Employers are starting to catch on to the research that shows that having a predominantly engaged workforce can double a company’s return on assets and contribute to a 36% increase in sales revenue. It varies a little bit over time, depending on your country, industry and a few other variables but the evidence says that it’s worth the effort.

It’s not even as if the engaged are mythological superstars. The generally accepted definition of engagement is merely applying discretionary effort – simply choosing to do more than you have to.

The engagement conversation is overly focused on the top and the bottom – how to attract and retain the transient talent who are truly actively and impressively engaged whilst preventing or discarding those who have become cancerously actively disengaged. Both are lots of work and risk. Not enough of the conversation is about the bulk of the people, the quiet middle. Fifty to sixty percent of employees show up and do what they have to and no more. They show up, maintain a pulse, consume oxygen and tick their performance boxes. This is the area where leaders amongst employers can make the greatest gains, the biggest bang for their bucks. But how?

I delivered a presentation recently to a group of successful dairy farmers. This whole engagement potential issue was summarised simply and effectively with one question to me from one of the farmers, “What do I do with an employee nicknamed ‘Sleepy’?”

Sleepy did what he had to but he possessed untapped potential. The farmer could see this and was frustrated at how Sleepy wouldn’t tap into it. Sure, the farmer would love to have greater productivity for the same wages but his frustration was borne out of a want for Sleepy to achieve more personally. Maybe you’ve got a Sleepy? Maybe you’ve got lots of Sleepies? Maybe you are a Sleepy? What can you do?


  1. Ask what they think.

Big organisations with HR departments and money sloshing around can conduct surveys and commission consultants. Sometimes it’s easier, smarter, quicker and more accurate to ask a few direct questions of the affected person. Even if no answers are forthcoming, the very fact that you asked is a positive influence.


  1. Leverage social conformity.

Websites selling movies and books know their best marketing tool is the recommendations of others just like us. The same is true of career paths and discretionary effort. Find people like Sleepy who have chosen a better path and present them, or their stories, as models.


  1. Create an autonomy supportive environment.

Dairy workers might not have a great deal of choice in what they do. (The cows seem to be in charge much of the time.) But, as the boss, what can you do to diminish any sense of powerlessness? Could there be discretion in how, when and with who the work gets done?


  1. Map out a path to increased mastery.

An ever-upwardly developing balance between skill and challenge is a fundamental need of the human mind. The alternative is boredom and apathy. How can you provide some, but not too much, incremental challenge and skill development for Sleepy, even if it is seemingly beyond their current role?


  1. Connect to their future selves.

Studies using clever computer-generated imagery show that people will save more for their retirement when an older version of themselves advise them to. A powerful influencer to give up smoking is to be there for your grandkids. If, like Sleepy’s boss, you can get them not just thinking about but feeling beyond tomorrow, you can nudge them towards doing more than they have to today. The way to do that is by asking them and providing examples of others, like them, who have gone on to great things.


Ultimately there is no one-right-way to deal with employees like Sleepy. It depends and, no doubt, some trial and error will be needed. There will be fewer trials and fewer errors if you can team up with some experienced advisors using an established and proven accountability model.

As you’re giving these tips a try, just console yourself that dealing with a Sleepy is preferable to dealing with a Dopey or a Grumpy.