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Fixing employee engagement requires engaging employees

August 10, 2016 Robin Camarote

Low employee engagement statistics are frozen in place and not likely to thaw anytime soon. A recent study concluded that two out of every three employees are either not engaged or actively disengaged with their work.

What frustrates employees and managers alike is that few organizations are taking action to alter this trend. With numbers like these, it seems we’ve reached the point of accepting low employee engagement as the norm and not the exception.

Unlike other work problems that grow unchecked, the constant hum of discontent has made government and business leaders increasingly apathetic. It seems that low employee engagement simply doesn’t register on the scale of urgent problems because of the belief that it’s “just the way it is.” The symptoms are subtle, which makes them all the more challenging to identify, isolate and address. Most leaders will say employee engagement is an important issue, but their inaction speaks louder than their canned talking points.

Let’s take a look at the problem

For leaders attempting to fix this, the solution for addressing low employee engagement can sometimes exacerbate the problem. Traditional approaches often entail a generic survey, a quick analysis, the assembly of a senior working group, behind-the-scenes speculation and finally a PowerPoint presentation with a long list of recommendations.

  1. The first problem with this approach is that fixing employee engagement becomes another thing on top of an already full plate. Efforts are started and stopped –often multiple times–because leaders come and go or more pressing problems arise.
  2. The second issue is that the solutions are developed in isolation. They all sound good in the sterile lab of a conference room, but aren’t tested or verified with employees. Beyond filling out an online survey, employees aren’t engaged in solving the problem of employee engagement.

If recommendations are implemented, it’s often the easy, low-cost ones that are done first. Rarely do organizations make it all the way down the list to the more difficult action items because the early wins start to feel “good enough.” Until changes are engrained in the organization’s culture, new initiatives are fragile.

To make matters worse, when organizations fail to see progress in annual surveys, many leaders choose to give up completely. Behind closed doors they’ll acknowledge that they wish engagement was higher, but feel powerless to change something amorphous that doesn’t neatly fit into the organization’s strategic goals.

A new approach

We know that low productivity resulting from poor employee engagement is expensive and wasteful. We know that engagement is important to advance average organizations into ones that are high-performing. However, engagement is critical for other reasons as well. According to research done by CEB and reported in the Harvard Business Review, organizations with high employee engagement get through tough times faster and with less distractions. Complaints go down and turnover is reduced.

For leaders looking to start or reinvigorate efforts gone cold, here’s an alternative, human-centered approach. Engagement strategies are more effective when built from grassroots-level foundations.

As employee engagement is inherently local, a human-centered approach begins by outlining the issues:

  1. Begin by reviewing engagement surveys and other data (such as exit interviews) to identify risk areas and opportunities to improve engagement.
  2. Work directly with employees to develop actionable, practical steps for increasing engagement tied to specific business outcomes.
  3. Make funding available to support at least one of the recommendations. Make spending completely transparent.
  4. Plan for regular check-ins with employees to get a first-hand sense of how well new initiatives are working.

In conclusion, all of the frequently-cited reasons for low employee engagement such as a negative working environment, inconsistent performance management processes, limited or non-existent recognition of good work and a lack of connection to other employees are, of course, true. As employees continue to distance themselves from their work, productivity is lost, which causes the organization’s mission and customers to suffer. The expense and wasted resources of failed employee engagement programs bother those who insist that there must be a better way. Organizations need an approach to increase employee engagement that offers a better return on the time and money invested.