Employee Engagement Shocker: Low Performers May Be MORE Engaged Than High Performers

Every leader wants employee engagement, but how much do you really know about engagement in your organization? For instance: are your high performers the most engaged employees? What about your middle performers: are they more engaged than your low performers? And how about your low performers: are they even engaged at all?

You’ll want to read on before you rush to answer these questions. Because the six discoveries we made reveal surprising new information that will forever change the way you define and lead employee engagement.

Leadership IQ, a leading research firm, has discovered that in 42% of organizations, low performers are actually MORE ENGAGED than high and middle 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.

It’s disturbing news for any company that believes their people are their most important asset. And the organizations with the best leadership skills are responding by learning the facts and taking action.

This report is intended to help you do just that. Here you’ll find an analytical breakdown that focuses on one of the organizations we studied. You’ll see for yourself how our analysis revealed this disturbing employee engagement phenomenon. And you’ll begin to learn where to look within your own organization to identify and rectify these dangerous and often-overlooked engagement issues.


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 appraisal. Tech X’s annual performance 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.

Leadership IQ customizes 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 employee survey questions to analyze here:

  • I am motivated to give 100% effort when I’m at work.
  • I recommend Tech X as a great organization to work for.
  • Leadership holds people accountable for their performance.
  • My Direct Leader recognizes my accomplishments with praise.
  • Success in my career is dependent on my personal actions and choices (not the actions/ choices of others).
  • The employees at Tech X all live up to the same standards.

As part of our statistical techniques, our employee 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 performance appraisal 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.

employee engagement chart 1

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, one of the most important leadership skills is discovering and responding to the factors pushing valuable employees out the door and building on the factors that tug at them to stay. Using research like the Leadership IQ Hundred Percenter Index is a great way to uncover the truth about employee 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. Done right, this immediately elevates your leadership skills.

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.”

employee engagement chart 2

The problems here are multiple. First off, we have low performers (as rated on their performance appraisal) 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.

Once again, this is where leadership skills come into play.  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 Hundred Percenter Index 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 leadership 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. 

Download the ENTIRE REPORT HERE with all 6 shocking findings about low performers having higher engagement than high performers!


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  • Trish - August 03, 2015

    I would need to know more, but based on what’s in the article it looks like the study may have come to a faulty conclusion based on the data given. The low performing employees I know and have known will often, if not always, give the answers you want to hear, that, yes, they would recommend the company; and not be self-reflective and honest in evaluating themselves, so not admit they are not motivated to give 100%. Those outcomes from the poor performers don’t tell me they are more engaged. On the other hand, if they are able to still get the same paycheck as everyone else while delivering less work, why would they want to go anywhere else; I guess it depends on what you mean by engagement. And high performers are usually frustrated and less engaged when they see poor performers receiving the same level of pay and rewards for a much lower level of effort.

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