How to Kill Employee Disengagement One Question at a Time

Posted on June 21, 2017 by Ascanio Pignatelli | 0 comments

Matthew Robbins wasn't your typical disengaged employee. He loved his job and his coworkers- even the organization (a Fortune 1000 biotech company) he worked for. But he had a belief that was holding him back: a belief that was trapping his energy and keeping him from ever really trying that hard. 

This frustrated everyone, but none more so than Sara Thompson- who happened to be the Global Employee Engagement Manager. And his boss! Although Matthew hadn’t been her direct report for that long, Sara could sense he wasn’t performing anywhere near his full potential. She just didn't know why- until that fateful summer day.

A Passion for Performance and Motivation

Sara’s life’s mission is to unleash the greatness in others. She was born with a sixth sense and could measure a person’s commitment to their job or task better than any employee engagement assessment. She has a passion for helping people reach their full potential that is both unequivocal and unapologetic.   

The Power of Language

Matthew is in the middle of presenting last year’s Employee Recognition Program results to the entire HR leadership team when he nonchalantly quips, “We can work as hard as we want but we can’t control our success.” It didn't phase anyone else but Sara intuitively knew that that statement might explain Matthew’s low energy.

Core Self-Evaluations and Employee Engagement 

Sara was well versed with the emerging branch of industrial-organizational psychology known as Core Self-Evaluations theory. She knew that the thoughts employees have about their capabilities are directly responsible for their satisfaction at work and how engaged they are with their tasks. One of the most important beliefs is the locus of control.

An Internal Vs External Locus of Control 

The locus of control is the extent to which a person believes that they are responsible for the circumstances in their lives. Derived from the Latin word Loci (which means location) the locus can be either internal or external. Internals believe they are responsible for their successes or failures. Externals on the other hand believe the opposite- that luck, destiny, or forces outside their control, are responsible for their fate.

The Link Between Job Satisfaction and Performance

For a manager, where the locus lies, can mean the difference between a very engaged or disengaged employee. 

Since internals feel they are in control of their circumstances they are far more empowered, energized and inspired with their work. As a result they are happier, more fulfilled and produce better work than their external counterparts.

Externals on the other hand, feel as if life is happening to them, and they have no control. They are at the effect of life- not the cause, so they blame their success or failure to a force outside their control. This belief saps their motivation so they avoid putting any real effort into what they are doing. 

Fortunately, Sara was a black belt coach, who instinctively knew how to use effective questioning to shift Matthew’s locus of control. 

Shifting a Disempowered Mindset

Sara decided it was time to upgrade Matthew’s outlook. She waited for everyone to leave then after a bit of chit chat asked, “So what do you think is responsible for your success?”

Matthew shrugged his shoulders then replied, “Usually my circumstances.” Then sheepishly chuckled, “Sometimes I get lucky. Sometimes I don’t.”

Sara smiled. She needed Matthew to realize it was just a belief that was holding him back. “Huh. Where do you think that belief came from?”

Matthew took a moment to think about that. “That's an interesting question. I have no clue.”

She now wanted him to realize how his belief was affecting his work, and probably his life in a negative way. “I understand. So I’m curious, what impact do you think that belief is having on your life?”

The disgusted look on Matthew's face said it all. “Actually.…it's probably what's holding me back- why I never really…..really try that hard.”

Sara let Matthew grasp the significance of his own conclusion before asking, “So imagine for a moment that you had the opposite belief- that you are entirely responsible for your successes. Your failures. What would that be like?”

It seemed like an eternity before Matthew smiled and uttered, “Wow. I think that would be amazing. Very powerful. But also scary.”

And there it was: the root cause of every disempowering belief- FEAR. With the waters now bloody Sara went in for the kill. “Why scary?”

Matthew took a deep breath, “Well I guess that would make me responsible for everything in my life.”

Sara could sense that Matthew was in the midst of another breakthrough. So she did what only the greatest coaches are capable of doing- she kept her mouth shut.

Then a smile cracked across Matthew’s face and Sara knew he had finally realized what had been always holding him back. She waited then sensed the perfect moment and asked “So what's stopping you from believing that you're the one that's responsible for your success?”

“Proof, I guess.”

Sara acknowledged with a nod then asked “How much proof?”

Matthew was off again- swimming against the current in an ocean of uncertainty. And just when he started swallowing too much water Sara threw him a lifeline. “Matthew, you know what's more powerful than proof?”


“Faith. And here's the interesting part. For the faithful no proof is ever necessary. And for the skeptics no proof is ever enough.” She then smiled warmly and walked quietly back to her office.

Although now alone Matthew couldn’t help but slowly mutter, “Wow. Faith. Huh?” 

In the months that followed, Matthew showed up to work with more energy and commitment- and a lot more faith. One day while walking by his office Sara couldn't help but notice how excited and animated he was so she stopped and asked, “Everything okay?”

“Actually awesome! I just scored a perfect 40 on that Core-Self Evaluations Assessment.”  

Sara smiled then quipped “George Michael would've been proud.”

To find out your Core Self-Evaluations results you can take your assessment HERE


About the Author

Ascanio Pignatelli helps HR leaders unlock the full promise, energy and creativity of their millennials. Ascanio is an award winning speaker, workshop facilitator, coach, and author of the forthcoming book “Engaging Millennials: How to attract, retain and fully engage the most talented millennials." His company E3 Solutions helps executives improve their leadership and communication skills to create more engaging workplaces.











Judge, Timothy A. (2009) Core Self-Evaluations and Work Success Current Directions in Psychological Science


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