May 2013
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TD Magazine

The Disengagement Crisis in China

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A severe employee engagement deficit is becoming a human capital catastrophe in China.

Engagement is a term used so often in the workplace that perhaps many of us take it for granted. But imagine if your immediate manager had no concept of what it meant to engage her employees; or worse, what if she scoffed at the idea?

This is the reality in China, where the "command-and-control" management style dominates, and where such concepts as engagement, talent management, and professional development are relatively unknown. According to research by Gallup, only 6 percent of China's workers are engaged, while about 26 percent are "actively disengaged."

To put it in not-so-soft terms, about a quarter of the members of China's workforce are miserable in their jobs, and the quality of their work undermines the business instead of supporting it. Meanwhile, just 6 percent of the workforce is high performing, with workers invested in the success of their companies.


According to Jim Clifton, chairman and CEO of Gallup, disengagement is the biggest of China's problems as it hurtles toward global hegemony. Through extensive research in multiple countries, Gallup found 12 common elements that directly contribute to employee engagement. At the top of that list is employees knowing what is expected of them at work, and having the equipment they need to do their work right.

"China's societal advancement—or collapse—lies within these elements, as employee engagement boosts productivity, quality, customer engagement, retention, safety, and profitability," says Clifton. He puts China's societal advancement squarely on the shoulders of its managers, who have the most influence on—and thus are directly responsible for—employee engagement.

It could be an easy fix, compared with the challenges China faces with rising labor costs, an environmental crisis, consequences of the one-child rule, and escalating political and social unrest. If China can adapt to a management model that empowers employees and enables their development, they also may gain ground in their other socioeconomic battles.

About the Author

The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is a professional membership organization supporting those who develop the knowledge and skills of employees in organizations around the world. The ATD Staff, along with a worldwide network of volunteers work to empower professionals to develop talent in the workplace.

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