Typecast? The false dichotomy of engaged and disengaged employees

Defining employees as either engaged or disengaged risks over-simplifying the complex web of behaviours that people exhibit at work. Here are five personality types that deepen the debate about company engagement

In articles and research relating to the workplace, we hear a lot about workers who are engaged or disengaged with their work, as if workplace behaviour can be simplified to a one-dimensional continuum. However, workers are not simply engaged or disengaged, but have a vast, complex and interdependent web of states, thoughts and drivers.

The interactions between these internal factors and external ones like co-workers and working practice make for a huge range of different potential combinations of worker types rather than the overly-simplistic engaged or disengaged states we are constantly presented with.

This article will examine examples of some of the less recognised and more interesting types of employee that most workers will encounter throughout their careers. Some of these overlap with one another, and the list is not intended to be exhaustive. Consider the different characteristics of these groups and what different approaches may be required to change their working styles.

The Promoter

This employee is a type that has been colloquially known for some time but has only more recently been identified through research. Promoters are those who try to make themselves appear busy, while not actually doing any work of value to the company. They tend to be those whose calendars are full of endless meetings (particularly the nebulous ‘catch up’ meeting) but who never actually produce a document, make a decision or add value.

‘Always looking busy but never doing anything of value…’

Often found amongst middle managers, Promoters have a tendency to making themselves appear indispensable, only for everything to carry on as normal when they take a week off. In some cases, simple tasks may take far longer than they should and 30-minute meetings will be scheduled which could be achieved through a five-minute conversation, all to project the image of being busy and important in order to climb higher in an organisation’s hierarchy.

Research from Ashridge-Hult Business School has labelled this type of employee the ‘pseudo-engaged’, meaning that while they appear to be engaged, they are not actually engaged in a productive way. Often these will be the people who appear busiest, but we must remember to look at productivity in terms of what people are actually busy doing rather than just the appearance of busyness.

The Coaster

Some people are very comfortable in their jobs. Almost too comfortable. These are the Coasters who do the minimum amount of work required to avoid being sacked. On the face of it, these workers may appear to simply be disengaged, but they have a key difference.

They do not regard their job, colleagues or company with any negative feelings. They are content where they are, do not want to cause any trouble but simply lack the proactivity and dynamism of engaged workers. They tend to be happy where they are and avoid challenging themselves. Teams with Coasters have been found to generally have a positive environment, but can be set in their ways and resistant to change.

The research team at Ashridge-Hult have found that 21 per cent of the teams they studied were simply content, with a positive if not very productive or proactive environment. Most of these workers seemed to be there just to earn their money and go home, with little regard for going above and beyond. There is nothing inherently wrong with this attitude, but it should be recognised so that steps can be taken to modify the attitude where appropriate.

The Toxin

While disengaged employees are commonly thought to be the worst type of employee to have, it can get worse. Some employees are toxic for companies. Gallup calls this being ‘active disengaged’. Active disengagement describes the employees who are not simply unhappy at work, but resentful that their needs are not being met and displaying behaviours that can inhibit the work of others. In their latest report on the state of the workplace, Gallup indicated that 18 per cent of workers are actively disengaged. These workers do things that make the jobs of engaged (and even disengaged) workers more difficult: act uncooperatively, waste the time of others and even make others toxic as well.

Researchers at the Northwestern University in Illinois have even tried to quantify the costs of toxic employees. Studying data from over 50,000 workers from 11 companies, they made several interesting insights into toxic workers, which should be used in making management decisions. Firstly, when looking at high-performers, they found that hiring a worker in the top one per cent of performers saved companies $5,303 through their increased output.

On the other hand, avoiding hiring a toxic worker saved an average of $12,489. It is therefore far more beneficial to not hire toxic workers than to hire excellent performers. This is a direct cost through workload and does not even account for further issues which may result from toxic behaviour, such as running foul of regulations.

A further interesting finding was that toxic workers increase the likelihood that people they work with will become toxic by 50 per cent, multiplying the effect throughout the company. Toxic workers are also more likely to produce a large quantity of work, but this is not necessarily high-quality work, and may even link to the Promoter.

The Dragon

Some people have a propensity to gather and hoard at work. There are several different areas where this tends to be a problem. Some people hoard knowledge, others hoard processes and some even hoard responsibility. These people can be found at all levels of a business: from those who hoard stationery and control people’s access to it, to those who hoard responsibility to the extent that nobody except them can make decisions in a company.

A type of hoarding that is perhaps becoming more common for the modern knowledge worker is the hoarding of processes. People who see themselves as the gatekeepers of processes often insist that documents and information pass through them on the way to its destination, and back through them if anything needs to go back to the original sender. This results in bizarre bureaucratic loops: ‘send the document to me, so that I can send it to him, so that he can reply to me so that I can send his reply back to you…’

Dragons often insert themselves into processes that do not need them, which makes communications less efficient and generates more work for other colleagues. This type of behaviour can easily be linked with the behaviour of the promoter, and there may be some overlap between these types of employee.

Knowledge hoarding will also be familiar to those who work in any technical discipline. Often a defensive measure in an attempt to make themselves indispensable, more experienced colleagues will sometimes hoard their knowledge and be averse to distributing it amongst their peers and teaching more junior colleagues. Although job insecurity is an understandable fear, it is important to recognise that those who teach others and make them more effective are very valuable to companies; this skill is often more important than their original skill set.

According to a study published in the Academy of Management Journal, hoarding in the workplace prevents workers from generating new ideas, but interestingly, may also be negative for the hoarder themselves. Researchers found evidence that those who hoard knowledge generate a reciprocal distrust loop which causes others to hoard knowledge from them. This greatly decreases the collaboration in the organisation, affecting the organisation as a whole.  Although there is little research on this area currently, it is likely that this effect will be seen with other types of hoarding as well.

The Golden Goose

So far, this article has focused on the more negative employee types that exist, but of course there are positive employee types. One of the most important is the Golden Goose: an employee who freely gives information and responsibility to others with no attempt to self-promote or hoard. These people show behaviours that in many ways are the opposite to the previously described types. Golden Geese enhance the effectiveness of the organisation itself, adding value not just in the work that they directly do, but helping other employees to add value as well. These are the people who help those even who work in different departments or different projects for no direct benefit to themselves.

‘Helping out with no direct benefit to themselves…’

Common attributes of this type of employee include the tendency to help teach others to learn for themselves, instilling in them the skills that they need to find and evaluate information without external input. In some industries, Golden Geese may also be the ones who are working to free up employee time for other tasks. While Coasters would be unwilling to put in the effort, and Dragons would keep these techniques to themselves, Golden Geese share these tools and processes in an effort to free up the time of others.

This type of employee is extremely valuable to companies because they enhance the overall effectiveness and efficiency of the organisation in addition to their own direct work. Downstream effects should also improve the company culture, with more employees trying to follow their example.

A defining factor

While these may be the less discussed categories of employee found in the modern workplace, they give a deeper insight into the varying levels of engagement employees experience. These may not describe every employee, yet every employee can relate to at least one aspect of their attributes. Understanding how people work and behave at work can be the defining factor between a successful and unsuccessful business. Knowing and recognising these different types can guide management decisions, discourage negative behaviours and encourage positive ones, and should be used to assemble the best possible workforce for the future.

Arraz Makhzani is a workplace analyst at UnWork