Want Engaged Employees? Set Conditions That Make Them Really Want to Engage

Have you heard the management joke: “The beatings will continue until morale improves?”

Sadly, according to much recent research, it seems this approach is no longer a joke.

Research reported in the Huffington Post points out:

Americans are working longer and harder hours than ever before. Eighty-three percent of workers say they’re stressed about their jobs, nearly 50 percent say work-related stress is interfering with their sleep, and 60 percent use their smartphones to check in with work outside of normal working hours. It’s no wonder that only 13 percent of employees worldwide feel engaged in their occupation…

“The modern work world is a ‘broken and antiquated system,’ according to Anne-Marie Slaughter, author of Unfinished Business: Men Women Work Family. ‘For many Americans, life has become all competition all the time,’ Slaughter wrote in a September New York Times opinion piece, A Toxic Work World. ‘Workers across the socioeconomic spectrum … have stories about toiling 12- to 16-hour days (often without overtime pay) and experiencing anxiety attacks and exhaustion. Public health experts have begun talking about stress as an epidemic.'”

Most U.S. workers are still not engaged

And Gallup’s latest employee engagement numbers remain stagnant:

Engaged employees are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work. Gallup’s extensive research shows that employee engagement is strongly connected to business outcomes essential to an organization’s financial success, such as productivity, profitability and customer engagement. Engaged employees support the innovation, growth and revenue that their companies need.

Yet, most U.S. workers continue to fall into the not engaged category. These employees are not hostile or disruptive. They show up and kill time, doing the minimum required with little extra effort to go out of their way for customers. They are less vigilant, more likely to miss work and change jobs when new opportunities arise. They are thinking about lunch or their next break. Not engaged employees are either “checked out” or attempting to get their job done with little or no management support.”

This stagnation of employee engagement is not an error of research or an implication that pursuing increased employee engagement is pointless, as some have implicated in recent months. No, the error lies in how we are pursuing employee engagement.

Setting conditions for employees to engage

Yes, employee engagement is a two-way street. Employees must themselves choose to engage in the work, but employers must also offer conditions in which employees would want to engage. That’s where we’ve fallen down.

Even the Forbes article I just referenced in opposition to engagement efforts shared a story of employees being told to “engage with the company mission” while in the midst of repeated layoffs and a CEO under investigation for malfeasance.

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What must change? It’s time to go back to basics.

Why should employees choose to engage in the organization’s greater mission, purpose, and goals and give additional discretionary effort to achieve them if:

  1. Compensation is not equal to market rates or is insufficient to cover basic living needs. Returning to Maslow, base needs for safety, security and sustenance must be met first. Appropriate and fair compensation must be the solid foundation upon which further engagement efforts are built.
  2. The work environment is itself unsupportive or downright abusive. Employees are not cogs in a machine. They are humans. And humans over time tend to give back on the order that they are given. (See Adam Grant’s excellent book, Give and Take.) Supportive work environments led by people of integrity with their own personal sense of mission engender the desire to give more, too.
  3. Essential human needs of rest, restoration and the ability to meet the needs of the whole person are ignored. Coming full circle to the first article referenced, we can all give great effort in spurts. But we are also built to need periods of recuperation. Today’s work seems built more for a constant high level of stress. We must now work to ensure full rest is taken (in the form of vacation) as well as less stressful but equally important job assignments are interwoven into the overall work world.

These steps can help us not only engage our employees but avoid the workplace recently parodied in The Onion: Boss Wants Friendly, Relaxed Company Culture in Place by Friday.

This was originally published at the Compensation Café blog, where you can find a daily dose of caffeinated conversation on everything compensation.

Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their company culture. As the Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek helps clients — including some of world’s most admired companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Intuit, KPMG, and Thomson Reuters — leverage recognition strategies and best practices to better manage company culture, elevate employee engagement, increase retention, and improve the bottom line. He's also a renowned speaker and co-author of Winning with a Culture of Recognition. Contact him at irvine@globoforce.com.

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