Companies who believe employees are their most important asset will be disturbed to learn that in 42% of organizations, low performers are MORE engaged than high and middle performers.

“When Leadership IQ conducted an advanced analysis linking employee engagement scores with appraisal scores, we got some shocking results,” said Mark Murphy, CEO of Leadership IQ. “We found that in 42% of organizations, it’s the low performing employees—not the coachable, value-producing high and middle performers—who are giving the most effort at work.”

Employee survey companies research shows that  that employee turnover costs companies big money every year. Are companies doing enough to retain their talent pool?

In an interview with Careerbright, Mark Murphy, Founder & CEO of Leadership IQ, a top-rated research and consulting firm that delivers employee engagement and leadership development to the world’s most successful organizations and their leaders shares practical insight on employee engagement and how to retain top talent.


Q. Welcome, Mark! Employee engagement is one of the most often discussed topic in leadership and HR circles. How do you define employee engagement?

Mark Murphy:

employee-engagementEmployee engagement can be defined by two key issues:

  • A person’s willingness to give 100% effort at work.
  • A person’s willingness to recommend their company as a great organization to work for.

Defined this way, it’s clear why companies want engaged employees.  Successful companies have lots of employees who give 100% effort every day and then shout from the rooftops that other high performers should join them to do the same.


Q. It was interesting to note in your findings that the ‘low performers’ at the workplace are more engaged than the high performers. We’d like to know how you define ‘low performers’ and some more info in this report.


Low performers in this study were defined by each organization we studied.  For example, in the company case study highlighted in the study, their annual appraisal uses a 4-point scale, ranging from Unacceptable to Superior. According to the company’s 2012 statistics, 18% of employees can be considered low performers, 20% are considered high performers, and 62% are considered middle performers.


Q. How do you define ‘satisfaction’ at work or workplace? What are the key factors that are evaluated when conducting a survey on employee satisfaction?


There’s actually a big problem with asking employees about ‘satisfaction.’  The key to organizational success is tapping the full potential of your employees (e.g. their willingness to give 100% effort).  And yet, many employee surveys ask some version of the question, “Overall, I am satisfied with company ABC.”

Let’s imagine you score a perfect 7 out of 7 on this question (or even 5 out of 5 on your current survey). What does that really tell you? It says, “Absolutely, I am satisfied.” It does NOT say, “I will drip blood, sweat and tears to achieve this extraordinary goal in order to feel the addictive swell of pride and achievement.” It can’t say that because you only asked if people felt satisfied. And being satisfied is a mediocre feeling when compared with the life-altering fulfillment that comes from giving 100% effort.

When you ask employees if they’re satisfied, you’re only asking whether things are so messed up that they might go running for the exits. You still have no idea if they might leave you for a different company that’s aiming for greatness. All you know is that things aren’t awful; they’re satisfied. If you want to know if they are deeply fulfilled and committed to giving 100% to achieve your goals, you have to ask.


Q. How can Leadership IQ’s Word Pictures™ help leaders and managers manage employees better?


Word Pictures are behaviorally-specific descriptions that define good, great and even poor behaviors so employees and managers can clearly define and differentiate best practices, and then teach those practices to others (and hold them accountable for their performance).

For example, traditionally organizations going through an acquisition integration program would direct employees to “embrace change.”  But because a phrase like “embracing change” can have so many different meanings in terms of actual employee behaviors, it’s nearly impossible to determine just by observation, which divisions of a company are, or are not, really embracing change.  But with Word Pictures, we would define three levels of specific behaviors: Needs Work, Good Work and Great Work.  This tiered definition allows organizations to distinguish between practices that are bad, adequate or truly the best.  And it allows leaders to then teach those best practices to all employees – quickly and effectively.


Q. What other tips do you have for employers who have a tough time retaining good talent in their groups?


Here are five things that companies can do right away to retain their best talent:

  1. Most employee engagement surveys seek to learn if employees are “satisfied.” Find out what it really takes to get the best effort from your employees with a survey that goes beyond “satisfied” to provide statistically valid and easily-trackable results that pinpoint precisely which issues are engaging (and disengaging) your employees.
  2. Managers should conduct monthly 10-minute “Shoves and Tugs” conversations that discover the motivators and demotivators of high and middle performers.
  3. Increase accountability by helping employees move through the stages of Denial, Excuses, Blame and Anxiety that lead to Accountability. Tools like Leadership IQ’s Word Pictures™ break accountability into clear verbal pictures of what “Needs Work”, “Good Work” and “Great Work” look like in action.
  4. Most yearly reviews are skills-based and do nothing to address attitude, leaving skilled employees with poor attitudes feeling good about their performance. Restructuring reviews to measure attitude is a start, but mangers must also consider what content their evaluation conversations contain and how to order that content for maximum impact.
  5. One easy fix the best leaders employ is making sure employees, and especially high performers, understand the company vision. Describe as visually as possible what’s ahead for your people— including the challenges you see, and give employees the power to develop their own role and find ways to remain valuable to the organization.


About Mark Murphy:

Mark Murphy Leadership IQ photoMark Murphy is Founder & CEO of Leadership IQ, a top-rated research and consulting firm that delivers employee engagement and leadership development to the world’s most successful organizations and their leaders.

Mark leads one of the world’s largest leadership and goal-setting studies, and his work has appeared in such publications as the Wall St. Journal, Fortune, Forbes, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report and the Washington Post.  Mark has also been a featured guest on programs including CBS News Sunday Morning, ABC’s 20/20, Fox Business News and NPR.

Mark’s best-selling books are backed by rigorous research and offer leaders clear and actionable solutions. His most recent book, Hiring for Attitude, was featured in  Fast Company, The Wall St Journal, and chosen as a top business book by CNBC.   Some of his other titles include the international bestseller, Hundred Percenters: Challenge Your People to Give It Their All and They’ll Give You Even More, and HARD Goals: The Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.

Some of his other well-known research studies include “Are SMART Goals Dumb?,” “Why CEO’s Get Fired,” “Why New Hires Fail” and “Don’t Expect Layoff Survivors to Be Grateful.”