Talent Management

Despite Your Best Efforts, Why Aren’t Your Employees More Engaged?

Illustration by istockphoto.com

By David Lee and Jacob Schneid

Despite millions of words written and millions of dollars spent on improving employee engagement, the needle has barely budged over the years.

From Gallup’s State of the American Workplace:

While the state of the U.S. economy has changed substantially since 2000, the state of the American workplace has not. Currently, 30 percent of the U.S. workforce is engaged in their work, and the ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees is roughly 2- to-1, meaning that the vast majority of U.S. workers (70 percent) are not reaching their full potential — a problem that has significant implications for the economy and the individual performance of American companies. Gallup’s research shows that employee engagement remains flat when left unmanaged.”

Engagement drops with tenure

Added to this rather dismal acknowledgement is the rather telling survey result reported in Driving Business Results through Continuous Engagement, published by Watson Wyatt in 2009:

Engagement declines with tenure. Engagement drops 9 percent after the first six months and continues to drop after that. Overall, the engagement score for the typical new hire — on board for six months or less — is more than 11 percent higher than for the typical employee with longer tenure. (pg. 8)”

When combined, this research speaks to a stark reality that most employees have themselves experienced: the flames of excitement, initiative, and “How can I help?” that burn brightly in new hires are soon extinguished by a work experience that leaves the majority (70 percent) trudging through the day, making the best of a tolerable situation, and living for the weekends.

How and why have we failed, after all the expense and effort brought to bear on an issue that affects the quality and quantity of employee output and the economic value they create?

This article won’t attempt to identify all the flaws in how we typically approach employee engagement.

An individual experience

Instead, we will address what we see as the primary foundational flaw, which is that most organizations ignore the reality that:

Engagement is NOT a one-size-fits-all experience; It is an INDIVIDUAL experience

Research has repeatedly shown that within any organization, engagement levels often vary widely across departments, divisions, or sites. If you reflect on your own work experience, you have probably worked in organizations that had pockets of discontent and pockets of high morale. Discontent can exist even in good organizations, as can oases of high morale and engagement exist in toxic organizations.

Because engagement is individually-driven, aggregated results from organization-wide surveys do not give a full or accurate picture.

More importantly though, even local engagement measures—and the factors that affect those measures — are still too generic to provide managers with actionable information that will enable them to bring out the best in each individual employee.

Take yourself for example. It doesn’t matter if the majority of your co-workers feel like they have “all the resources they need to do their job well,” if you don’t. If you constantly struggle to obtain the resources you need to do your job well, you are not going to have the same feeling about your job as they do, nor will you be as productive as you could be.

Thus, the inadequacy of aggregated engagement information to assist in engaging people is not solely due to varying engagement levels across an organization’s units.

Aggregated engagement information also does not enable a manager to identify the unique mix of needs, intrinsic motivators, and de-energizers that affect each individual employee’s level of engagement and performance. Those have to be tuned into, and acted upon, for each individual employee, if you want to move the engagement needle.

Thus, successfully addressing employee engagement requires focusing on the individual employee and their manager, not just aggregated results.

Maximizing Engagement: Start playing Chess

The importance of focusing our engagement efforts at the individual level is further supported by what Marcus Buckingham, co-author of First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, identified as the key difference between managers who get great results from their people and those who don’t: “Average managers play checkers, while great managers play chess.”

Because every piece in checkers is the same and operates by the same rule, a one-size-fits-all approach to moving pieces works with checkers. This is obviously not the case with chess. Each piece has its own “rules of engagement” and ways of optimizing their role. The same is true with employees.

While average managers use a one-size-fits-all approach to managing, great managers customize their approach to each employee’s unique personality, strengths, interests, motivators, and de-energizers.

Great managers, on the other hand, customize their approach to each employee’s unique personality, strengths, interests, motivators, and de-energizers.

Great managers know that what works with one employee might not work with another. They understand the importance of customizing their approach to best fit each individual’s specific motivational mix. Because of this customization, great managers enjoy higher engagement and greater productivity.

Great managers reflect the strategy that makes customer service exemplars like Ritz Carlton best-in-class. Ritz Carlton is an expert at learning from each guest what they need for them to be delighted.

They understand that no two guests are alike in the combination and prioritization of needs and desires that determine their satisfaction. Knowing how to identify and satisfy each guest’s unique set of needs and desires enables them to be best-in-class.

The same holds true when it comes to creating a work experience that brings out the best in each employee.

Want better engagement? Get specific with information

If you want the benefits of increased employee engagement, stop acting like you’re dealing with a crowd scene of extras in a movie, and treat each employee/manager relationship as the co-stars they are. Stop relying solely on aggregated information and start collecting more granular, specific “individual employee and their manager” information that provides your managers with the information they need to bring out the best in each member of their team.

In the next article in this series,  we will outline some practical strategies and techniques for gathering that important information, so your managers CAN customize their approach — so they can play chess instead of checkers.

Jacob Schneid has 30 years’ experience as a trainer, coach and consultant in individual, work unit, and organizational improvement. His consulting practice, The Momentum Group, focuses on employee performance improvement and organizational measurement. He is a dynamic coach and trainer and has provided coaching to people ranging from executives to employees and trained various audiences on a wide variety of topics. He has had a career-long interest in employee motivation and strengthening employee-manager relationships. As an outgrowth of this interest, he has developed a unique tool for improving the engagement of individual employees which has been successfully used in several leading Canadian companies.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 60 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at david@humannatureatwork.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/humannaturework.
  • Larry Wenger

    It just depends on those “best efforts”. Building employee engagement is not just an idea; its a network of behaviors. What we know is that engaged employees are more productive and do a better job of meeting customer needs. Happy employees = happy customers. For 20 specific suggestions to build employee engagement, check out: http://www.amazon.com/Employee-Centered-Management-Coming-Revolution-Services/dp/1493623729/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1409273852&sr=8-1&keywords=Larry+Wenger

  • David Hunt, PE

    Maybe it’s because employees understand they are “expendable assets” and subject to the whims of upper management?
    You want loyalty from an employee, you need to give it first.
    You want commitment to the company’s goals from an employee, you need to be committed to the employee first.
    And so on.

    • Kim Blu

      Very True!

      I am an employee, I want to be an asset to my company.
      Every time we turn around, the “goals” change, the “rules” change,.
      It’s as though management doesn’t know what they want from us or where we are going it’s so frustrating.

      • David Hunt, PE

        I will opine here, but whipsaw management is a sign of desperation. Changing course rapid-fire like this means there’s no coherence, no vision, and no stick-to-it-iveness.
        Yes, an organization needs to be flexible; the environment changes and organizations need to adapt to that.