How Do You Motivate Employees Who ‘Quit’ but Stay?

By Brent D. Peterson and Gaylan W. Nielson

“An organization pays a heavy price when its bright, capable people quit and leave. But it’s even more costly when bright, capable people quit and stay.” — Rodger Dean Duncan

Fake work is a problem in almost every organization — large or small.

We define it as work that is not linked directly to the strategies of the organization, but it gets confused as either something esoteric or about work distractions like e-mails or meetings.

Simply, we focus on work: do people come to work—every day — knowing what is expected of them and then, do it — or not? Do they know what is critical for their organization’s success? The answer is that most of them do not — and the consequence is that 50 percent of all work is Fake Work.

So, while a weekly meeting can be pretty fake, what are the costs for:

  • A group of senior employees hand-picked for a project that was then canceled because of a strategic misunderstanding about new products? We calculated the cost to be over $5 million. The cost to morale: Immeasurable.
  • An online-training development project that was run by inexperienced people and shelved after a long and extensive investment? About $7 million. The cost to trust and support for training: Immeasurable.

Shocking statistics draw a dispiriting portrait of Fake Work

Simply put, many employees are “quitting,” staying at their jobs and doing “Fake Work.” But those Fake Workers aren’t happy about it; instead, they want to feel they are contributing to organizational goals.

Our research from Fake Work indicates that 87 percent of employees are not satisfied with the results of their work at the end of most weeks. Other key statistics from our research shows that:

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  • 73 percent of workers say their organizations’ strategies and goals are not translated into specific work tasks they can execute.
  • 70 percent of workers do not know what to do to support their organizations’ strategies and goals.
  • 81 percent of workers do not feel a strong level of commitment to their organizations’ strategies.

Also, a recent study that focused on government showed that 74 percent of employees cannot name a single goal of their department or agency. Statistics like these paint a dispiriting portrait of the individual workers responsible for driving our economy. If we look at the company cultures these employees are a part of, the view isn’t much better.

Seven guidelines for motivating employees before they ”quit” and stay

Organizations must rethink how they both weather a challenging economy and get their employees on board. The best answer is to help all employees align with the organization and become valued and valuable. Imagine the gains an organization could make by increasing employee focus and performance by 10 to 20 percent?

Here are the top seven ways to motivate employees — to get them to stay and be engaged:

  1. Explain the organization’s goals and strategies to all employees. Most employees in organizations don’t even know what the organization’s goals are, much less why the goals exist. Employees need to know more than a mission statement. They need to understand the goals and the strategies and why they are important.
  2. Identify Real Work and the results the organization is seeking. Too many employees don’t actually understand what their company wants and needs them to do. Job descriptions are a lingering joke in most organizations. Employees need clear goals translated into daily work.
  3. Share decision making with individuals and work teams. Allow employees, through the eyes of their team, to determine how and what they will do to complete organizational goals. When employees participate in the decisions that affect them, the more engaged they will be.
  4. Help employees align their work with their team. We call alignment the “execution gap” because assumes it’s happening—even without any real effort. Alignment occurs when employees develop, clarify, prioritize and negotiate their Real Work tasks with their team members. In the right environment, individuals will appreciate being surrounded by smart, capable people who can help them solve and work through problems.
  5. Help employees and leaders adopt each other’s perspectives. As team leaders and team members start to see work from each other’s perspective, magical work begins to happen. Once employees begin to understand the others’ perspectives, the more they are able to work as a cohesive unit to achieve organizational goals.
  6. Ensure that all learning is linked to organizational strategies. Employees need and require development in a thriving learning environment—when it makes sense. However, when training is disconnected from organizational goals, employees feel cheated and business leaders feel betrayed. We worked with one large company with a $200 million training budget, and we couldn’t find one class, one program, or one online course that was linked to organizational strategies.
  7. Rethink Performance Management Processes (PMP). Most PMP processes cause more fake work than they alleviate. Managers aren’t open or collaborative. Managers become like dispatchers — taking information from one person at a time and dispersing it back as the manager sees fit. PMP processes can limit open discussion and shared intent.

In conclusion, almost all employees have an immense need to do Real Work and to contribute. To do that, they must be brought in to better understand the organization, its goals and how they link to strategies, align to them, and then execute work that matters.

More about Brent Peterson’s and Gaylan Nielson’s insights into Fake Work is available at

Brent D. Peterson, Ph.D, is the co-founder and chair of The Work Itself Group, Inc., which helps organizations align strategy with work. He is the co-author of FAKE WORK along with Gaylan W. Nielson, M.A., the co-founder and CEO of The Work Itself Group, Inc.


2 Comments on “How Do You Motivate Employees Who ‘Quit’ but Stay?

  1. Brilliant article, Brent. Your first two points are critical — especially linking the two in employees minds. Getting this level of alignment is even more important in economic times like these when many companies changed their goals and objectives but didn’t communicate those changes in a way that employees could help achieve.

    Research that came out at the beginning of the year showed 75% of employees don’t know what companies need from them to succeed. That’s a shocking statistic, but one that can be overcome in quite a positive way — by recognizing employees every time to do something that contributes to those objectives. This makes the objectives very real for employees in their everyday work and, since the employee now know those efforts are noticed and valued by the organization, they’re more willing to repeat them.

    Simple, positive, and very effective.

    (Research citation here:

  2. I wonder about employees who look like they have quit, but in fact simply cannot do their job anymore, so they give up. Their job requirements have changed (perhaps as the implementation of new technologies are introduced, for instance) and they go from “acceptable” to “low functioning”.

    What percentage of people does that heppen to? I see it a lot, particulary in empoyees that are nearing retirement.

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