their expectations¹. These poor performers are an expensive commodity. They reduce productivity², monopolise their managers’ time³, and drag down the morale of those around them¹.

With so much at stake, addressing under performance is crucial to long-term organisational success. However, poor performance is a complex issue, and there are many reasons why someone might not be giving work their all. More often than not, that reason lies with their manager. So, how do we separate the true poor performers from those who are struggling to meet expectations?

The Reasons Behind Poor Performance

There are two main reasons why someone under performs; lack of ability, and lack of motivation⁴.

Ability is governed by more than just skill. While competency gaps are an obvious reason for poor performance, a lack of resources, expectations, and understanding will also affect an individual’s ability to perform well.

Motivation is influenced by both external and internal factors. Mental health issues such as depression can impact productivity and motivation⁵, as can tensions within a team, concerns over job security⁶, burnout, and a lack of incentive or accountability⁴.

Is Your Poor Performer Really A Poor Performer?

Source: Eagle Hill Consulting

Managing Poor Performers

When addressing performance issues, do not view the individual as a poor performer. Assume that the problem is your responsibility since, as a manager, you are ultimately responsible for setting expectations, ensuring they are understood, and providing resources that enable staff to deliver on their objectives. Managers also have a huge impact on motivation and job satisfaction.

A one-to-one conversation is the quickest way to identify the problem. Avoid comments that sound critical or personal, and instead keep the conversation forward focused,

“I noticed that you’ve been struggling to meet deadlines recently, and I wanted to check in and see if there was anything I could do to help.”

By the end of the meeting, you need to have a thorough understanding of how that individual does their job and what obstacles and everyday problems they encounter.

Don’t be surprised if you hear the phrase, “I’m working as hard as I can”, or “There is nothing more I can do.” In my experience, this is true, and the individual really is working to the best of their ability. As managers, it’s down to us to identify any obstacles and address inefficiencies.

Training and Coaching

If your performance conversation highlights a skills gap, then it is your responsibility to address it. Providing employees with the opportunity to gain job-related skills introduces new ideas and encourages innovation, increasing productivity in the process⁷. Don’t be afraid to allow individuals the freedom to implement those ideas, either. Giving employees the autonomy to adjust ineffective workplace processes can improve performance at both a team and individual level⁷.

Ongoing feedback and coaching are vital to the success of any performance management strategy, especially when managing under performers. Coaching places the responsibility for finding a solution on the employee but provides them with the support they need to identify that solution. It’s a great way to increase confidence and help individuals prioritise their workloads, and can boost productivity by as much as 21%⁸.

If a lack of skills is the problem, then a combination of on-the-job training and coaching is often an effective solution. Don’t expect miracles to happen overnight, recognise that the process may take months and give the employee the time they need to address skills gaps.

Setting SMART Goals

If the individual doesn’t understand what is required of them, then it is up to you to establish clear expectations. Regular readers will know I’m an advocate of SMART goals, which are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. By providing employees with a measurable objective and clear deadline, you increase responsibility for the outcome and individual accountability for performance.

Addressing the Impact on Team Members

In a US study, 68% of professionals cited a negative impact on employee morale as the biggest problem with poor performers. Most (54%) believe that they also play a pivotal role in cultivating an environment where a mediocre performance is acceptable⁹.

Leaders spend nearly 20% of their time managing under performers³, so it is crucial that you don’t overlook the rest of the team. Schedule performance conversations with those working alongside your poor performer. Focus on identifying any long-standing issues or obstacles facing the team as a whole and make sure that employees who are meeting or exceeding expectations feel valued and appreciated.

Knowing When to Quit

If intrinsic motivation is the problem, then you have on your hands a real poor performer. You can determine this by attitude, and a performance conversation or coaching session will generally be met with repeated negativity and disengagement. If this is the case, then the only solution is to remove the individual from their role.

To Sum Up…

Poor performance is a complex problem influenced by many factors. Addressing the issue requires a personalised approach, with a focus on improving workflow efficiency and providing individuals with the resources they need to meet expectations.

Do you have experience managing poor performers? Feel free to share your ideas, insights, and successes in the comments section below.


¹Robert Half, 2016. The cost of a bad hire: 10% of employee turnover is attributed to a poor hiring decision. Robert Half.
²Ekpang. 2015. Counselling for effective work performance: a way for service improvement. IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Science. 20 (3). pp. 39-43.
³Robert Half, 2012. One bad apple. Robert Half.
⁴Marr. 2015. 7 causes of poor employee performance and how to address them. LinkedIn Pulse.
⁵Wang, et al., 2004. Effects of major depression on moment-in-time work performance. (Abstract) The American Journal of Psychiatry. 161 (10). pp. 1885-1891.
⁶Staufenbeil and Konig, 2010. A model for the effects of job insecurity on performance, turnover intention and absenteeism. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.
⁷Fernandez and Moldogaziev, 2010. Empowering public sector employees to improve performance: does it work? The American Review of Public Administration 2011.
⁸Cognology, 2015. A leader’s guide to coaching. Cognology.
⁹Eagle Hill Consulting, 2015. Are low performers destroying your culture and driving away your best employees? Eagle Hill Consulting.

Work and Happiness

There’s a lot of people who aren’t happy at work. Aon Hewitt says it’s 39% of people.[1]  According to Gallup a whopping 70% of Americans aren’t engaged in their jobs.[2]  That’s a staggering number of people no matter which statistic you look at.  I’m using engagement data, but it’s not a massive jump to assume that people who aren’t engaged aren’t particularly happy at work.  So why aren’t people happy at work and should we even care?  I believe we should and we’ve been looking at it the wrong way all along.  We’ve been focussed on engagement and that has turned out to be a failure.[3] We should be looking for something more fundamental and that is happiness.  That sounds hippy but stick with me, it’s grounded in science and backed up by recent research.

The stories of Ben and the Queensland Air Museum

To start understanding why let’s take a look at two contrasting examples.  The first is a person I worked with a number of years ago, let’s call him Ben to protect his anonymity.  Ben viewed work as a daily grind.  He wanted to get ahead for a couple of reasons but mainly so he could say goodbye to work at a young age and do the things he “really wanted to do”.  The other way of describing this is retirement.  In Ben’s words he “was working the system”.  Most of us would know a number of people like Ben.

Contrast Ben with a completely different picture.  The Caloundra Air Museum in Queensland Australia is staffed by a wonderful group of volunteers who are all retired.[4]  The volunteers each work three full days a week or more.  This raises the question, why would people who are retired spend days every week working?  Some may come to the quick conclusion that volunteer work is cushy and isn’t real work. Talk to anyone that volunteers and you’ll quickly find this conclusion is wrong.  In my own experience volunteering at a community meals organisation I learnt that it was very much real work.  I liked my fellow volunteers and enjoyed the two years I spent doing this on a Saturday evening meal time, but it wasn’t a utopian experience.  It was rewarding but it was work.

Human beings are innately social and that brings with it a whole bunch of baggage, not the least of which is gossip and politics.[5]  The sort of communication difficulties any group experiences also occur in volunteer organisations.  This means volunteer workplaces are like almost every other workplace, it’s work coupled with the need to get along socially and communicate effectively.  So why do “retired” volunteers like those at the Queensland Air Museum do it?  Answering this question will illuminate what’s wrong with engagement initiatives in the workplace and why we need to focus on happiness instead.

Work and happiness and the Queensland Air Museum

Volunteers at the Queensland Air Museum. Photo credit – Cognology 2016

Understanding happiness

At this point we need to understand what happiness is.  According to Wikipedia it’s a mental or emotional state of well-being defined by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.  While that may be true it still doesn’t explain what happiness really is.  As unromantic as it sounds, at the biological level happiness is really a set of biochemical reactions in the brain involving neurotransmitters like serotonin.[6]  That’s why people with depression are prescribed drugs to help manage their brain chemistry.

Each person’s biochemistry creates a set level of happiness and range within which it can reach.  Unfair as this may sound this means some people are naturally more happy than others.  Things that impact a person’s happiness like sharing a joke or going to a concert may temporarily lift the brain chemistry and create happiness, but after the event the chemistry will return to baseline levels.  Understanding this is the key to why many engagement initiatives don’t work.

Temporary versus Lasting Happiness

So what creates lasting happiness?  The answer for most people would include family and friends.  The current popular narrative would also include travel.  Having as many different experiences as you can is thought to be a good thing.  But as much as I like travel myself it can only temporarily impact happiness.  There is also no sensation that you can have travelling that you can’t have in other ways. Travel is a consumption activity and that means it can only produce sensations during the act of consumption.[7] Put another way, travel only makes you happy while you are travelling.  Of course for many people travel is an escape precisely because they are not happy.

Very few people would list work as something that can create happiness.  Is it possible though that work can move the happy scale in a lasting way?  Let’s look at what the science says.

The Golden Triangle of Happiness

In 2015 Deakin University published research into what makes us happy.[8] According to the research ‘the golden triangle of happiness’ is strong personal relationships, financial control and sense of purpose.  The research notes that “no one element is sufficient in isolation”.  Luckily work provides all three of these elements.  It provides many people with a sense of purpose (more on this later) and it definitely provides financial control over your life.  Most people also form one or two lifelong friendships at work.

Golden triangle of happiness

Psychologists have long held that success makes people happy.  In the workplace this was translated as meaning that happiness was derived from successful events like promotion, successful attainment of a goal or financial success.  However in more recent years research has shown that happiness often precedes success.  This is an important finding because it means that happy people perform at a higher level and as a result are more successful financially.[9]

Negativity Surrounding Working

The link between work and happiness may be a surprising one for many.  But why is that?  These two quotes from Wikipedia provide us with a clue:

“Workplace happiness has been skewed by popular culture. There are negative images of work in contemporary media, such as the television show The Simpsons.”

“Children and adults have been encouraged to emphasize the negative and downplay the idea that jobs can actually contribute to happiness. Instead, people are prone to thinking that work only leads to unhappiness.”[10]

In short, work has been given a bum wrap.  But further research paints a different and highly compelling picture.  A joint team from the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of North Carolina discovered that a higher sense of purpose leads to greater health outcomes.  Conversely pleasure seeking or consumption based happiness, like the transitory examples I mentioned earlier in the article, resulted in poorer health outcomes.[11]   Researchers from Mt. Sinai St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital, New York similarly found that “possessing a high sense of purpose in life is associated with a reduced risk for all-cause mortality and cardiovascular events”.[12]

Having a Purpose

A higher sense of purpose doesn’t necessarily mean something that would “put a dent in the universe” to use an expression of Steve Jobs.  It includes the simple timeless principles of a goal greater than yourself or being of service to others.  Indeed the research describes it as such.  For many people, work provides them with a sense of purpose and it’s one of the primary ways they will be of service to others.  Having a higher sense of purpose disables envy or the need to compare.

If you’re a reader of my blog you’ll know I’ve written quite a bit about engagement lately.  The science we’ve looked at helps us understand why many engagement initiatives aren’t producing the returns they were promising.[13]   Any initiative that focuses on some form of consumption, pleasure seeking or in the moment activities is likely to be counterproductive.  This is why we need to shift the focus from engagement to happiness.  But this needs to be done with a proper understanding of what happiness is and what creates it.

The science also helps us understand the answer to why retired people would volunteer to work at the Queensland Air Museum.  Doing something in the service of others, with others and for a purpose greater than themselves makes them happier people.  Contrast this to Ben who said he was “working the system”.  Rather than achieve the happiness he is looking for, the science shows he may be doing himself a disservice and risking poorer health in the process.  Does that mean people shouldn’t learn new skills and advance their career.  Of course not.

You Can’t Manufacture Happiness

From a practical perspective what does this mean for us as leaders?  The first step is to avoid any engagement initiatives that require us to manufacture fun.  The research clearly tells us these can be counterproductive.  Rather, each of the tools for creating a happy environment are based on what the research tells us makes people happy.  The good news is that the tools aren’t new.  They are simply leadership fundamentals.

It starts with purpose.  Senior leadership needs to communicate the very reason why the organisation exists.  It’s surprising how often this isn’t done.  If people don’t understand why the organisation exists then they are simply coming to work to earn a pay packet.  But when we communicate purpose and remind people of it regularly, people then have a reason greater than themselves and can understand how they can be of service to others.

Communicating purpose at work

The Importance of Alignment

Once the organisation’s purpose has been established, each person then needs to understand the purpose and expectations for their role.  In my experience many people receive a job description, but don’t understand why they do what they do and how it aligns with the organisation’s purpose.  This is important because the research tells us people with a purpose are happier and that happiness precedes success.  Often team members can get caught up on the hamster wheel of daily process, emails and interruptions.  It’s easy in these circumstances for people to lose sight of what their role is meant to do and the importance of that to the group’s success.

To cooperate people need shared beliefs and an understanding of the way to do things.  These are commonly referred to as “values” and leaders need to live, breathe and communicate them.  Imagine one team member who values quality and another who values getting things done as quickly as possible.  It’s easy to see in this circumstance that this will create disharmony.  This is why values need to be part of the recruiting process and everyday organisation life.  It helps people align themselves to each other and be able to work together on a shared understanding.

The Leader’s Role in Creating Alignment

One of the most critical parts of a leader’s role is to ensure people are constantly aligned.  This includes keeping people working towards the vision of the future and helping to resolve roadblocks and issues that occur.  It also includes the tough conversations that need to happen occasionally to resolve performance problems and interpersonal issues.  If the leader doesn’t have these, the whole team pays by being dragged down into a poor state.  A monthly one on one is a useful tool for doing this because it allows a two way conversation and understanding to develop.

For a leader all of this can be summarised as communicating purpose, expectations and keeping people aligned to it and to each other.  Yet happiness isn’t the responsibility of the leader.  One of the unintended outcomes of the focus on employee engagement has been to miscommunicate to people that their happiness at work is the organisation’s responsibility.  When you think about it there is no such thing as an organisation, there is only the people within it.  So which person is responsible?  Of course there is no one person responsible.  Each person needs to take responsibility for their own happiness.  This means understanding the reason behind why their role exists and finding happiness in the provision of that service to others.  Rather than seeking to climb the ladder as fast as we can, we need to choose our workplaces carefully based on a match between what we value and what the organisation values.  If we can do that, we are more likely to be working with people who believe in similar things and who enjoy what they do on a day to day basis.

Naturally there are limits. Happiness in this article shouldn’t be taken to mean some sort of utopian joyessness.  The reality of coming to work on a Monday morning after a relaxing weekend will still be there.  Ups and downs will always occur.  But there’s an important message for our own wellbeing in understanding why the volunteers choose to work at the Queensland Air Museum.


  1. www.aon.com/attachments/human-capital-consulting/2014-trends-in-global-employee-engagement-report.pdf
  2. www.gallup.com/poll/181289/majority-employees-not-engaged-despite-gains-2014.aspx
  3. www.cognology.com.au/can-you-really-measure-employee-engagement/
  4. qam.com.au/
  5. https://www.amazon.com/Sapiens-A-Brief-History-Humankind/dp/0062316095
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happiness
  7. https://www.amazon.com/Sapiens-A-Brief-History-Humankind/dp/0062316095
  8. www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/bul-1316803.pdf
  9. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happiness_at_work
  10. www.pnas.org/content/110/33/13684.abstract?sid=48591e05-d2dc-4afd-8dae-510aa480befa
  11. www.cognology.com.au/are-we-accidentally-killing-employee-engagement/


Jon Windust

Jon Windust is the CEO at Cognology – Onboarding, Performance and Learning software for the future of work. Over 250 Australian businesses use Cognology to power cutting-edge talent strategy.

Subscribe to our fortnightly newsletter for updates on leadership and the latest HR research. You can follow Jon on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Innovations and trends in performance management

With the year drawing to a close and the festive season almost upon us, I thought now would be a good time to take stock of everything we’ve learned in 2015.

Agile Performance Management

The annual reviews and performance metrics of traditional Performance Management (PM) have been slowly giving way to an agile (APM) approach. This trend became increasingly obvious in 2015, with the publication of numerous papers and case studies all highlighting the benefits APM offers. Add to that the fact that major companies like Adobe went on record crediting this new approach (they went agile in 2012) with the rocketing share price they’ve experienced since adopting it, and it’s little wonder that APM is picking up pace.

The increasing popularity of the agile approach doesn’t surprise me. Agile Performance Management strategies are an integral part of Cognology’s solutions, and regular readers will know I’ve long been an advocate of real-time reviews and 360-degree feedback. I’m not the only one to note the accelerated change in PM this year and, while companies like Accenture announce plans to adopt it, others warn of the potential pitfalls of an accelerated change.

Tom Hakk, the founder of The HR Trend Institute, believes organisations are failing to recognise the difference between performance ratings and management. He worries that companies are so keen to jettison the traditional annual reviews and performance metrics, that they are abandoning PM altogether. I’m not sure I agree with his observation (the number of HR managers citing PM as ‘important’ or ‘very important’ rose to 75% in 2015), but I do recognise his concern. If we fail to implement this new approach properly, it could cost us more than it’s worth.


With poor onboarding contributing to the failure of 50% of new hires, doing it properly has the potential to save organisations thousands (and some, much more). I covered the science behind onboarding earlier this year and discovered that 35% of companies spend nothing (as in $0) on onboarding. Of the rest, 40% think their programmes are ‘less than moderately effective’.

Innovations and trends to revolutionize performance management, employee engagement, L&D, freelancing and onboarding in 2015
In October, Google gave us a lesson on how to tackle this sticking point. Their analytics team experimented with multiple approaches before hitting on the Just-in-time option. Characterised by an email to a manager the night before a new hire starts, onboarding is left entirely up to managers providing they perform five key tasks:

  1. A role and responsibilities discussion.
  2. Match new hire with peer buddy.
  3. Assist new hire to build a social network.
  4. Conduct onboarding check-ins once a month for the first six months.
  5. Encourage open dialogue.

It might not sound particularly innovative, but Google’s data suggests this approach reduced new hire time to productivity by 25%.

Imagine how technology can improve this by starting the onboarding process from contract stage through to Day 1 and the first six months. Incredible.

Learning and Development (L&D)

I’ve delved into L&D topics many times this year. By far the most important takeaway was the benefit of aligning learning with strategy, and its ability to increase ROI, enhance engagement and speed organisational progression.

Like PM, L&D has been driven by technological advancement, with gamification and social learning taking centre stage in 2015. Offering benefits across the board, a recent study by PWC suggests the technological innovations in this field will become increasingly important as more Millennials enter the workforce. Statistics published this year indicated that L&D is more important to this group than any other, with 52% stating that fast career progression is more attractive than salary.

Employee Engagement

Arguably one of the most notable takeaways of 2015 was the discovery that work engagement and employee engagement are two separate entities, often operating independently of each other. This, coupled with the finding that individuals engage differently, goes some way towards explaining why employee engagement initiatives traditionally produce poor results.

Newly published data suggests that engagement is an increasingly important issue. The average employee is 6% less satisfied with their role in 2015 compared to 2014; experiencing a reduction in enablement, autonomy and a sense of accomplishment.


You probably don’t need me to tell you that freelancing is the new workforce megatrend. Driven by economic pressures and an increasing focus on lifestyle over work, this trend is particularly popular with Millennials, 38% of whom work freelance.

This isn’t a number that is likely to decrease anytime soon. PJMorgan’s Chauncy Lennon is studying the rise in freelancing and flexible work initiatives. His findings suggest that this new megatrend will change the business landscape. In the future, we can expect to see operations organised around workers, instead of workers organised around companies.

To sum up…

As research continues to offer us greater insight, and technology gives us new metrics and opportunities, it seems likely that the changes we’ve seen this year in PM and L&D will be mirrored in other areas, including employee engagement and onboarding, which are currently poorly managed in a number of industries.

It’s been a year of learning and discovery, improvements and advancements in the HR field. At Cognology, we’re excited about what the year will bring. If there are topics you’d be interested in hearing from me on next year, drop me a line. In the meantime, have a wonderful Christmas and festive season.

See how an Onboarding System can help you reduce employee turnover.


Up to 20% of staff turnover happens within the first 45 days of employment. Source: Urbanbound

Can you really measure employee engagement?

In a recent post, I asked whether we might be accidentally killing employee engagement by obsessing over it too much. And, yes – we certainly can.

This is because, like happiness, engagement is a complex emotional state that only emerges when everything else is right, so trying to force it directly just doesn’t work. You’d have more luck drawing big lipstick smiles on your employees’ faces every morning!

It’s obvious that overzealousness generally leads to disaster, but we still want to engineer a pleasant and meaningful working environment. So, where’s the middle ground?

Measuring engagement

Your workforce’s engagement level can be the canary in the coal mine for both systemic and individual problems. If we can succeed in measuring engagement accurately, that information can form the basis for truly effective intervention. Because, as they say, ‘if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.’

For example, declining staff-wide engagement ratings can warn us that subtle problems are emerging, particularly regarding the company culture and working conditions. There might be a new manager with a bad attitude, new and inefficient processes might be causing frustration, or the volume of work required has crept past some critical threshold.

At an individual level, a worker whose engagement level starts to fall will eventually leave unless you discover and troubleshoot the problem before it’s too late. Often, the descent begins months (or years) in advance, as it generally takes a long time to decide ‘enough is enough’.

Why is measuring engagement so complicated?

It’s not so much that it’s complicated to measure engagement; rather, the difficulty lies in properly grasping such an abstract concept. Because it’s a feeling – like love or happiness – it’s hard to define. We have to talk about it indirectly, for example, describing it as a feeling that ‘leads to more discretionary effort’ or ‘makes you less likely to think about changing jobs.’

We can’t ask about it directly and expect a meaningful answer. Observe:

“How much do you love me?”

This much!”

Plus, your employees know that you want them to ‘be engaged’ – if you just ask them, their answers will be biased toward assuring you that they definitely are very engaged. When that happens, in effect you’re measuring how secure they feel in their job, or even how attractive the HR manager is, for that matter. ‘Desire to please’ can be a big confounding factor.

And, as I mentioned in my earlier post, the fact that there’s definitely something amiss when it comes to measuring engagement is shown by the disconnect between engagement and loyalty; ie. while engagement scores are rising overall, retention remains unchanged.

Employee Engagement

Mismeasuring engagement can be dangerous

When engagement survey scores are failing to predict reality, you’re asking the wrong questions. Workers might be falling victim to unconscious bias, or they might be consciously gaming the system. Either way, little good can come from making decisions based on incorrect assumptions.

Another danger is that you become so overly reliant on surveys, analytics and other metrics to inform your decisions that common sense goes out the window.

What’s the current best practice for measuring engagement?

To measure engagement effectively, you need to ask questions that probe whether the expected effects of solid engagement are happening or not. For example, you might ask how much work is occurring outside of normal working hours and outside the office, which is a good way of measuring discretionary effort.

Gallup recently produced a study titled “State of the American Workplace” in which it defines twelve “actionable workplace elements with proven links to performance outcomes.” Essentially, what Gallup thinks is best to ask in order to determine engagement.

Referred to as Gallup’s Q12, the questions are as follows:

  1. I know what is expected of me at work.
  2. At work, my opinions seem to count.
  3. I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right.
  4. The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.
  5. At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
  6. My associates or fellow employees are committed to doing quality work.
  7. In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.
  8. I have a best friend at work.
  9. My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.
  10. In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.
  11. There is someone at work who encourages my development.
  12. This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.

As you can see, the questions focus on the employee’s comfort in their role, the strength and breadth of their professional relationships, and whether they are being both supported in their development and recognised for their efforts.

Focus on the outcomes

None of the Q12 elements mention anything about ‘engagement’, happiness, or anything particularly emotional or subjective. That’s how you avoid bias, by basing your measures in objective reality.

If you do perform testing in this way, remember – it’s still a relative measure; you can tell whether engagement has increased or decreased, but there’s no official scale.

When it comes to troubleshooting a declining trend, there are many ways to intelligently intervene without mandating on party hats or blaring polka music over the PA system, and it starts with the big picture:

Is the company vision intact?

Are its direction, values and purpose fully articulated?

There are many aspects to look at, from both a macro and micro perspective, and I’ll go into more detail about these in a future post.

For now, my message is that yes, it is possible to measure engagement – by measuring what engagement is supposed to produce; and, yes, if done correctly, it can produce an extremely useful datapoint that you can use as a basis for evaluating your success in designing the ultimate workplace.

The key is to keep it short and infrequent – if you’re using something like Gallup’s Q12, it needn’t take more than a couple of minutes for your employees to complete.

What are your thoughts on how best to measure engagement? Do you use something like the Q12, or questions that are even more incisive? I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments!

Are we accidentally killing employee engagement?

Ever since it was discovered that ‘a happy worker is a productive worker’, organisations have been scrambling to engineer happiness among their workforces. But I wonder: have they gone too far? Is it even possible to have too much engagement?

What’s the cause of our modern-day obsession with ensuring our employees feel overjoyed all the time?

Why is employee engagement such a big issue?

Firstly, organisations face problems that directly impact the bottom line, including productivity and greater efficiency. I looked at these challenges in an earlier post, such as low employee retention rates, an inadequate talent pool, and an expensive hiring process, in the context of how a good onboarding can help.

Secondly, emerging evidence, such as Deloitte’s Human Capital Trends study, strongly suggests that organisations that prioritise employee engagement outperform their peers, both financially and in attracting top talent.

In this highly competitive economy, organisations are rushing to outperform their opponents in any way possible. In that feverish millieu, ‘Employee Engagement’ is now lit up so brightly in the minds of upper management that, in my view, some are losing their way.

Employee engagement is important, but not that important

Employee engagement is now considered a key performance metric. It’s considered highly importantDeloitte’s report even suggested that 87% of HR professionals and business leaders consider ‘culture and engagement’ to be a challenge more important than leadership itself!

That might sound admirable, but here’s the problem: when management starts prioritising happiness over making decisions that might be temporarily painful, but best for the business in the long run, strategic drift can take the company way off course.

You can’t force engagement

Engagement isn’t really a thing in itself: it’s a complex psychological state that emerges as the result of many other inputs – like satisfying achievements on the job, decent pay, a decent working environment and a company culture that matches peoples’ own values.


Employee engagement

Trying to force engagement is like a parent demanding loyalty from their child; not because they deserve it, just because “I’m your parent!” Clearly, this tactic is unlikely to succeed in either scenario. The outcome is usually the polar opposite of what you’re looking for.

The only remedy at this point is just to stop. A good way to start stopping might begin with giving the analytics a rest.

While engagement used to be measured annually, we now have frequent pulse surveys tracking emotional data points as they evolve. It’s tiring enough just thinking about them; in practice, they’re overbearing and counterproductive.

Employees working for engagement-obsessed companies feel doubly burdened. Not only are they required to complete their tasks, now they have to give up some of their individuality and mental space, too, in the form of organised ‘fun’, rewards systems, and other management ‘initiatives’.

Invariably, they feel forced and fake – and faking it is exactly what the employees are doing when it comes to their apparently smiling faces!

Focusing on engagement isn’t actually improving anything

As we mentioned, the focus on employee engagement is being driven by worries surrounding the high rate of employee turnover. However, efforts to remedy this by increasing employee engagement aren’t impacting the situation.

Yes, employees might be happier, but are they more loyal? Aon’s recent Trends in Global Employee Engagement report revealed that while there has been a rise in the number of engaged employees overall, the proportion of workers intending to remain with their current employers has not changed.

The current obsession with employee engagement is reactionary

It could be that this enthusiasm for improving engagement survey scores is related to the demand for rapidly-increasing workplace transparency. An organisation’s culture can now be a competitive advantage – or a thorn in its side. Topics like employee engagement and company culture are now out in the open, no longer confined to the HR office.

But of course, the HR manager is still tasked with solving the problem by COB yesterday! No wonder they’re losing sleep; low engagement runs deep and can indicate entrenched systemic dysfunction within the company. It’s not impossible to fix, but panicking will only make things worse.

Too much engagement can be a really bad thing

Do you know what kind of organisation has 100% engagement? A cult. And, while that might be the secret aspiration of some CEOs, it’s definitely not good for the business, especially when it comes to onboarding new hires.

Employees just starting out need to be able to connect with their workmates on an emotional level. If everyone around you is a Kool-Aid connoisseur, it can be extremely isolating when you haven’t yet summoned the courage to take a sip yourself.

That’s why it’s actually better when there are just a few highly-engaged employees around – enough to sustain the company culture, but not so many that an impenetrable clique emerges. It doesn’t always hurt for some of your employees to think of their job as simply the means to earn money to pay their bills. That’s reality for some folks, and the truth is healthy.

Nurture everything else before ‘engagement’

It bears reiterating that ‘engagement’ is side-effect that happens when employees are having their basic needs met.

Employees become engaged with the company because they enjoy working there; because they’re able to be productive and feel good about that; and because their co-workers are cool individuals who they can relate to on a human level; because they get decent pay for decent work, and so on.

From an HR perspective, an awesome onboarding program can do wonders to facilitate the relationships that will form the basis from which a highly engaged workforce emerges in future.

In a week or two’s time, I’ll be looking at the ways that employee engagement is being measured, whether it’s working, and discuss how we can improve our metrics to provide a real benefit.

How are you ‘doing’ engagement – what are your priorities? What’s worked for you and what hasn’t? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

5 Facts Every Manager Should Know About Employee Engagement

Discover how the very latest psychological, health and emotional research is informing our understanding of employee engagement.

Increasingly popular with researchers, employee engagement is a topic that has seen some interesting studies conducted, particularly over the last year or so. They have given me plenty to think about, and I want to share five insights I think are really relevant to how we view and manage employee engagement. I’ve included my own takeaways too, but you might see different ones.

1. Individuals engage differently

We often talk about employee engagement in terms of employees as a group, but the reality is that engagement means different things to different people.

Common sense tells us that employees find certain work environments more appealing than others. But perhaps what hasn’t been clear is that we need to target our engagement initiatives at groups of individuals, rather than the workforce as a whole. For example, in 2011, the availability of flexible working practices was found to significantly increase engagement in the under 30s, but had less of an impact on older employees.1

Not surprisingly, personality traits also come into play. Earlier studies suggested (rather broadly) that conscientious, emotionally ‘stable’ people are the most likely to become engaged with their work. But new data narrows this down and suggests we should be looking for those with interpersonal sensitivity, resilience and ambition. These are the people most likely to engage at work, especially if they have a high emotional intelligence (EI).

Takeaway: treat employees as individuals, or groups of individuals, instead of taking a ‘plain vanilla’ approach.

2. Internal communication is key

Percentage of employees inspired by their leader

The fallout from poor communication is pretty clear. Open, two-way communication and consistently stated expectations are crucial to a positive, successful workplace. (I’m a big advocate of the ‘feedback expectation loop’, as you’ll know if you’re a reader of this blog). The big news is that we can expect to read more about it in relation to engagement soon too.

For the first time, a link between positive employee engagement and good internal communication has been proven. It might seem obvious, but focusing on communication practices at both organisational and management level is as important for engagement as it is for productivity.

Internal communication

Organisational communication is responsible for 23% of the variance in employee engagement and supervisor communications accounts for a massive 32%.

Takeaway: internal communication matters. Put a good internal comms strategy in place, and execute it well.

3. Work engagement can exist without employee engagement

Anyone who’s spent time reading up on the topic will have noticed that the terms ‘employee engagement’ and ‘work engagement’ are often used interchangeably. In fact, they represent two distinct concepts. Employee engagement is about committing at an organisational level, while work engagement reflects an individual’s commitment to their role.


Employee and work engagement


A recent look at employee engagement in the British National Health Service brought to light some interesting questions about both:

Medical personnel were found to have low vigour (otherwise known as energy, persistence and a willingness to invest effort) and dedication (enthusiasm, inspiration and pride for their role). On the other hand, they had high levels of absorption in their work (measured by how quickly their shift passes and how difficult it is to leave when it ends). 

The first two are measures of employee engagement, the last work engagement. This suggests that one can be high while the other is low, which is pretty interesting stuff.

Takeaway: be aware that employee engagement and work engagement are different things. Consider how you can identify which type individuals are high and/or low in, and look at how to up the ante to achieve improvements in both.

4. A trusting environment dictates the success of HRM practices

This one has been hinted at a few times this year already. First, a study looking at the impact of corporate social responsibility (CSR) on engagement found that employees who didn’t trust the motives of their organisation were inclined to dismiss it altogether. This was supported by a recent white paper from Dale Carnegie, which found that 54% of employees who took pride in their company’s contributions to society felt engaged.

The next hint came from an analysis of diversity practices and engagement. This was the first study to identify a trusting environment as essential for translating diversity measures into positive engagement across all groups, not just minorities.2

The results of both studies suggest that trust is the crucial bedrock of successful HR practices and positive outcomes. Employees who trust their organisations perceive HR initiatives as authentic, which positively impacts their engagement.

Takeaway: Know your company values and make sure everything you do, including CSR, is in line with them.

5. Passionate employees are not (necessarily) engaged employees

When it comes to work, there are two types of passion:

Harmonious Passion: These are the folks with high productivity and life satisfaction. They view their role as important and it forms part of their self-identity, but it is not all-consuming.

Obsessive Passion: These workers are the most likely to suffer from burnout or home-work conflicts. They love their work, it forms part of their self-identify, but they are driven to work by internal pressures (such as social status).

Work engagement resembles both, except that engagement is not characterised by an association of work with self-identity. This is an important distinction, and one we’re only just beginning to explore. The latest research suggests that a passion for work is distinct from work engagement — passion is a general attitude, while engagement is a cognitive state. Exactly what this means in practise is hard to say right now, but more insights on how to drive up engagement are welcome indeed.

Takeaway: Observe people and try to understand their passion. The more insight you have into the people you work with, the better your HR practices will be.

In conclusion

It’s all interesting stuff, and should help us make the most of our engagement initiatives. Targeting specific members of the workforce, correctly distinguishing between passion and engagement and fully utilising our communications strategies could make a real difference. It might be slightly trickier to determine whether our employees truly trust our CSR and diversity practices (and I’m still not sure how we’ll measure work vs employee engagement practically), but for twelve month’s worth of research, these are all pretty impressive findings. And who knows what progress the next year will bring?

Do your experiences of employee engagement agree with this latest research? Add your thoughts to the comments below or join the conversation via Twitter @cognology.

Jon Windust

Jon Windust is the CEO at Cognology – Talent management software for the future of work. Over 250 Australian businesses use Cognology to power cutting-edge talent strategy. You can follow Jon on Twitter or LinkedIn.



1. Bal, P.M., and De Lange, A.H. 2015. From flexibility human resource management to employee engagement and perceived job performance across lifespan. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. 88.

2. Downey, S.N., van der Werff, L., Thomas, K.M. and Plaut, V.C. 2015. The role of diversity practices and inclusion in promoting trust and employee engagement. Journal of Applied Psychology. 45.