The Failure of Employee Engagement…Until Now (Maybe)

“We just got our numbers — and they’re up! We are happily surprised because we thought our engagement numbers would go down, but that didn’t happen.” 

I’ve been hearing this refrain from senior HR leaders over the summer as their periodic engagement survey results roll in. Some of these leaders are from companies that have furloughed employees, reduced hours, cut wages and salaries, and generally asked that their people make real and significant sacrifices. Some have even laid people off permanently.

So why are their engagement numbers heading up? In a pandemic, no less.

The answer is simple but often overlooked: Even when things are tough and the news is bad — and sometimes especially when the news is bad — employees engage when they feel genuinely cared for by leadership. When workers see that wellbeing and fulfillment are central to leader and manager decisions, it shows up in engagement numbers.

Failed Approaches to Engagement

In the early “war for talent” years of the 2000s, the predominant management mindset was centered on attracting and retaining the best people while extracting the most value. This deeply transactional approach was then aligned with goals set by executive leadership that cascaded down. The integrated talent management system became the transaction processing center of this model. 

We know this model failed when we realized that all this incredible talent was woefully disengaged. So, during the 2010s, we created a new set of transactions to make the workplace “a best place to work” and try to coax more discretionary effort from employees. These efforts also largely failed, as evidenced by the lack of impact on engagement numbers.

Next, we turned to math. We created pulse surveys and dashboards to dig deep into the employee experience, trying to surface the many and myriad “drivers” that impact employee engagement. Just a year ago, we were all awash in employee experience discussions focused on how to digest numbers and graphs to design, deliver, and optimize an ever better work experience for employees. 

The logic was sound enough. Then 2020 came and changed everything. 

Giving Up the War for Talent, Answering the Call to Care

“Our executives used to be fairly removed from employees’ day-to-day experience, with communication focused on policy and corporate vision. Once COVID-19 hit, communications shifted in both quantity and quality to a focus on people. It really helped our employees manage through uncertainty.” 

This quote from a leader I spoke with captures the shared sentiment of many leaders who have seen their engagement numbers improve during this challenging period. It turns out that a crisis response that focused on employee care naturally brought to the surface the employee wellbeing and fulfillment that the prior 20 years of programs failed to capture. 

Genuine care has been the key all along. And COVID-19 helped many leaders find it.

But what now?

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I fear many companies — even those that have experienced this “care effect” — may not recognize its importance. We are now, unfortunately, in a period where the signs of regression to past behaviors are on the rise as companies have already started to lose their early COVID-19 engagement gains. Gallup reported that in mid-May, 51% of employees agreed their companies cared about their wellbeing. By mid-June, that number had fallen to 42% — a nearly 20% plunge in just one month.

Now’s the time to take hold of the lesson and build a permanent foundation of care into your business so that you can finally solve the engagement puzzle — not just during a crisis, but always and forever.

3 Keys to Answering the Call for Care

Most leaders genuinely care about their people in principle. But there is an execution problem. Engagement, after all, is marked by a commitment and energy that clearly point to a complex and meaningful psychological experience at work. Yet very few companies take advantage of the established psychological science that’s available for putting care into action to enable engagement to emerge.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is the best starting place because it’s the model that’s been the most rigorously tested and scientifically verified. Equally important, it’s a practical roadmap for care with a proven track record, having been tested and proved not only for wellbeing and engagement but also for cultural health and business performance. SDT outlines for all organizations the three basic psychological needs that are crucial to wellbeing:

  1. Autonomy. Our basic need to personally value and endorse what we’re doing. Even in highly structured work, autonomy can be fulfilled by not feeling controlled or pressured.
  2. Mastery. The need to be effective today and seeing a path for growth and enrichment in the future. People have a natural desire to succeed, but many common work practices and cultural norms block it. 
  3. Relatedness. This is our need to have a meaningful connection with others and a shared sense of belonging. Do we matter to those around us, and do we feel a sense of support from them? If so, our relatedness needs will be met at work.

This framework will enable you to put employee wellbeing at the center of your corporate brand and make it a cornerstone to explicitly embody everywhere in your organization. Start with this science to build a strong foundation, and build your culture atop it. Then watch engagement and fulfillment grow.

Monitor. Respond. Repeat.

Alongside this strategic framework for care, we also must continuously listen and respond to what our employees need. The last few months have reminded us that change is often unexpected and dramatic. That’s why sustaining a culture of care demands that you have systems to listen to and respond continuously.

By integrating quantitative measures of these three basic needs and how well they are being met and supported, we can leverage the proven science of wellbeing into our HR practices and finally give it the heart it deserves. This in turn can help us take the actions to continuously care for employees and build resilience for our people and our companies. 

Dr. Scott Rigby is an author, behavioral scientist, and founder of motivationWorks, a company that applies behavioral science to organizations to build engagement and wellbeing. Scott is a leading authority on predictive measurement of motivation and engagement, and the application of proven interventions to improve organizational culture.

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