Employee Engagement Is Higher For Low Performers In 42% Of Companies

Employee Engagement Is Higher For Low Performers In 42% Of Companies

Leadership IQ matched engagement survey and performance appraisal data for 207 organizations and discovered that in 42% of those 207 organizations (i.e. 87 companies), high performers were less engaged than low performers.

Every leader wants engaged employees, but how much do you really know about employee engagement in your organization?   In a revolutionary study, Leadership IQ matched engagement survey and performance appraisal data for 207 organizations. The annual performance evaluation ratings were provided by the organizations and they decided what constitutes a “low performer” and a “high performer.”   We then measured employee engagement using Leadership IQ’s proprietary employee engagement survey. We define engagement as the willingness of an employee to give 100% of their discretionary effort to the job and their willingness to recommend this organization as a terrific place to work.

And we discovered that in 42% of those 207 organizations (i.e. 87 companies), high performers were less engaged than low performers.

Think about that for a moment: The employees bringing you the least value are often more engaged than the folks who reliably deliver good and great performance. There are ample reasons why this puts organizations at risk. And one of them is the fact that high performers, who thrive on being highly engaged, don’t tend to stick around very long if they aren’t engaged.

Though many companies in the human resources business collect data on employee engagement and companies themselves tend to track workers’ performance, this is the first time an H.R. firm has combined the two data sets.

It’s disturbing news for any company that believes their people are their most important asset. And that’s why we created this report. In the findings that follow, we’ll show you data from one of the companies in the study. The organization used as the example here is a services company in the technology sector with just over 1,000 employees (we’ve rounded the numbers to protect their anonymity). We’ll call them “Tech X.” 

Leadership IQ’s research base includes thousands of companies and their employees. For this report, we’ve selected one organization out of many with these results to explore in depth. The organization used as the example here is a services company in the technology sector with just over 1,000 employees (we’ve rounded the numbers to protect their anonymity). Let’s call them “Tech X.”

Leadership IQ’s analytics platform allowed us to measure the engagement scores of Tech X’s employees according to the scores they received on their annual performance appraisals. Tech X’s annual appraisal uses a 4-point scale, ranging from Unacceptable to Superior. According to the company’s statistics, 18% of employees can be considered low performers, 20% are considered high performers, and 62% are considered middle performers.

Leadership IQ customizes our employee engagement surveys for each client, but we’ve found there are 20 to 30 core survey questions that are highly statistically-predictive in determining engagement. We selected the following six to analyze here: [1] I am motivated to give 100% effort when I’m at work. [2] I recommend Tech X as a great organization to work for. [3] Leadership holds people accountable for their performance. [4] My Direct Leader recognizes my accomplishments with praise. [5] Success in my career is dependent on my personal actions and choices (not the actions/ choices of others). [6] The employees at Tech X all live up to the same standards.

As part of our industry-leading statistical techniques, our survey questions are rated on a 7-point scale (ranging from Never to Always). This means our data has more statistical normalcy than the common 5-point scale, and our results don’t suffer from the same ‘range restrictions’ and ‘ceiling effects’ as the typical employee survey. 


The most engaged employees give the most effort at work, and when high and middle performers are happy to drip blood, sweat and tears to achieve greatness, the benefits are obvious and enormous.  However, as shown in the chart below, employees at Tech X who received “low performer” ratings on their annual review scored .63 points higher than employees who got “high performer” ratings when asked to rate: “I am motivated to give 100% effort at work.” Which means that at Tech X (just like in many organizations) high and middle performers aren’t reaching their full potential.

To put this into context, on a 7-point scale, if an entire company moved .6 points overall, they could potentially improve from the 50th percentile to the 80th percentile. So six- tenths-of-a-point, while it may appear minimal, is an absolutely huge gap that can make all the difference in delivering results.

To help high and middle performers reach their full potential, leaders must discover and respond to the factors pushing valuable employees out the door and build on the factors that tug at them to stay. Using research like the Leadership IQ employee engagement survey is a great way to uncover the truth about engagement. But here’s a tool that will let you get started right away. It’s a quick and casual chat we call the “Shoves and Tugs” conversation and it taps right into the intrinsic motivators and demotivators of your employees. Basically, once a month, hold a one-on-one conversation that asks high and middle performers: “Tell me about a time in the past month when you felt demotivated or emotionally burned out,” and “Tell me about a time in the past month when you felt motivated/excited/jazzed up.” If your employees aren’t used to this kind of one-on-one approach you may have to probe a bit to get past superficial or suspicious answers and land at a place where employees say: “Here’s the problem and here’s how I think we can fix it.” Just one important thing to note here: Shoves must be neutralized or mitigated before Tugs can have any real impact. 


Every organization wants employees that are brand ambassadors. Their love and enthusiasm for the organization draws in and keeps exceptional customers, devoted clients and great new talent. But much like Finding #1, it’s the low performers at Tech X that are significantly more likely to recommend the company as “a great place to work.”

The problems here are multiple. First off, we have low performers so comfortable in their status quo that they aren’t afraid to say “Well, I don’t do much around here, but it sure is a great place to work.” As for the middle and high performers, their low enthusiasm can lead to weak client and customer relations. And it certainly doesn’t predict success for recruiting efforts or building a talent pool of good and great performers.

To help high and middle performers reach their full potential, if your best people aren’t shouting from the rooftops “This is a great place to work,” you should be investigating why. Because if your high performers can’t say “this is a great place to work,” they’re probably out there, right now, looking to find a place to work that is. This is another critical situation where Leadership IQ’s Employee engagement survey can pinpoint precisely which issues are engaging (and disengaging) your employees and then take it to the next level and give your managers the exact roadmap and skills training they need to solve these issues, while increasing overall employee performance. And again, a great way to start learning about your people’s intrinsic motivators and demotivators right now is the “Shoves and Tugs” conversation introduced in Finding #1. 


All leaders love their high performers for their logical, independent and self-sufficient action and reaction. Unfortunately, at Tech X, high performers don’t see a whole lot of people being held accountable for their performance largely because their work is often perceived as “expected”. And as a result, it’s diminishing high-performer accountability with similarly discouraged middle performers not far behind them.

In absolute terms, all three groups have low scores here (scores in the 4’s generally indicate some problems). But relatively, the scores are even worse. And the accountability issue often cuts in two directions; first, high performers often are dissatisfied with how low performers don’t appear to be held accountable for their low performance (especially because the high performers often have to clean up any messes made by low performers). And second, high performers often feel a lack of recognition for their high performance largely because their work is often perceived as “expected”.

To help high and middle performers reach their full potential, great leaders take action to make their employees more mentally and emotionally accountable. And increasing employee accountability starts by understanding the stages that lead to accountability and knowing how to quickly move employees through those stages, clearly defining what accountability looks like and, finally, enforcing accountability with real-life consequences. This sends the kind of positive message that gets high and middle performers back onboard and tells low performers that the free ride is over and it’s now up to them to either improve or be removed. 


We can see the lack of positive reinforcement for terrific actions at Tech X very clearly in the chart below. And not only are high performers failing to get the reinforcement they deserve, apparently low performers are receiving positive reinforcement for their poor performance. And Tech X isn’t alone in this. One big issue around why this problem exists in so many organizations is that most yearly reviews are skills based, which allows the skilled employees with poor attitudes (the very worst kind of low performers) to skate through performance reviews, continually getting rewarded for their bad attitude.

To help high and middle performers reach their full potential, successful organizations identify the key attitudes that define their success and failure so their leaders can accurately identify, reward and correct behavior according to actual employee performance. 


Although the previous findings are all disturbing, Finding #5 just might be the worst. As a result of Tech X’s actions (or inactions), high performers are beginning to feel helpless about the trajectory of their career. Technically, we call this “losing the internal locus of control.” And the big issue here is that the more high performers feel that they don’t really control whether they achieve success in their career (i.e. that instead it’s in the hands of their capricious manager, or other abstract sources), the less likely they are to continue to exert high performance effort and the more likely they are to quit. In fact, this issue is one of the biggest worldwide predictors as to whether a high performer will quit or remain with the organization.

To help high and middle performers reach their full potential, the best leaders make sure employees, and especially high performers, understand the company vision. They tell people what’s ahead--- including the challenges, so employees maintain the power to develop their own role within the organization. It encourages them to develop the skills and attitudes they need to continue bringing value to the organization and their own career growth. 


It’s an unhealthy and all too common dynamic when low performers don’t know they are low performers. Not only does it prevent low performers that do want to improve to do so, the vast majority of people don’t like working with low performers. In fact, one Leadership IQ study of over 70,000 employees revealed that 87% of employees working with a low performer had made them want to change jobs. And 93% said that working with low performers actually decreased their productivity.

To help high and middle performers reach their full potential, leaders recognize that what defines most low performers is the wrong attitude (not a lack of skill). But these leaders can stop bad attitudes before they start by changing the way they teach expectations. Because you can say: “be accountable, take ownership, treat everyone in a courteous manner and maintain the highest standards of professionalism” until you turn blue in the face. But until you paint a clear behavioral picture that tells employees exactly what the behaviors accompanying those words looks like broken into the three levels: “Needs Work”, “Good Work” and “Great Work” it’s anybody’s guess. And that’s exactly what’s going wrong at Tech X. Leadership IQ teaches a technique called Word Pictures®. The critical thing when delivering this kind of verbal picture is that is passes the following tests: “Would two strangers be able to understand the expectations I just set?” AND “Would two strangers be able to grade my employees based on these expectations?” 


You may already recognize that your organization suffers from one or more of the same engagement issues as Tech X. But there’s only one way to know for sure, and that’s to conduct the same type of analysis, matching your employee engagement survey results to performance appraisal scores (something that Leadership IQ does regularly).