A hard-to-detect but potentially harmful section of the workforce is currently occupying more than one fifth of the UK’s team positions, according to a recent report from Ashridge at Hult International Business School. 
In a study of 195 participants in 28 teams across seven industries, Ashridge researchers identified four ‘zones’ of employee engagement: Disengagement, Contentment, Pseudo-Engagement and Engagement.
Comprising 21% of the study sample, pseudo-engaged teams pose particularly daunting challenges to organisational leadership, as their problems are not immediately clear.
“To their organisations,” the report says, “these teams appear highly engaged. However, when studied in detail, a range of team dysfunctions are apparent. The climate in pseudo-engaged teams could be described as Machiavellian. With low levels of trust and cohesion, team members are ‘out for themselves’. They are proactive but to serve their own needs – for example, by stretching the workload to fill time.”
It notes: “Team members may be engaged individually. However, they do not pull together as a team. There is little evidence of collegiality or support for one another. Team leaders in pseudo-engaged teams may be proactive in giving feedback, but it is often the negatives that are pointed out.”
Indeed, the report points out: “Pseudo-engaged teams are merely a collection of individuals who happen to work together.” They are also typified by a tendency for team members to manage upwards in a particularly fawning, self-promotional fashion. “In pseudo-engaged teams,” the report says, “an illusion of engagement is presented, whereby team members say the right things in order to get into their manager’s ‘good books’.
“Some team members pretend to be motivated because that is what their team leader wants to hear. In turn, team leaders in pseudo-engaged teams are more interested in integrating themselves to senior management in support of their own career as opposed to being available for their own team.”
Speaking to BBC News, research lead Dr Amy Armstrong described the findings as “quite a depressing picture”. 
What can leaders do to tackle pseudo-engagement in their organisations?
The Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “To me, the Ashridge findings are unsurprising in light of how we reward people. We have manager-to-employee appraisals. We have one-to-ones. We have performance-related pay based around a wholly individualised concept of outputs and achievements. We have bonuses, awarded on similar criteria. We are, to all intents and purposes, wedded to this clutch of motivational tools.”
On a wider level, Cooper argues, this malaise stems from certain aspects of the education system. “We have exams geared towards measuring the individual absorption of knowledge,” she says. “We are obsessed with plagiarism – to an extent that feels overtly hostile towards knowledge sharing. And when graduates leave university with their first-class honours degrees, which they own totally themselves, they are pushed into the work environment – and employers end up telling organisations like us that these people don’t really ‘get’ teamwork.”
Cooper notes: “Our current educational trend of a return to exams and a steady phasing out of coursework – because exams are held to provide more robust and rigorous metrics – is unlikely to improve matters. It’s a highly individually driven rewards system. So we shouldn’t be surprised that, when people enter the workplace, they will replicate and continue these behaviours. I can speak from my own time of working in a university that group work is only rarely the most important part of an assessment. When group work is present, it tends not to have the same weight as individual work. AMBA-rated MBAs, for example, have a formula that enforces a certain proportion of individual exams.
“With all that in mind,” she suggests, “locating the consequent behaviour as Machiavellian and inauthentic is perhaps a little harsh. Individualistic societies – as defined by Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner  – are bound to encourage these attitudes and ways of being. If we start rewarding people for the extent to which they are helping others, that could have a dramatic impact upon the prominence of more collaborative and collectivist behaviours. Perhaps you are rewarded for your efforts to bring in specialised, new recruits to handle particularly difficult tasks? Or the nature of your reward depends upon the behaviour of somebody else? That would provide you with a tangible interest in thinking about what your colleagues need.”
Cooper adds: “We must also remember that it’s not all about financial rewards. There’s a huge potential role for basic recognition and praise at team level, so we’re not singling people out all the time. Whenever we are singling employees out for individual praise and recognition, we must consider the people who are not getting those responses, and think about why that is the case. The ones who are left behind always get a stronger message than those who get the ‘Well done’. In the final analysis, if we reward pseudo-engagement, we will get pseudo-engagement.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on collaboration
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