Is Employee Engagement Possible?

This post is my second reprint.  I wrote the first post in 2009.

They didn’t come here that way. When people come to this company, they are eager to contribute. We make them this way.

This response was made by an Executive at a company I once worked. It was based on my observation of employees. It took me about four months to realize something was out of kilter. On the surface, employees appeared to be contributing. As time passed, I concluded that they were simply collecting a paycheck and doing just enough to get by.

Before long, I was struggling to stay engaged. One of the principles I live by is to find purpose and meaning in my life's work. I want all of me to show up on an assignment - body, soul, and spirit. I am not interested in merely doing tasks without being "all in". However, so many workers are doing exactly that. In the book Ten Thousand Horses by John Stahl-Wert and Ken Jennings, the authors cite research by the Gallup Organization that only 29 percent of workers are engaged. The rest "essentially sleepwalk through the day, meeting only your baseline expectations, or in worst cases they're actively working to undermine your company's  performance" (p.xii).

So why did employees disengage? I have determined four main reasons:

  1. Lack of trust in leadership. Those in leadership roles had consistently said one thing and done another. (Stahl-Wert and Jennings deem trust as the most important component. Everything else that is done hinges on a relationship of trust).

  2. Lack of a viable plan. There was no clear mission and any plans that were established were done so by managers with no team collaboration. Employees felt unappreciated in their roles. They had no voice.

  3. Lack of accountability. Employees' performance was not tied to team goals and company goals. Employees never really knew how they were performing. They didn't know if they needed improvement or whether they were performing well. Promotions were based on arbitrary, non-measurable criteria.

  4. Lack of concern for employees. This was subtle but true. The organization as a whole was the priority, but the employees themselves could have been widgets or robots as long as the work got done. Leadership never took the time to get to know anyone on a personal level.

Ideally, leaders should be held accountable for worker disengagement. Ironically, leaders often mete out punishment for the symptoms of disengagement. It may be time to take a good hard look in the mirror. If you are a leader, are you contributing to employee disengagement at your organization?

Update

Gallup began tracking Engagement in the year 2000.

Engagement: Only Slight Improvements Since 2000

Engagement: Only Slight Improvements Since 2000

Here are recent articles about the topic:

The good news is that leaders have attempted to solve the problem. However, an article in Harvard Business Review highlights how much has been spent with very little success. What's the answer to creating more engaged employees? Gallup offers advice on creating engagement every day. An article in the Huffington Post details 11 Things You Should Do To Skyrocket Your Employee Engagement.

Obviously, there are no quick and easy answers. The best advice is to be intentional and offer continuous coaching and learning experiences at every stage of the employee life cycle. We can build meaningful organizations for future generations.