Gallup does a monthly poll on the business buzzword "Engagement" - a measure of people actually working instead of going through the motions. Last month it was 32%, which means almost 70% of everybody in America is phoning it in.

This is easily the single most disturbing and least addressed statistic in business, largely because CEOs see research like Gallup's, and rationalize away this stunning data with statements like, "Whadda ya gonna do? Everyone has the same problem. It's just human nature."

Except they don't, and it isn't.

I can point to many dozens of very large corporations and thousands of smaller ones that have much closer to 100% engagement year after year, decade after decade. Yes, the sample size is a small percentage, but it's too many companies over too many decades to excuse them as anomalies; one-offs that either got lucky or have exceptional circumstances. The data shows every single company in the world could be there if they did one thing differently. And it's a very simple thing; it's just not easy.

For five years a client of mine who operates an extremely successful and large real estate staging company (we highlighted them a couple years ago in Inc.) had struggled to get their logistics crew of fifteen inventory pullers, packers and drivers to up their game. Everything they tried, including hiring people at much higher rates, produced dismal results.

It's Not Them. It's Us.

They were very discouraged with the logistics staff, but we broke the hard news with them - there was nothing wrong with their staff. The issue was the "Whadda ya gonna do?", mindset that has been a problem for as long as people have worked for other people.

We had a tough conversation that didn't focus on under-performing people, but on underestimating them. Every time we've seen a malaise of under-performance, with no exception, it is directly related to what we believe and expect of people; how motivated we believe they are or aren't, how much we believe they will care or won't', how much WE BELIEVE they are ready and willing to take initiative and responsibility - or not. And that's the problem. Until we believe the best of people, and require that they live up to their best, we're likely to have 70% phoning it in.

Here's just two measures of how under-performing staff were hurting the staging company.

1) Each job could easily be done by one truck in one trip - out and back; done. But 69% of those jobs required a second and sometimes even a third trip to get something they forgot. It was costing the company thousands of dollars a week in lost production and frustrated clients.

2) People would regularly call in the day before they didn't come in, or worse yet, the day of, with flimsy excuses. That, too, cost untold money and disruption in scheduling.

There were a lot of other problems - people distracted in meetings, eating on company time, and even theft. The leadership was deeply concerned but felt they would just have to live with at least some of this - it was their expectation. And that again, was the problem.

People will raise themselves to our lowest expectation of them.

Changing The Expectation

From early in my childhood I was regularly told I was dumb, or, "The dumbest kid alive", and queried with, "How dumb can you be?" Most of it was actually in jest, but I took it on board as the gospel. Turns out the answer was that I could be pretty dumb. I graduated at the bottom of my class and joined the army because I was pretty sure no one else would ever hire me. I started my first modest little company while in the army and began to see that maybe I had something to offer, changed the expectation, and off I went, starting ten businesses in seven industries on three continents.

David Marquet took over the worst rated submarine in the US Navy and in one year turned it into the best rated sub in the Navy. And here's the kicker - he did it with the same 134 people who had made it the worst. He did it by changing the crew's expectation from, "Do what you're told" to, "No more followers - we're all leaders now. You lead me in your area of expertise and I'll lead you in mine." Than he pushed decision-making to the levels at which they would have to be carried out.

He couldn't have done that without having a very different expectation of what those 134 people were capable of than his predecessor. It was his mindset about them that changed everything about the way they performed. He believed they could be great, and they all raised themselves to his highest expectation of them.

Stunning Results

Back to our staging company friends. They're still working through this - a long way to go, but here's three encouraging and radical data shifts since they decided to raise the bar a few months ago:

1) Unnecessary trips to completion have gone from 69% to 8-10% monthly, saving thousands of dollars weekly.

2) Not a single person has called in and excused themselves from work with flimsy excuses since the leadership changed their mindset about what to expect - not one.

3) They've reduced their warehouse and logistics staff from fifteen to eight, and those eight highly "engaged" people get more done than the fifteen used to.

By the way, they also created meaningful incentives and peer reviews, and turned all their staff into capitalists, which helped make the game interesting. They didn't just "expect more".

You get what you expect, not what you hope for.

What you expect is everything. On a scale of one to ten, most companies function from three to eight - "Whadda ya gonna do? It's just human nature." But without fail, companies that make the simple, dramatic shift to function from eight to ten, create environments where people accept the challenge and step up.

Play an adult's game, and adults come to play. Jack Dorsey (CEO Twitter and Square) says that one of his main responsibilities is to constantly raise the bar. Raise your bar, make sure there is something in it for them, and watch what happens.

What do you expect? That people are highly motivated and want to do well? Or - people will only do so much as to not get fired? Whichever one you believe, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Changing out your staff isn't the solution. Your belief in people, or lack of it, and the expectations that follow are the problem, or the solution. You get to choose.

As Yoda said, "Choose wisely."