Is employee detachment an alternative to employee engagement?


Employee engagement is the latest fad in organizational culture/HR world.

Engagement is loosely defined, in this NYT article, “Why you hate work” as “involvement, commitment, passion, enthusiasm, focused effort and energy.”

Researchers have confirmed an obvious point: engaged employees improve companies’ bottom lines. For this reason, companies want get all their employees engaged.

However, engaged employees are rare. A 2012 Gallup survey found that, world-wide, only 13% of employees are engaged in their work. 63% are disengaged, and 24% are are actively disengaged, meaning not only are the employees unhappy, they bring down the people around them.

Businesses saw these statistics and thought, “Oh my God, if I can get my disengaged employees to become more engaged, we can dominate the market! They’ll put in more hours, be more creative, and we won’t even have to pay them more!”

This thinking has been responsible for countless office parties, team building exercises, the development of corporate values and mission statements, etc.

While some of these initiatives might lead to some improvements (I usually enjoy the free booze at company-sponsored happy hours), most fail. And some fail hard. The movie Office Space captured this perfectly with their “pieces of flare” scene.

The fatal flaw in these employee engagement efforts is that organizations believe they can reverse engineer engagement. They believe there is some magical combination of incentives, feedback, camaraderie, and mission statements that will get employees to like what they do.

This hasn’t been my experience.

Any project that I’ve done where I’ve felt “engaged” has not been because a manager somehow motivated me to do it. Consider The Ancient Wisdom Project.

After several months of ruminating about philosophy and religion, I came up with the idea to explore ancient wisdom on my own because I found it fascinating. I sought out feedback from people I respect (thanks Cal!) who helped me refine the project. I did my research, came up with a plan, and followed through. I do the work on my own time without compensation, but the potential for future rewards helps keep me motivated. My skills and knowledge are improving (I hope). I am getting some recognition for my work (thank you readers!) which is very rewarding. Finally, I feel like this project is important, at the very least for myself, but potentially for others as well.

The key point is that all this happened organically. I had an interest, followed through on my interest, and increased my engagement the more I developed the project.

I suspect that the 13% employees who are engaged in their work will share a similar story. I doubt they can pinpoint a specific engagement initiative that their company implemented that turned them from a disengaged employee to an engaged one. It’s more likely that they happened to find something interesting to work on at their job, and followed their interest, which then produced good results which led to recognition which led to more engagement, etc.

So while I think companies should continue implementing a few “best practices,” like encouraging managers to consistently providing feedback, not over-working employees, and providing comfortable working conditions, they should accept that they can’t force engagement to happen.

The other unintended side effect of promoting employee engagement is that employees will begin to believe that there is something wrong if they don’t feel passionate about their job. Non-engagement is perceived as a symptom that something is deeply wrong with their lives. This will lead to compulsive searching for the perfect job or escapist fantasies about building a passive-income business and living in Bali (Note: moving to Bali is my current escapist fantasy).

So what’s the alternative to promoting employee engagement?

Let’s see what the Gita has to say:

Arjuna becomes disengaged

The Gita is the story of a young prince and warrior, Arjuna, who is caught in a war between two families with rival claims to the throne. He is having an existential crisis, due to the fact that he may literally have to kill his family members.

Arjuna: O Krishna, I see my own relations here anxious to fight, and my limbs grow weak; my mouth is dry, my body shakes, and my hair is standing on end. My skin burns, and the bow Gandiva has slipped from my hand. I am unable to stand; my mind seems to be whirling. These signs bode evil for us. I do not see that any good can come from killing our relations in battle.

Fortunately, most of us will never have to be put in such a difficult situation. However, we will often disagree the direction our companies are moving in, or be asked to do something ethically unsound. In this sense, we are not so different from Arjuna.

His despair is so great that he feels its better than he is killed than to go to war with his family.

Arjuna: It is said that those whose family dharma has been destroyed dwell in hell. This is a great sin! We are prepared to kill our own relations out of greed for the pleasures of a kingdom. Better for me if the sons of Dhritarashtra, weapons in hand, were to attack me in battle and kill me unarmed and unresisting. 

We’ve all had those moments, or even long periods of time, where we think we should just leave our jobs, for the thought of staying is too difficult to bear. Arjuna prefers death over his continuing to perform his responsibilities as a warrior.

This is an extreme case of “disengagement” that can’t be solved by a new company mission statement or a happy hour.

Krishna makes the case for detachment and duty

Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer and an incarnate of the god Vishnu, encourages Krishna to pick up his bow and arrow and fulfill his duty.

A typical manager trying to motivate his employee might try flattery (you are valuable to the company) or bribery (if you do this project we will give you a raise and a bonus) or threats (if you don’t do this you are fired.)

Krishna doesn’t spout out bumper sticker motivational quotes. Instead, he makes a much deeper point about the nature of reality.

The impermanent has no reality; reality lies in the eternal. Those who have seen the boundary between these two have attained the end of all knowledge. Realize that which pervades the universe and is indestructible; no power can affect this unchanging, imperishable reality. The body is mortal, but that which dwells in the body is immortal and immeasurable. Therefore, Arjuna, fight in this battle.

One believes he is the slayer, another believes he is the slain. Both are ignorant; there is neither slayer nor slain. You were never born; you will never die. You have never changed; you can never change. Unborn, eternal, immutable, immemorial, you do not die when the body dies. Realizing that which is indestructible, eternal, unborn, and unchanging, how can you slay or cause another to slay?

Everything that we perceive in this world doesn’t last. Everyone will die (at least their body will die). The only thing that is permanent is “that which dwells in the body,” or the soul.

Let’s apply this to our work life. It’s unlikely that our companies will last forever. Our co-workers won’t work there forever. Projects won’t last forever. Everything is impermanent. To expect that our work will have a lasting impact on the world is silly. It would be like building a sand-castle and expecting it to survive for eternity.

It’s hard to imagine a CEO motivating his employees with the idea that ultimately, the company doesn’t matter.

But if this is true, and our actions don’t matter, then non-action also shouldn’t matter. Therefore, not doing our work is the same as doing our work.

Krishna disagrees. He tells Krishna he must perform his duty as a warrior and fight. He has already established that the consequences of his duty (the death of hs family) is irrelevant, because there is a deeper reality in which they will exist after death.

However, he now adds the caveat that not only should Krishna perform his duty, he should do it selflessly. He is describing the path of “karma yoga.”

One who shirks action does not attain freedom; no one can gain perfection by abstaining from work. Indeed, there is no one who rests for even an instant; all creatures are driven to action by their own nature.

Those who abstain from action while allowing the mind to dwell on sensual pleasure cannot be called sincere spiritual aspirants. But they excel who control their senses through the mind, using them for selfless service.

Fulfill all your duties; action is better than inaction. Even to maintain your body, Arjuna, you are obliged to act. Selfish action imprisons the world. Act selflessly, without any thought of personal profit.


We spend an incredible amount of time thinking about our desires, mostly the unmet desires. At work, we are disturbed by our desire for more money, interesting projects, and friendlier bosses and co-workers. We let our emotions become dictated by our desires.

But what happens when we train ourselves to be free of our desires? What are the benefits to doing so?

The wise, ever satisfied, have abandoned all external supports. Their security is unaffected by the results of their action; even while acting, they really do nothing at all. Free from expectations and from all sense of possession, with mind and body firmly controlled by the Self, they do not incur sin by the performance of physical action.

They live in freedom who have gone beyond the dualities of life. Competing with no one, they are alike in success and failure and content with whatever comes to them. They are free, without selfish attachments; their minds are fixed in knowledge. They perform all work in the spirit of service, and their karma is dissolved.

Performing selfless action leads to freedom: freedom from anxiety and the expectation of results.

What percent of our worries come from trying to meet other’s expectations? Or even your own? What it would it feel like to be free from those pressures?

Modernity only advocates one path to freedom: the accumulation of wealth.

It could be through a passive-income business, or it could be through saving a ton of money and retiring at 30. The solution is still money.

Maybe money works. But until we get enough of it, we’ll have to try an alternative strategy. Perhaps Krishna is onto something with his detachment and selfless service combination.

But what would be the more immediate result of becoming detached from results and performing selfless duty?

The potential impact of encouraging detachment and duty at work

Consider companies that pride themselves on being “results oriented.” Employees that don’t get results will likely be fired, and employees that do are rewarded.

This can lead to a culture in which employees strive not to achieve amazing results, but rather, avoid negative ones. They will go for tried and true solutions, or solutions that won’t get them into trouble with their boss. Creative employees who want to try something new will eventually become discouraged and disengaged if their ideas are consistently rejected. Then, the company will wonder why these creative employees are not engaged with their work and launch an engagement initiative to get the employee to be excited about their work again.

But let’s say the company, instead, has been teaching employees the concepts of detachment and karma yoga. They have given out free copies of the Bhagavad Gita and employees have actually read it.

The disengaged employees might stop worrying about the petty rivalries, the failed projects, and the lost promotion.

They become less likely to quit (at least for those reasons) because they embrace the notion of duty. Or at least, they’re less likely to do poor work while they look for another job.

They begin to speak up at meetings, advocating for their ideas without being concerned about whether their ideas or embraced or are rejected. They propose risky solutions that if implemented and failed, might get them fired. But they also propose some solutions that work and move the company forward.

They also begin to develop good relationships with their co-workers, because they are now performing their work in the service of others.

In the end, the disengaged employees are less unhappy about their lot, if not fully engaged. The company is getting better results because the actively disengaged lot is not bringing down the other employees, and they’re getting fresh ideas from the workforce.

Detachment, paradoxically, may lead to engagement.

It’s a “win-win.”

Final thoughts

I’m skeptical that any company can actually get their employees to embrace detachment. If a company did embrace these concepts, I suspect they will be abused: “We need you to come in this weekend. It’s your duty” or “We’ve decided to move forward with the safe solution. Don’t get too attached to your idea.”

But for you, as an employee (assuming you are one), embracing detachment and duty may be far more effective in ensuring job satisfaction then thinking you need to be engaged by your job. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t find a job or career that does make you happy, but it will help you get through the frustrations your current job or any future job you take.