The Five Barriers to Employee Engagement

Last year, close to a billion US dollars was spent on employee engagement around the world. If we’re spending all this money, shouldn’t we be getting better? Sadly not. Data shows engagement seems to be flatlining at best. Why? Reasons are outlined in “Translating Employee Engagement Research into Practice,” a 2017 paper authored by Alan M. Saks, Professor of Human Resources Management at the University of Toronto. Here’re a brief synopsis of the five barriers.

Definition Barriers

Most people don’t really understand the concept. What it means. And more importantly what it means within their organization.

Many if not most accept the definition provided to them by their software or survey partner. Many others simply adopt something they find on the web. However, spending tons of money on an ill-defined concept you don’t really understand, without really knowing where you want to improve, is the first barrier to moving the needle in employee engagement.

As Saks explains, “getting the definition right is fundamental, as everything else that follows is dependent on how it is defined. Therefore, an organization needs to consider the various definitions and then choose one that is acceptable to its members.”

Focus Barriers

Next to truly understanding employee engagement within the context of your organization, a major barrier that’s often overlooked is to know what focus your organization wants to measure and improve.

In the insurance industry where operation overheads are significant, efficiencies and processes are central factors. In retail banking and credit union environments, the natural focus is on improving employee engagement in the customer experience to win greater wallet share.

For the most part, hospital surgeons are engaged with their jobs and the task of surgery. Data and field research show the majority are not, however, particularly engaged with the hospitals where they work. Conversely, in the not-for-profit sector, people are easily engaged with their organizations. Many are motivated by personal reasons (a family member or friend struggling with cancer, or dementia…). But then they find themselves hired into a position like fundraising, a job they don’t really like.

“Organizations that measure job engagement when the problem is organization engagement will not only fail to properly diagnose organization engagement, but their subsequent actions are not likely to be effective for improving organization engagement,” – Saks

Therefore, organizations need to determine the focus and what it is they want to measure and improve.

Failure to overcome this barrier will lead to additional problems when it comes to measuring and driving engagement.

Measurement Barriers

Measuring employee engagement is the third improvement barrier Saks discusses in his paper. Akin to myriad engagement definitions, there’s a potpourri of measure options to confound organizations. Take your pick.

Where to start? Back at the beginning. Measurements should be aligned with your organization’s definition alongside the types of engagement your organization chooses as its focus. This congruence sets up survey content validity.

Asking the right questions comes from having the right definition which feeds into the right focus, which guides the right measures. If your focus is on employee innovation you’re going to ask questions very different from the kinds of questions asked to find drivers for improving organizational connection.

You can adapt items (or questions) to reflect your definition and focus. Saks suggests “this might involve changing the wording of specific items…or prefacing engagement questions with a statement that tells employees what to be thinking about when answering each question.”

Driver Barriers

Another major barrier for organizations is figuring out how to drive employee engagement. That’s where an employee survey plays its biggest role. Have you properly defined engagement as it relates to your organization? – check. Have you clearly focused-in on the areas where your organization wants to improve? – check. Have you selected a series of measurements that align with your definition and focus? – check.

The employee engagement survey susses out levels across different drivers — factors like work environment, innovation, leadership, and personal growth — and highlights the relationships between them. It gives the necessary information to decide what drivers need to be improved and points to what resources, demands, and processes are most strongly related to each area of engagement.

Strategic Barriers

The fifth major reason behind slowed or stagnating engagement is how we strategically and purposefully integrate it into all other activities in our organizations (or don’t).

This is not a stand-alone initiative it’s the development of “an organization-wide engagement strategy that results in substantive, enduring changes to employee engagement,” Sak’s concludes.

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