Feature Article - November/December 2019

Build a Better Workforce

Strategies to Engage the Middle

By Rick Dandes


Business leaders tend to focus on either their top-tier or lower-level performers when looking to improve overall workforce productivity. But a look at the numbers suggests there are other effective strategies to improve your bottom line, involving a greater emphasis on engaging the middle level, or core performers, and moving them toward the top.

Data suggests why it is critical to identify the "middle," said Ira Ozer, president and CEO, Engagement Partners, Chappaqua, N.Y. "According to Gallup and other statistically valid engagement research companies," he said, "approximately 70% of employees are disengaged to actively disengaged. And this statistic hasn't improved in 20 years.

"At most companies," Ozer continued, "the engaged 30% contribute to productivity, innovation and continuing growth and advocacy, and the bottom 20% are actively harming the business in terms of negativity and lack of cooperation. The middle 50% can make a dramatic difference, if you can effectively engage them."

Middle performers, Ozer explained, are the people who are not engaged and therefore no longer doing their best work for the company. "Most had been engaged, but over time felt unrecognized and unappreciated, so became less engaged and uncaring about their employer and their job. They are doing the minimum to get by, and that's why this group has the most significant growth opportunity for the company, if they can be harnessed and engaged in a positive way."

All well and good. But defining the "middle" in your organization is not always so easy to do, suggested Dawn Schillinger, consultant, Strategic Solutions, Maritz Motivation, Fenton, Mo. The "middle," she contends, is comprised of a diverse group. There are those who are satisfied at their level and provide a steady contribution to company success, but don't exceed expectations and don't want to. And there are others who are growing in the organization, and will be your top performers with time and training, but are just not there yet. Some employees are working for their paycheck and aren't committed to your organization or your mission.

Also consider: The middle is not always the center of a perfect bell curve—it may shift based on the organization, Schillinger said. "Within a team, everyone may be excelling beyond the organization's set expectations. There may be times within an organization that were more challenging than expected and success is hard to find. But it's likely that middle performers look like those who are meeting the expectations of the organization without exceeding them, and it's likely they make up a majority of the workforce."

Top performers are easily celebrated and rewarded within a culture, Schillinger said. "They win competitions when stack ranked with their peers, executives recognize them in public venues, and they tend to have a regular feedback cycle encouraging their continued success. Middle performers don't always have those levers being pulled for them to keep them engaged in their role or the effort to stretch."

Those employees in the middle may look similar on performance metrics, added Scott Kooken, president of Links Unlimited, Cincinnati, Ohio, "but they may differ drastically in how and why they engage with your organization."

These are usually middle managers, supervisors, technical experts, specialists and other skilled employees across an organization. They may be loyal to the organization but may not feel engaged or appreciated by the organization.

Why Move the Middle?

It is important to boost engagement for middle performers because, as Kooken said, "I rely on my employees' commitment, loyalty and engagement to help the organization continue to succeed. If they believe in what we are doing and where we are going, then Links will thrive in a competitive market."

Everyone is trying to hire a top performer for each and every role in an organization. But no matter how good you are at recruiting, and regardless of what a great-performing staff you have developed, "there is always room for improvement," said Mike Donnelly, president, Hinda Incentives, Chicago. "Every organization has a small group of top performers and a large of group mid-level performers and a few low-level performers."

Every organization can be divided into a curve based on performance, added Theresa Thomas, vice president, strategic solutions, Hinda Incentives. "Now, traditional wisdom or the Pareto Principal [The Pareto principle, sometimes known as the 80/20 rule, the law of the vital few, states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes] says the top 20% generate 80% of the results. We can argue that number, but the point is an organization's top performers are significantly more productive than the vast majority of your people."

Top performers do everything you ask, Donnelly said, agreeing with Thomas. "They accomplish more than you'd ever expect and are your future leaders. You should recognize these people publicly and tell everyone exactly what they did. That recognition will help you keep them, create heroes in the organization and give others a roadmap to success."

Your low-level performers, Donnelly continued, are either brand new to their job and just learning, or don't have the skills or just aren't suited for the job. New people will learn quickly, while the others are likely to leave anyway. But, like top performers, there's just not that many low performers.

The bulk of your people are middle performers, he said. "They're competent, get the job done, but have room for improvement. They could be a little more productive. They could be more engaged offering ideas to innovate or ways to improve your processes. They probably make up 60% or more of your entire workforce.

"If 60% of your people could be just 5% more productive, think of what that would mean," Donnelly added. "It would be like adding a new full-time employee for every 20 people you have. If 60% of your people were offering ideas to improve and innovate, and an average idea saved $500 a year, what would that do to your bottom line? That's why companies need to focus their efforts on moving mid-level performers."

Nobody ever hires a failure, said Hinda Director of Marketing Ric Neeley. "Everyone we hire is going to be a superstar, no matter the job. So why are there so many mid-level performers?"

It's simple, he said: There's only a limited number of top performers. When you find them, you must keep them. Otherwise, you'll have a huge performance gap when a top performer finds a new job.

That's why most companies spend all their time and effort focused on retaining top performers, Neeley said. "But the fact is, a mid-level performer has a better chance of improving more incrementally percentage-wise than a top performer possibly could. And there's probably 10 mid-level performers for each top performer. Your greatest chance of generating real bottom-line improvement lies in moving those mid-level performers. They can improve more and there's more of them."

It can be done, Donnelly said. "Yes, you can move the middle. We see it regularly. In safety programs we see creating awareness, teaching safe behaviors and recognizing milestones keeps the program top of mind and reduces incidents."