Here’s Why Your Employees Are Just Not That Into You

Are you frustrated with employees who seem to be more “It’s all about me” than “How can I help my employer?”

Do you wish your employees shared your commitment to your organization’s goals and success?

If you can relate, join the club.

As you undoubtedly know if you’ve been in management, HR, or OD for any length of time, employee engagement research has repeatedly shown that the majority of employees do not report being highly engaged.

In other words, the majority of employees are not particularly “into” their employer, the organization’s well being, or its goals.

Recognizing and appreciating, but it’s not working…

If you’re like most employers, you conduct the requisite engagement survey, put on the requisite employee appreciation events, and institute the requisite employee recognition programs.

And still, the majority of your employees still don’t seem to care.

Would you like to know why?

I might not know you, but this I DO know…

While I might not know you or your organization, interviewing employees in focus groups over the years has given me an insider’s view into what moments of truth leave employees feeling a less interested in making a contribution. Their stories also illustrate how many of these negative moments of truth strung together chart a steady downward trajectory in morale and engagement.

I also know how different it is to work with companies who are having morale problems and labor/management conflict versus employers who are known for being a great place to work. I’ve noticed how very differently HR staff and managers from the two groups treat me — which provides a diagnostic for how they treat their employees.

Finally, I know what I observe and have learned from high performing companies with passionate, committed, engaged employees — think Zappos, Southwest Airlines, and Ritz Carlton — and what they do very differently than their counterparts.

So, here’s what I’ve found. There are seven major reasons why employees stop caring, why they go from being an excited new hire into what Gallup describes as a ROAD Warrior — Retired on Active Duty.

See how many in the following list ring true for your organization and you will have important clues as to why you’re people are “just not that into you.”

7 reasons your employees are not that into you

1. Employees don’t know what game they’re in, how it’s played, and what the stakes are. The majority of employees don’t understand their employer’s vision, business goals, strategy, brand promise, key initiatives, and marketplace realities, according to a survey of 23,000 employees conducted by Harris Interactive. Their research revealed that only 37 percent of employees understood what their employer was trying to achieve and why.

To dramatize the seriousness of this, Stephen Covey translated this sad reality into a soccer analogy. He wrote that if the typical organization were a soccer team, only four (4) out of the 11 players would know which goal to shoot on. Imagine trying to compete — especially in an ultra-competitive arena — with the majority of your team not even knowing what game they’re supposed to be playing. If you’re the typical organization, you’re exactly in that situation.

Besides compromising their ability to perform well, not knowing the big picture leads to disinterest. How can you get excited about something you know little to nothing about? To examine how well your employees understand the game you’re in, how it’s played and what the goal is, reflect on how well leadership at all levels communicates to employees your mission and vision in real life terms, rather than slogans and platitudes. Think about how much your employees know about:

    • Your business goals;
    • Your Key Result areas;
    • Your most important initiatives;
    • Your brand promise and brand differentiation;
    • How your business works and how the pieces fit together;
    • Marketplace realities and what that means to your business.

The more they know, the more they are likely to care.

2. Employees don’t know EXACTLY how to make the biggest contribution. Seeing the “Big Picture” isn’t enough. Employees need to understand how their “Small Picture” directly affects the “Big Picture.” In other words, each employee needs to know specifically what behaviors and actions on their part do the most to help you achieve the important business results you desire.

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In the previously mentioned study by Harris Interactive, only 20 percent of employees reported having a line of sight between their job and their employer’s goals. Reprising Covey’s soccer analogy, that’s like having only two of the eleven soccer players knowing what position they were supposed to play and how to play it.

The more your employees know how their work makes a difference and HOW to make a difference, the more they care.

3. You don’t give employees a reason to care about contributing. Knowing WHAT their employer is trying to achieve and HOW they can help make this happen are not enough. Employees need to have a WHY. They need to care about actually making that contribution.

The issue of caring gets to the heart of employee disengagement. Employers who have employees who don’t care — i.e. they have disengaged employees — typically relate to their employees very differently than employers who have employees who DO care.

Employers with employees who don’t care often possess the following characteristics:

    • Leadership does not communicate in inspiring ways about how what the organization does matters in the world.
    • Leadership acts in ways that communicate “We don’t care about you. We don’t respect you,”and so employees reciprocate by not caring about what leadership wants.
    • Employees get worn out from a culture of mediocrity being tolerated, commitments not being kept, and feedback and requests being ignored.
    • Employees feel like their own manager and/or their employer has a “User’s Mentality.” They demonstrate this by being “all over it” when they want something from their employees, but don’t respond to employee concerns or requests.

4. Managers don’t know how to create an environment that fosters passion, courage, a desire for excellence, and a willingness to go the extra mile. Because they manage in ways that are inconsistent with human nature, they don’t know how to create an intrinsically rewarding work experience out of which inspired work naturally springs forth. Instead, the environment they create fosters beleaguered, resentful, listless prisoners.

5. Employees are set up for the “Agony of Defeat” rather than the “Thrill of Victory.” When employees are onboarded ineffectively, when they don’t get the tools, training, time, or resources to do their jobs well, they get to experience the soul-crushing “Agony of Defeat” day in and day out. With defeat becoming the norm, employees naturally become demoralized. They stop caring and they stop trying, or they leave to go to an employer where they can feel the “Thrill of Victory.”

Examine how well you prepare new employees to succeed at their jobs, and whether you provide all employees with the tools, training, information, and support they need to do an excellent job and feel the “Thrill of Victory” on a regular basis.

6. Bad behavior and poor performance go unchallenged. Few aspects of work life poison the work environment like disrespectful and dysfunctional behavior going unchallenged. Not only does it damage morale, productivity, and customer service quality, it damages respect for management. Similarly, allowing poor performance — or even mediocre performance — to continue helps drive out the top performers and leaves behind the “C” players.

How strong is your management team, top to bottom, in addressing bad behavior and poor performance? Often, the single most effective thing a manager can do to turn around the emotional climate of her team is to fire the bad apples.

7. Employees feel unappreciated. What we appreciate appreciates. What we take for granted depreciates. When employees feel like the sacrifices they make, the extra effort they put in, and the great job they do is taken for granted, they gradually learn that what they do doesn’t matter. They stop feeling like it matters, so they stop doing it.

Conversely, if you continually recognize, appreciate, and celebrate high performance, small wins, and the behaviors that make your business’s goals and success possible, you’ll get more of those behaviors and, more employees who care about you, your employer and making a valuable contribution.

What to do with this

  • Use the above list as a self-assessment tool to see where you might have opportunities to improve.
  • Engage your management team in focused discussion about these seven areas to get their perspective on what areas need the most work.
  • Do focus groups to find out how well employees feel you are doing in these areas and ask for ideas on how you can improve.
  • Identify “bright spots” in your organization — leaders who are already doing a great job in any of the above areas — and use them as teaching stories for the rest of your leadership team.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 100 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at, or follow him on Twitter at


34 Comments on “Here’s Why Your Employees Are Just Not That Into You

  1. You missed the corollory to number 6. Punishment for trivial ‘bad behaviour’. If the annual apprasal time is an exercise in searching for something, anything, to mark someone down for then there is no incentive for the employees to do a better job – they’ll be punished for doing a bad one anyway.

  2. Very good post, David. You mentioned that employees don’t know how to make the biggest contribution. I agree. But if you’re looking for an easy way to get your employees involved in other areas of the company while providing incentives, try implementing an employee referral program. It’s highly likely that your business has jobs open right now — so use your employees’ brain power and personal networks to find awesome talent while encouraging collaboration within the company and providing prizes for referral-to-hires. In my experience, this works well for both sides of the table.

    1. Absolutely! It’s also a great litmus test and source of information re: the work experience you provide–i.e. if employees don’t refer their friends and family, somethings wrong. Smart employers ask their employees “Would you recommend working here to your friends and family…and if not..what do we need to do to make it a resounding ‘yes”!”

      1.  Unfortunately in many disengaged work forces you’d get an automatic ‘Yes’ when you asked if if they would recommend the company to a friend.  How else are they going to answer?  They’re terrified of being sacked or being in the next round of layoffs.  I used to listen to the podcasts on Manager Tools (still do the older ones, I gave up when they became too Political).  One of the things they talked about there is the neon sign on every manager’s forehead.  If you are a manager you can see it, your spouse can’t see it, your boss can’t see it, your peers can’t see it, in fact the only people who can see it are the people who report to you.  This sign reads “I am your boss and can take away your ability to feed, clothe and house yourself and your family.”  Everytime you speak to them it lights up.  When you ask a question like “Are you happy here?” or “Would you recommend working here to a friend or family member?” it even flashes and plays a little tune (the opening bars of Bach’s Toccata and Fuge in D minor) followed by the sound of a pink slip hitting a desk.  It would take a suicidely brave or galactically stupid direct to say “Actually I’m not really happy here and I don’t think I could honestly recommend workign here to a friend or family member.  Sorry.”

      2. Human Nature would be to say “Yes” no matter what. Ask someone walking out the door because they resigned or are being let go the same question and you’ll get an honest answer about the organization and the challenges. After all, they have nothing to lose since they aren’t tied to their position any longer.

  3. Excellent post, David! Every single one of these points supports why so many people in today’s workforce are malemployed – those who are employed but absolutely miserable what they’re doing and/or who they’re doing it for.

  4. Wham!! I’ve seen the truth of these points from various roles and vantage points in the organizations for which I have worked… and been guilty of a few violations myself. Thank you for this thought-provoking and insightful article.

  5. Exactly true – I think I’ve worked under all these circumstances during the 30 years of my career, it is probably why I haven’t stayed with any one position for more than 2 years.

  6. Great points. One suggestion: stop referring to people at the top as “leadership” when the behaviors they demonstrate are clearly anything but. “Senior managers” or “Senior executives” would speak more to their role. Leadership is a set of behaviors that result in people following you — and I think that getting this to happen is the whole point of your well-presented piece.

  7. Great article. The sad thing is that this is not “rocket science” and yet so many organizations completely miss out on the tremendous impact that these “common sense” approaches can have.

    1. Thanks for your compliment and so true re: “It’s not rocket science”. I’m going to address that in a “general” comment” so hopefully others will read it and post their thoughts.


  8. @twitter-38509343:disqus 

    So true re: “it’s not rocket science and yet so many organizations completely miss out on the tremendous impact these common sense approaches can have.”

    I’ve thought a lot about this issue over the years, more specifically “Why don’t we do more of what we know from experience–and common sense– works, when it comes to bringing out the best in employees?”

    Here are my thoughts and I’d love to hear other’s take on this…

    1. For some people, it actually IS rocket science. I remember a VP of f IT, who was a rare combo of exceptionally high EQ and high technological expertise, respond to my comment; “Sometimes I feel a bit embarassed talking about these practices which lead to employee engagement because they’re kind of obvious. They’re not exactly rocket science.” She said: “You need to remember, to a lot of the people you’re addressing, it IS rocket science.” Just as somebody who is tone deaf can’t hear things that others can, people who are low in the EQ realm might not get what to most would be obvious re: the treatment of others.
    2. Part of human nature is the desire for quick fixes and magic bullets, rather than doing hard work– Thus, managers look for management fads for answers and put on gimmicky events  rather than doing the hard work of say, engaging employees in critical conversations,  holding people accountable, or working with employees to create an intrinsically motivating work experience.
    3. I believe that in many organizations and in many people’s careers, being treated in an impersonal, inconsiderate, and often disrespectful way  becomes experienced as “normal. Because of this, people become desenstized to the human element at work, and so managers end up oblivious to the emotional fallout and performance consequences of their actions.  They forget that having your opinion listened to is important, or feeling like your work matters is important, etc. Because they have become so “all business” and walled off from their feelings, they become unaware of others’ and their impact on others.
    4. Many people have had old school command and control management modeled for them, so even though they haven’t liked being on the receiving end, that’s all they  know, so they use the same approach now that they are managers.

    What other reasons do you believe account for common sense not being practiced in the realm of leadership and management?

    1. I think another reason that common sense is not being practiced in the realm of leadership and management is because common sense is not taught as a subject. Of course, some people are practicing common sense in leadership and management, but when explaining your reasons or reasoning for a particular decision or action, it is awkward for most to explain, “because it was common sense.” In today’s environment when credentials are so highly valued and the trending theory du jour is the basis for modeling business solutions; common sense seems too plebian an explanation. Or worse, expressing common sense as justification could sound condescending.

      I often wonder; “Why don’t we do more of what we know from experience–and common sense– works, when it comes to bringing out the best in ______” ( Fill in the blank with children, family, personal affairs, whatever)  Common sense does not seem to hold a very high postion in our society.

      Much of what works to arrive at common sense conclusions stems from applying the “golden rule” ( do unto others…) or imagining yourself in the other’s position. At least that is how I have attempted to bring others into consensus on what I felt was a common sense decision. I am still surprised how asking someone to take a look at a situation through another person’s point of view will suddenly open their mind to see a clear common sense conclusion.

      Common sense is an old-school value; not very interesting to most as topic, but it is something I have practiced for it’s wonderful simplicity and the quality of results.

  9. Great article. The statement “What we appreciate appreciates. What we take for granted depreciates.” really stood out to me.

  10. First of all I disagree.  Management does not reward people success.  They expect their employees to do well, but Management gripes about the hard times and does not try to raise salaries or give any incentives.  I have been with a company for a long time.  All I have to offer employees is a kind word that they are doing a good job.  Management has gotten stingy and does not give raises on a yearly basis nor more time off if they cannot afford raises.  Kind words and encouragement can just last for so long and then the best employees give up.  I wish I could tell all companies to do some incentive each year to keep morale up, but most companies are selfish and want to keep every dime for themselves.

    1. So true.
      I have seen many instances when a company has a tough year, and employees understand and are willing to “tighten the belt”, and forego a raise.
      The problem comes when the company does it year after year. It becomes a situation where the employees hear the “tough financial times” excuse at raise time, and their salary remains stagnant year after year.
      However the salaries offered to new hires increases because the company feels it needs to compete for new talent. In the 90’s, the best way to get a raise was to change jobs. Another company will place a higher value on your experience than your employer.
      It demonstrates how the mindset of companies has changed. All investment, and planning are short-term. There is very little thought being given to the long-term relationship between company and employee. If your company doesn’t value its employees, they will find a competitor who will.

  11. I remember reading a while back that the most dangerous thing about incompetant people, especially incompentant people with any degree of power, is that they don’t know they’re incompetant.  Indeed the more incompetant someone actually is the more likely they are to think they are highly competant as they aren’t competant enough to have self doubt, often the most self doubting people are the ones who are in fact the most competant as their self doubt leads them to review their plans before and the results after.

    There are a lot of managers who will look at that list and say, “I’m doing all that, my staff must be really engaged and if they’re not it’s their fault.  I need to sack them and get new staff.”  Until someone comes in and, metaphorically speaking, smacks them between the eyes and leads them by the nose to what they should be doing they won’t and, actually, can’t change.

  12. Showing your employees respect is by far the most effective way to
    show them they matter. Not everyone can or should see the whole picture.
    Some things need to be kept on a need to know basis. That being said,
    Managers who train their staff and communicate effectively to them without the smoke and mirrors
    can win over their employees and retain the good ones. Show them how their contribution has made
    the team successful. Give praise when warranted and show genuine appreciation for their efforts.
    When bad economic times come, you will have their support. Remember as well to
    encourage your employees to move up the ladder with your support. Once they know you are
    interested in their personal success, they buy into the Company’s goals as well.

  13. I work in retail & my husband works in restaurant / bar industry. 1-7 sounds like a lasy, whining employee full of excuses that wants to get praise for just showing up. Let’s not forget the employees applied for the position & accepted the position.

    1. let’s not forget that all the profits just go to the top so it doesn’t really matter how good of a job the workers do to them. their lot in life is never going to get better. doing a crappy job is more rewarding because it might cut into the sociopath boss’s profits.

  14. When you refer to people as “assets”, and “talents”, you create an atmosphere where people understand they are viewed as things, not people – and they react accordingly.

    When you have managers who come into a group, and a priori decide that some people need to go – and so begins the farce of poor reviews, an “improvement plan”, and false hope – people react accordingly. (This is happening to a friend of mine right now… he’s busting his butt; his new boss started out not wanting him, and has ruthlessly made sure to create a paper trail to justify my friend’s dismissal.)

    When you have MBAs in the “corner office” wiping out divisions, hiring foreign workers to come in, be trained by the extant people, and then return to their home countries as those workers who trained them are then let go, people see this and react accordingly.

    When a manager jokes about performance reviews being the “employment continuation awards”, people react accordingly.

    People judge by actions, not by words. You want loyalty, you need to give it to them first.

  15. Great article. A lot of these problems can be addressed by taking the time up front – in the recruitment process – to better understand individual temperaments, or behavioral nature; what the blueprint for success is in the role; and how that fits with culture. If we know those three things going in, the chance of making a good hire go up, and that same insight can help managers effectively coach and develop.

    How many companies can paint you a picture of the type of person who thrives in their organization? And how many create detailed job profiles to know what type of person will succeed in a given role?

    It’s a little work up front for a big payoff down the road.

  16. The immediate leaders/supervisors in each company/corporate have a great impact to their employees. How they treat or lead employees constitute the employees’ behaviors and reactions. Therefore, when employers see employees who are not that into them, they should really need to check on the leaders/supervisors first.

    In my career, I’ve observed and seen some leaders/supervisors who lead and manage with passions and integrity, so the employees learn from them and follow happily. They can go extra miles voluntarily anytime.

    I’ve also seen some leaders/supervisors who are very rude, trying to use their position to intimidate the employees. They waste so much times to organize many unnecessary meetings (which should be better used for everyone to working on the real job) to “educate”, which actually like to brainwash and threaten and scare the employees off. And they probably have good ways to convince their boss that the employees would have to listen to them. It does not work that way. The result is they turn the good employees to be sick, and most of the employees become disengaged to the organization. That’s the problems of those leaders/supervisors.

  17. I am a small business owner. However I spent a good 20 years working for large business and did encounter both good and bad managers/supervisors. I have tried to take the best things I learned from the good managers/supervisors and learned what not to do from those bad managers/supervisors when I became a small business owner. However, I guess I feel that while I do have a role to play in motivating, engaging and encouraging employees – that the employees today do not feel they have a role to play in being motivated, engaging themselves and offering anything to me as their employer. While I may not always have the dollars to give financial incentives, I do attempt to compensate for that shortfall by letting them off early when I can and if they need a bit of extra time during lunch for something letting them have. However, when I ask them, for example, to perform a task that involves math, they turn up their noses and say they do not like math and drag their feet. Then because I need it finished I take it on and finish it myself. Basically I have noticed that when they do not like to do something, they have “trained me” to do it for them. While I agree that a lot of things can be avoided if during the interview process you are clear and concise about what is expected and take a good look at the attributes and abilities of the person sitting in front of you. I believe that if you tell the person the job will involve having math skills and they indicate they have those skills or are willing to learn them – then when it comes time to perform they decide what they want to do and do not want to do. I guess as a business owner and manager, I am worn out by everything I am attempting to do for employees and am coming to the conclusion that if I end up doing the work myself and working 14 hour days and weekends, why am I paying employees and expending all of this energy. The employee is the person that asked to be hired, why when they get hired do they not want to perform? In my case this is not a training issue as I spent a lot of time creating training manuals and an on-boarding process to make sure a new hire is fully introduced to everything related to how to perform their duties. As a small business I do not have the big community action campaigns, but I do believe in and encourage giving back to the community and exhibit that in providing opportunity to participate. I was always taught that this, like any relationship, is a partnership between employee and employer. While I do listen and encourage employees to come up with better ways or different ways to accomplish things, I can not always implement everything everyone comes up with. So when I can not implement something I explain why and the result is the employee gets an attitude with me. I guess I simply feel like I am on the losing end of the employee and employer relationship. Employees simply want a place to come every day and do not want to be held responsible for having to do anything unless they want to do it that day and they want paid top dollar for it. Oh, and they want to leave early, take long lunches, talk on their cell phones and have Fridays off. I agree with what is being said in this article and that Management has a responsibility to engage employees – like parents have a responsibility to engage children – but at what point is it enough and the employees realize they have a role to play in all of this and everything can not be they way they want it everyday?

    1. workers are paid like shit and treated like it as well. there is no incentive for us to do anything besides the bare minimum to not get fired. getting fired isn’t even a real worry because literally all of the other jobs are just as low paying and awful, so nothing changes for us no matter what happens. slacking off on your employer’s dime is the only real freedom for most of us debt slaves.

  18. Do you and your leadership team model the behavior your want your employees to have or display. If you can’t say yes then you know where you have to start making changes. This is one area where the org chart has the leader at the top because their actions and interactions with their subordinates WILL set the tone for everyone below them.

    Employees don’t care because they don’t feel cared about, they have bad behaviors like being sharp tongued because the same has happened to them repeatedly, they are slow to respond about concerns as their concerns are slow to be responded to and finally they are confused about protocols if there are contradictory policies in existence. Aetna is a perfect example of these. They week they announced they were raising the base wage they www giving staff in an entire office location their termination notices. This leads to….

    If an employee feels there is no future with an organization, or the organization has a pattern of not acting fairly with employees then employees will be looking to run away before the earth shifts from under their feet. More often talent will just move to another employer who doesn’t have frequent organization earthquakes (shake up, see where it lands, and changes are due yesterday), tidal waves (wash everything away and start fresh overnight), or evictions (overnight the office closed and operations moved.)

    I remember sitting in an orientation as a new hire for a large organization and the first day and going through the company policies which sounded like “This is why were gonna fire you.” We filled out forms and then went to the trainer in the afternoon who finally did introductions and welcomed us to the company. The trainer gave us a tour, etc. I was hired with 22 other people and within 4 months 4 were left (including me) within 6 months we had all left.

  19. You got it at #3 but then you lost it. Employees are not shareholders so they do not have a reason to help you make more money on their backs when you are paying them peanuts. And I do not know one big company that pays employees more than peanuts compared to how much money they make. Only ones that do that are small companies. That is why employees do not care: you pay them pennies for thousands of dollars worth of work in the name of profit.

  20. why would anyone want to work really hard at their crappy job just so some executive can buy a more expensive car? i am going to be an overworked and underpaid debt slave no matter how hard i do work for a company. being an american worker is just being exploited.

  21. Just by reading this article, the current organization I work for has all of these problems. I currently work part-time as a regular employee and I am currently looking somewhere else to work due to these problems that were just mentioned and more. My employer has been disrespectful, dishonest, and etc… My employer has sassed at me over unnecessary stuff multiple times, cut my hours from 15 a week to 3-6 without prior notice, has messed up my paychecks (either overpaying or underpaying me), been rude to other employees and customers, left work stations a total mess (which a regular employee would get fired for in a heart beat), and etc… I feel extremely unappreciated, disrespected, and hurt by my employer and the the rest of the corporate management and anyone that is above them. I do what is more than expected on the job, help other employees and customers, and keep a positive attitude as best as I can. I am 100% honest with all the customers and my coworkers, and show that I care about the company I work for even though the company does not show that they truly care about me. Anyways hopefully wherever I work next does not include only working 3-6 hours a week and some form of better communication between management and regular part-time and full-time employees regardless of personal feelings. I am the type of worker that would be willing to work overtime, do extra (as in more than just minimum), is hardly ever late (usually show up to work early), and only complains if it is something important (I keep most things to myself unless I feel that it is something that upper management such as the manager absolutely needs to know only), I am able to do work both solely and as a team, I tend to be extra nice towards coworkers and upper management that show actual respect towards me, I do my best of being understanding and try to give everyone benefit of the doubt regardless of who they are, and I like coming up with ideas that could possibly help with the company that may possibly help with getting more business. I am the type that likes to go beyond expectations, achieve what is needed, provide the best service possible for all customers alike, and have it to where I have a say in decisions at least once in a while (I have no say whatsoever at my current job and am treated like scum basically).

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