Why frontline workers are disengaged

By Michael Bazigos and Emily Caruso

Executives generally overestimate their effectiveness as motivators and leaders.

Only three out of ten American workers feel engaged by their job, according to a Gallup Poll published in 2015.1 Data from McKinsey’s Organizational Health Index, encompassing a decade of survey results from 3 million employees at almost 1,300 organizations, offer insights into why this may be true.

Part of the problem, it seems, is that senior people have a rose-tinted view of realities on the ground. For example, a 2013 study of our OHI database showed that top managers in organizations are more positive than frontline workers about the ability of their organizations to perform over the long term. The biggest discrepancies (exhibit) concern perceptions of whether organizations have the ability to motivate their employees—to engender the enthusiasm that propels extraordinary effort and delivers great results—and assessments of whether their leaders can inspire action by others. Not surprisingly, top managers also overestimate their visibility: for example, separate McKinsey research shows that during transformations, 86 percent of senior executives believe that they are actively demonstrating the change they want employees to make, but only 53 percent of employees do.2

According to the Gallup research, actively disengaged employees cost the US economy between $450 billion and $550 billion in lost productivity every year. Yet McKinsey data3 show that when employees are intrinsically motivated, they are 32 percent more committed to (and 46 percent more satisfied with) their jobs, suffer significantly less burnout than other employees do, and perform 16 percent better.

About the author(s)

Michael Bazigos, head of organizational science at McKinsey, is based in the New York office, where Emily Caruso is a consultant.
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