Decline of the Employee Engagement Empire

Estimates peg the amount of money spent conducting surveys, doing action plans and marshalling resources around the concept of employee engagement in the $720 million USD range in North America. Yet the number of disengaged employees is on the rise.

Forbes recently showcased a study by Aon Hewitt that revealed employee engagement dipped for the first time since 2012. The 2017 Trends in Global Employee Engagement Report, which involved some five million employees at more than 1,000 organizations around the world, “showed that less than one quarter of employees are highly engaged and 39% are moderately engaged. In a single year, employee engagement globally dropped from 65% in 2015 to 63% in 2016.” According to the same research, writes author Ryan Scott, “a five-point increase in employee engagement is linked to a three-point increase in revenue growth in the subsequent year. When engagement levels drop, the opposite happens: the study cites consequences such as higher turnover, steeper absenteeism, lower customer satisfaction, and ultimately, poor financial performance.”

Statistics reported in are just as jarring. Seventy percent of American employees report being disengaged at work and three out of four are currently looking for a new job or are open to new opportunities.

What’s going on?

Straight up, most of us are working on the wrong things. When management teams get a first look at survey results they typically zero in on highly unfavorable scores – not infrequently compensation and communication – rather than focus on what it is that really drives people. We’re spinning our wheels by bogging down on what employees feel worst about as opposed to what engages people most. In turn employees become frustrated because if anything gets done it’s focused on the wrong things. Engagement stalls, the number of disengaged employees climbs.

The Fundamental Secret

Best in class organizations with low numbers of disengaged employees do things differently. They focus on the most important drivers of engagement: leadership, management, meaningful work and professional growth. They put their efforts, resources, their time and their measurement into what’s important as opposed to what’s going wrong.

Meaningful Work and Professional Growth

The expectation that someone who joins an organization will climb the corporate ladder, becoming a supervisor, then a manager, then a director, then a vice president – that’s going, going, gone. The entrance of millennials into the market has forced organizations to take a different view in terms of how careers are developed and how performance is managed.

Lattice pathways are a very different trending approach to career development. It’s about providing meaningful work and personal growth experiences through exposure to the organization from different departments and different functions via lateral moves, task force participation, and temporary assignments. It’s also about giving frequent feedback.

Performance versus Career Management

One of the key differences between organizations with high numbers of disengaged employees verses those with high engagement scores is how performance is managed. Taboo today is the use of standard performance appraisals. In organizations with rising numbers of disengagement, employees and managers convene for an annual conversation that’s arduous; they look at strengths and weaknesses, what’s been done wrong, whether expectations have been met, and conclude the process with some sort of numerical rating.

Career management, on the other hand, focuses the conversation on future aspirations. Where do employees want to be in two or three years? How can the organization help them get there? Rather than having an intimidating conversation that’s often negative, it’s about what’s needed to get to the next level. Again, millennials are driving these kinds of future career pathing conversations.

Leadership and Management

By far leadership and management are the two most weighty factors that can engage or disengage employees.

No longer is the good leader somebody who gets the report done on time, who presents the best strategic plan to the board; those behaviors are valued by other leaders. Connection is valued by employees. When leadership isn’t contributing to engagement it’s because: “they’re not approachable, we never see them, they don’t understand what we’re going through.”

Connecting can be a town hall meeting. But it’s those little things: sitting down with a group of employees for an impromptu cup of coffee in the cafeteria, or saying “hi, how are your kids?” in the elevator, that connects with employees and humanizes leadership. In two words: visibility and approachability are the fundamental differences between a leadership team that’s held in high regard and therefore engages employees versus those who don’t.

On the management side, employees engage with bosses that:

  • Sets clear goals and expectations
  • Train and coach staff individually
  • Lead by example
  • Trust staff with tasks
  • Empower decision-making, but remain informed
  • Communicate openly
  • Recognize talents and reinforces value to organization
  • Provide constructive feedback, informal and formal
  • Encourage knowledge sharing beyond “silos”/actively discourage knowledge hoarding
  • Encourage staff to offer new ideas
  • Keep staff informed and provide a window on “the big picture”.

Poor management practices, on the other hand, aggravate and disengage employees. Employee engagement surveys point out when managers are engaging in these types of undesirable behaviors:

  • Expect staff to learn by doing (i.e. on their own)
  • Say one thing, do another – act inconsistently
  • Tell staff “how” to do tasks/micromanage
  • Believe they will always do a better job than staff
  • Believe that “no news is good news” – positive feedback not required
  • Only provide negative feedback
  • Enforce status quo: “we’ve always done it that way”
  • Feel privileged by being in the “inner circle” and share little information.

Just as the visible, approachable leader makes the difference between having an engaged organization and a disengaged one; the same is true of managers that demonstrably empathize and care about each person on their team. TalentMap data backs this up loud and clear. For those organizations where employees believe their manager cares for them as a person, engagement among those who agree/strongly agree is 90 percent. Engagement among those who don’t believe that, is 55 percent. When you see high percentages of disengaged employees, you know it’s time to pay attention.

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