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  • Writer's pictureJohn Hightower

/ Paddlers, Passengers, Pirates


John Hightower


In a recent Gallup study, I learned that almost 66% of employees are “passively or actively disengaged with work.” As a business leader, I found it hard to believe that only one in three employees were engaged with their work in a meaningful way. When I think about people daily reflecting on their workday, two out of three people either responded “Meh -- it was okay,” or worse, “It was awful.”

So, I started asking crazy, curious questions. I do that a lot. Here’s what was going through my mind: can leaders do better -- do they have the ability? Can we engage our teams in meaningful ways? Do our teams have the desire to think about work in different ways? Can we turn the ship so-to-speak? What could it look like for an organization to work differently?

When considering the infinite complexity of people in our organization, it helps to recast where I believe each team member is in more simple terms. I use an easy-to-remember metaphor and place each person into one of three groups. When grouping, I think about how each person is helping accomplish our team’s vision (or not)....

Paddlers, passengers, and pirates.


/ 13% of the US Employees are in this category

Did you like pirates growing up? I certainly did. As an adult who enjoyed the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean, I always root for Captain Jack Sparrow. But not all pirates had the same level of benevolence as Captain Jack. In fact, in most cases, the word “pirate” conjures up thoughts of villains, looting or nomads.

When thinking about our employees, I classify pirates as employees who are actively pushing back on the work to be done to help the organization succeed. These employees unhelpfully challenge the direction of the team or company. They consciously or unconsciously fuel dissention and conflict on their teams.

I’ve read that “pirates” make up about 13% of the US workforce. Most managers know the pirates on their team and pirates can hold the organization hostage if we don’t have critical conversations allowing for growth to change the tone and posture.


/ 53% of employees are attributed to this Persona

Our next crew member is a passenger. Passengers make-up about 53% of the US workforce. Passengers have some “swash buckling” traits. They tend to move back and forth in a few different areas across the organization.

These employees are probably satisfied with their jobs. However, they are not cognitively and emotionally connected to their work or the organization’s vision. Passengers show up to work, meet the minimum requirements and may jump ship for a better offer at the first sight of organizational challenges.


/ Per Gallup 34% of US employee are in this category

The third group are paddlers. Paddlers are aligned with the vision and work hard to help accomplish it -- they create energy and help propel the organization forward. Paddlers are encouragers, they deliver on time, they drive innovation, they serve others.

It’s important to understand that paddlers fuel momentum for your organization. They are able to lead teams - even lead their associates across departments. Paddlers understand and believe in the vision of your organization and help others see how they fit into that vision.

Paddlers understand healthy culture. They watch leaders carefully. Paddlers are on high alert to see how you are coaching pirates and passengers. They notice if you are willing to have critical conversations.

Check back next week and we'll unpack these profiles a bit more.


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