People & Culture

We know what employee disengagement costs. But do you know how it feels?

We can put a price on employee disengagement, a real cost of lost productivity. But have you ever stopped to think about how it feels?

I want to tell you a story about someone. For now, let’s call him John.

John was a good guy. Decent school results, not amazing, then a really great software engineering degree which he threw himself into and loved. He graduated, with first class honours and had his pick of the graduate jobs at all the corporates. With youthful idealism, he turned down a stellar job at one corporate when he found he would be writing software for missile guidance systems. He took another with a big corporate with great training, a good brand and nice people.

For the first two years, he worked hard and impressed people. He was popular amongst colleagues and did good work. He didn’t get a lot of feedback, just the annual review where he asked what he should be doing to plan for a promotion. He was told he was too young and should forget about that. So he found a promotion role in another department, went for it and moved. For another three years he worked incredibly hard – evenings, weekends, he threw himself into every aspect of his role trying to learn as much and achieve as much as he could.

He knew he was doing good work, twice as productive as some of his more experienced peers, but it didn’t seem to matter much to his bosses – little recognition seemed to come. A colleague advised him to take it easy “You’ll run out of steam, all the new people do. You’ll realise soon that there’s no point in putting yourself out here, just take it easy.” That wasn’t what he wanted to hear, he wanted to give this role everything.

Over time the anonymity of the corporate world started to drag. From what John could see, no-one he knew really seemed to matter or have an impact. The wheels just turned regardless.

He didn’t really know where the company was going or what the big goal was – the company was doing well and almost all employees had shares. But whilst he and his colleagues watched the share price, excited when it went up as that meant more money for them, John didn’t feel remotely connected to it. They might as well have been shares in any big company for all the connection John felt between them and his job.

He worked for and with nice people, decent people but everyone pretty much drifted through the year. The culture was OK – it was a corporate, people covered their backs, kept their heads down and no-one took any risks. Accountability was minimal and it was nearly impossible to get fired.

By the end, the days really dragged. John was working in a department which had “core hours” of 10 am to 4 pm. He’d arrive just at the stroke of 10 and would clock watch all day long. Looking up from his screen he would dread catching the time: 11:15, 11:25, 11:40 – could time ever go so slow.
Glenn Elliott on stage telling boss asleep story
Sometimes, when it was just too excruciating to bear, he’d leave before 4 pm. The way to do this was down the back staircase to avoid running the gauntlet of the whole office and risk someone asking why you were leaving so early. The staircase led you to the back of the ground floor of the building where another department was based. But he had no idea what that department was and no-one knew him so exiting through the middle of it before 4 pm had no risk.

The monotony, boredom and utter lack of engagement started to eat into his health too. He’d get headaches and have trouble sleeping. There was a mole on his left arm that he was certain was getting bigger – he should get that checked. And a strange stomach complaint kept recurring – maybe it was something serious. He worried about grave health concerns, things that a 29-year-old should have no concern for.

Things reached a head one Thursday afternoon, around 2.30. John woke up with a start, at his desk. Wiping his eyes and glancing around anxiously to see if anyone had seen him asleep he saw his boss Janet who sat at the desk to his left.

She was also asleep.

So I guess I should come clean about the identity of our disengaged employee. His name wasn’t really John. It was Glenn.


Glenn Elliott is a technology entrepreneur, investor and advisor, MBA drop-out and recovering CEO with 20 years of experience. His bestselling book Build it: The Rebel Playbook for Employee Engagement is published by Wiley. He writes about people, culture, leadership and the future of work weekly at 

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