Employees: Are they just numbers to you?

As a leader in your company - have you ever arrived at a company town hall meeting full of expectations for discussions around your organization’s strategy and future direction only to hear an employee say, “We’re just numbers to you”? 

You might have hoped to engage everyone in the room behind your vision, but hearing a statement like that saps a leader’s enthusiasm in an instant.

If this sounds familiar, you can bet that employee, and probably many of their colleagues, feel they’re being treated like resources instead of people. They might experience their work as boring and repetitive, or feel that the company isn’t interested in them beyond what they can produce. They don’t feel fully engaged in what they’re doing or, for that matter, what the company is doing.


The roots of employee disengagement.

Extensive polling by the Gallup organization has identified that only 15 percent of employees in the United States feel actively engaged in their work. And somewhere between 50 to 75 percent are disengaged.

Scary, right?


If the equipment we used to make a product only worked a quarter of the time - or even half the time - a business would literally stop the presses and have all of their engineers on-site working to find the root of the problem. But many organizations carry on with the most expensive and critical part of their operation functioning at half capacity or less.

Why is that?


The source of this problem is often structural and entirely unintentional: no leader actually wants their employees to feel this way. But organizational blind spots can lead to this outcome.

Perhaps your HR department reports to the CFO. Structurally, this reflects a company philosophy that leadership considers people a cost to be managed. If your business is one where “labor” is categorized very traditionally as a variable expense, then people have literally become accounted for by the company in a manner equivalent to your other materials that make up COGS. This isn’t the intent, but it is the result.

Looking at people as a cost to be minimized, simplified, or even optimized, i.e., “How can I get more productivity out of this person during the eight hours I’m paying them?” causes immediate personnel disengagement and starts a downward spiral. Gone are any valuable cultural points that have motivated them to pursue your company’s goals to this point.



Institute a growth mindset.

Repairing this rift requires the implementation of a growth mindset. To get there, the employees must be able to see and feel the organization’s growth mindset toward them as individuals. A company with a growth mindset has three components:

  1. Make work interesting
  2. Engage the whole person
  3. People are not a cost, they’re an investment

Make work interesting.

Companies are able to become agile, grow, and scale by systematizing their operations. By defining “the way” things get done in each area of the organization, a company removes uncertainty, speeds up its processes, and increases the confidence and autonomy of its people. Efficient processes by nature limit variability. And, as much as some of us may enjoy routine and predictability, removing variability from our work also removes what makes that job interesting to humans. Repetitive and boring work can quickly sap the willpower and spirit of even your most enthusiastic employees.


While we want to ensure that the kind of variability that derails processes isn’t reintroduced, we can introduce aspects of the job that keep a day’s work interesting and engaging for human beings. A few very straightforward ways to do that are:

  • Ownership around problem-solving
  • Participation in setting direction
  • Building buy-in on methods
  • Soliciting input on materials and equipment
  • Work rotation programs
  • Cross-training on other functions
  • Collaborative scheduling


Engage the whole person.

In order for an employee to tolerate spending more time at work than they do with their own family–as many of us do–we have to feel fully engaged. A great deal has been written about “employee engagement” over the years. At Wayforward, we think most of it is fluffy crap. 

Employee engagement boils down to a few simple concepts. 

Does the person have a strong belief in what they’re doing? And does the person have a strong belief that their company truly values them as an individual part of that goal?


First and foremost, it’s important to note employees in a workforce that includes a diversity of backgrounds and identities based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or a number of other communities of characteristic, should feel welcome, seen, and celebrated. If employees feel like they need to check a part of themselves at the door when they arrive at work, they’re never going to fully engage or feel like a true part of the organization.

Once a company has met that prerequisite for being a decent place to work, they can move on to the real work for engagement.

An organization needs to develop an emotional connection with its employees. Employees’ perception of the level of empathy their employer has for their personal lives, and the amount of trust an employee has in the organization when it’s needed, is a direct result of that emotional connection.

We’ve written on the topic of Faith and Trust as currency between employer and employee. This is key to the emotional connection necessary here.

Not only must an employer forge trust between themselves and their people, they must also build an emotional connection between an employee and the mission of the company. This is where the third key component of fully engaged employees comes in.


People are not a cost, they are an investment.

Investments build over time. They compound. And the investment in your people is not their salary and benefits. Anyone can pay people a competitive wage. That’s just the baseline. In fact, you probably wouldn’t have read this far if just paying people well was enough to get them fully invested in your business’s goals. So your gut already tells you there’s more to it than a paycheck. Realizing that is half the battle.


For an emotional connection to exist between your company’s goal and your company’s employees, it requires employees to have two things, working in tandem: a deep understanding of your organization and its goals and clarity of their role now and in the future.


Deep organizational understanding.

Employers must take extra time, care, and attention in discussions with employees to ensure a thorough understanding of the long-term goals of the organization, how the leadership team plans to get them there, and several other more tangible items.


Foster a strong understanding of the product or service you provide in all employees–especially new ones. And that goes beyond your process. Discussions should include helping them understand your customers/end-users and what is important to them; the market and competitive forces at play; the history of your business; and the science behind what you do. Formal, early, and ongoing education on these topics will show that you expect your employees to think, not simply work.


Clarity of roles, now and in the future.

Giving employees a heaping helping of clarity around what their role contributes to the organization is key. This is an intellectual exercise for the organization that identifies what the employee is accountable for and how it contributes to the end goal. Each individual employee should intimately know and be able to explain what KPI they keep on track, and how they do it. Clarity at this level will also breed cross-clarity across different positions, departments, and processes.


This clarity of purpose and goals should also extend into the future. What is the employee working toward if they’re committed to a future with the organization? How does the company plan to develop them toward that future state? What must they be accountable for to the company? And what commitments must the company uphold to the employee in the future? 

These are largely not financial efforts on the part of an employer, but they do require dedication of leadership time and resources to champion and ensure they’re followed through on.

If you have questions or you’d like more information on employee engagement, schedule a consult with Wayforward.

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This article was originally published in Forbes on January 20, 2022.

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