Jasmine is concerned with practical, tactical ways to bolster employee engagement, diversity and ultimately improve organisational cultures. She gives actionable advice to help HR professionals improve their organisations one step at a time and is known as a trainer, consultant and public speaker. Prior to moving to London in 2008, she was a professor teaching international business majors at the State University of New York. Her clients include PepsiCo, CBI, HarperCollins and Prudential. Jasmine’s book, ‘Employee Engagement: a little book of Big Ideas,’ is available to buy.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about what engagement is:

Employee Engagement = two-way dialogue + strategic narrative

But I haven’t spoken about what disengagement is; unconscious bias plays a part in disengagement, so I’m going to look at the connection there.

One of the ingredients is where there is an “us and them” attitude in the workplace. It’s human nature to look for similarities and differences.

We have many cognitive biases along these lines.

We have an in-group bias where we see the members of our own group as unique and diverse, and an out-group homogeneity bias, where we see people we classify as “other” as undifferentiated or all the same.

The most obvious “us and them” in the workplace is management v. staff.

For example, I recently heard employees in one office talking about how the surplus the organisation used to have was gone – obviously, they said, management had done such a bad job handling the surplus, that they had lost it all.

It’s human nature to look for similarities and differences.

And yet, the “us and them” doesn’t have to be negative.

At a recent training session, a manager asked me when we were going to get to the part where I told employees to make suggestions about how to improve a difficult change process.

“They have really good ideas,” the manager told me. He obviously saw an “us and them,” but for him, it meant a diversity of ideas that would benefit his decision-making.

So, since the “us and them” attitude isn’t intrinsically bad or wrong, it’s not enough to qualify as disengagement on its own.

The second ingredient contributing to disengagement is distrust or suspicion.

People have an innate tendency to focus on the negative, and this is in fact called the negativity bias. It means that we will anchor our behaviours – including decision-making – within a framework that we perceive as negative.

In terms of our human psychology, the suggestion is that it is better to assume a large shape in the distance is a predatory lion and find out it’s a rock, than the other way around.

The “us and them” doesn’t have to be negative.

Again, this isn’t inherently a bad thing. However, combine it with the unconscious biases mentioned above, and you begin to have a problem.

When employees see the other – management – as homogenous (“they” make bad decisions), and their negativity bias kicks in, then disengagement is the logical result.

So the equation for disengagement might be:

Disengagement = us & them attitude + distrust or suspicion

So, here are some practical tips for minimising disengagement by addressing unconscious bias:

  1. It’s beneficial to have diversity in the workplace. Those dissenting voices mean that decision-making is thought through more carefully. The key here is to ensure that different groups are speaking with each other – so create opportunities for this to happen.
  2. Be aware that the negativity bias exists, and may be the default setting for many people: provide them with information that will help them to move towards a more neutral framework.