New Study Finds Team Engagement Comes in Shades of Grey

The largest ever UK study of barriers to team engagement challenges conventional thinking about the way engagement is measured and suggests that teams are often nowhere near as engaged as their organizations think they are.

The joint Engage for Success/Ashridge Executive Education/Oracle study shows that only a quarter of UK teams are giving their best at work, while almost a third (32 per cent) are actively disengaged.

The findings suggest that the engagement surveys typically relied upon by organizations may not be an accurate reflection because in reality teams are not simply either engaged or disengaged. In fact team engagement comes in ‘shades of grey’, with teams either just ‘satisfied’ or presenting an illusion of engagement because that is what the organization wants to hear.

The report, ‘Shades of Grey: An exploratory study of engagement in work teams’, is based on a study of 195 participants from 28 teams across seven industry sectors. Organizations in the study varied from SMEs to UK-based multi-nationals, from sectors ranging from Government and aviation to chemicals and healthcare.

From the study, researchers identified four zones of engagement:

In the Zone of Disengagement (32 per cent), teams are inward-looking, there are cliques and high levels of mistrust and team members describe themselves as over-worked, stressed or burnt out.

In the Zone of Contentment (21 per cent) team members do the minimum amount of work required and do not seek stretch or challenge. 14 per cent of teams initially perceived by their organizations to be highly engaged actually fell into this ‘contented’ category.

In the Zone of Pseudo-Engagement (21 per cent) team members play the system to serve their own needs, stretching workload to fill time, for example, and giving managers the illusion they are engaged because that is what they want to hear.

In the Zone of Engagement (25 per cent), teams are proactive and solution-focused. There is a positive atmosphere, a high degree of connectivity and team members support each other personally and professionally.

The report also emphasizes the vital role team leaders play as the makers or breakers of engagement. It shows that the three most important factors for team engagement, regardless of which zone a team is located in, are challenging and varied work, working with trusted colleagues and having a team leader who is trusted and leads by example. An online team diagnostic, which will help teams ascertain their current state of engagement, is currently in development.

Gary Gill of Engage for Success said: “The four zones of engagement identified by this research challenge the simplistic view of people being either ‘engaged’ or ‘disengaged’ at work. The findings should stimulate thought about the climate and behaviors within teams and inspire leaders to really understand the impact they have – and the opportunities for immense benefits for their organisation.”

Dr Amy Armstrong who led the research from Ashridge Executive Education, part of Hult International Business School, said: “The study lifts the lid on barriers to team engagement in a new way and reveals a complex picture when it comes to team engagement, one which organizations do not necessarily appreciate. Through these findings and our forthcoming team diagnostic, we aim to develop leadership programs to help managers to successfully lead teams to raise their collective engagement and team performance.”

Hult International Business School
Hult International Business School
Ashridge Executive Education