We spend a lot of time discussing how to increase employee engagement, but what about the things that will immediately nix those efforts? Sure you can create development plans for your employees and share a meaningful company vision, but those efforts will be for naught if any of these toxic elements exist in the workplace:

  1. Oppressive Boss: Years ago I spent a significant amount of time working as a volunteer. I was thrilled to spend my time doing work that I found personally meaningful, challenging, and impactful in an organization where I felt connected. I thought nothing could bring me down from this engagement high. About halfway through my time there, I started reporting to an extremely demeaning boss. He questioned every detail of my work, and no matter how much success I demonstrated or effort I exerted, I was never good enough. I soon found myself going through the motions (using my hands and mind), but I’d lost all of my passion for the work. My heart and spirit weren’t in it anymore. Luckily after just a few months I received a new boss, and I quickly realized the difference. The new boss helped create an environment of trust, growth, and meaning where I could choose to be engaged again.
  2. Toxic Co-worker: This is the “one bad apple” idea. I once worked closely with a man who never had anything positive to say about our company. You know the type. He constantly complained about processes and politics. Prior to working with him, I hadn’t noticed any of these issues and was fairly engaged in my work; however, as I started thinking more about his perspective, I began to wonder if he was right. I found myself quickly spiraling into a disengaged state, and I no longer felt the same enthusiasm for my work.
  3. Unsafe Environment: In our book MAGIC, we site an example of an automobile manufacturing plant where an employee was assaulted in the parking lot on the way to work. Talk about an instant engagement killer! Safety is a basic hygiene factor that certainly doesn’t cause engagement, but the lack thereof makes engagement impossible.
  4. Burnout: The perpetual state of too much to do and too little time. I once worked with a team of brilliant engineers who started out passionate about their work, but after two years of insufficient resources leading to missed deadlines, retention on the team suffered.
  5. Ethical Concerns: This can include everything from reporting tips as a waitress to accounting at Enron. I once had a job where I was regularly asked to create reports which included numbers that I thought were misleading. I wasn’t the person ultimately responsible for accuracy, but it still didn’t feel right. I found it difficult to fully engage in my work when I was faced with an ethical dilemma on a regular basis. Still, ethics report may help you identify some problems existing in the employee’s environment.

As a manager, you should watch for signs of any of these toxic elements that will kill employee engagement. Managers need to ensure that employees have an environment in which they can choose to be engaged. Engagement is still a 50-50 proposition, but a toxic environment won’t allow any employee to bring his or her 50% to the equation.


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