July 31, 2013
5 Reasons Employee Engagement Programs Fail

The latest State of the American Workplace report from Gallup tells us once again that only about 30% of Americans are engaged at work. The number of disengaged workers costs the U.S. $450 billion to $550 billion per year.

This engagement crisis is the same story we’ve been hearing for over a decade, yet most organizations still fail in their efforts to increase the commitment of their workers. Why?

Based on my own journey from bad boss to Best Place to Work award winner, and on my reviews of hundreds of case studies, these are the most common reasons executives’ employee engagement efforts fail:

1. They confuse engagement with happy.

Often engagement initiatives crater in the C-suite because senior executives don’t know what employee engagement is. They may confuse it with nice but “soft” efforts to make employees “happy.”

Engagement is the emotional commitment one feels to their organization, and to the organization’s goals. When engaged, employees give discretionary effort—the secret sauce to gains in productivity, sales and ultimately profits.

2. They don’t think engagement can be measured.

Even some notable business gurus were quoted recently as saying, “Don’t try to measure engagement or you’ll kill it.” Or you can’t measure engagement, but you know it when you see it.

To the contrary, HR consultancies from Gallup to Kenexa have found ways to measures proxies of engagement. Measurement is the first step in managing better outcomes.

3. They measure it but don’t share results.

Typically, when an engagement survey is completed, the results are scrutinized by the C-level executives and the HR professionals. Rarely are all the results shared throughout the company. Only when individual managers get their own team scores can transformation occur.

4. All the ideas for improvement come from the top.

Related to No. 3 above, senior execs often work as a council of wise men and women, brainstorming better benefits or new award programs for the whole company. The secret to engagement is that it comes from the relationships front line managers have with their direct reports. Only action planning at the individual team level will generate the ideas that will move the needle.

5. They think it’s about picnics and parties.

Unfortunately, top-down ideas typically include things like summer picnics, dress down Fridays and Employee of the Month awards. The true drivers of engagement are growth, recognition, trust and communication. While people might feel “happier” during the time of a party, only a true change in their daily and weekly work experience will make them feel emotionally connected to their organization.

The employee engagement crisis has gone on long enough. All organizations that strive for excellence should implement an annual measurement survey, share the results down to the front-line managers, and insist on team-level action planning to move the scores in the right direction.

Kevin Kruse is a NY Times bestselling author, speaker and serial entrepreneur. His latest book is Employee Engagement for Everyone.

Kevin Kruse
Kevin Kruse built and lead several multi-million dollar tech companies, winning Inc 500 and Best Place to Work awards along the way. Kevin is also a regular leadership columnist on Forbes, as well as the author of several books including NY Times bestseller, We: How to Increase Performance and Profits Through Full Engagement, and his latest, Employee Engagement For Everyone.

Other Articles by Kevin Kruse:

Are You Engaged At Work? The Importance Of Employee Friendships

Leadership Secrets From Yum! Brands CEO

6 Ways To Get People To Open Up At Work

How To Promote Healthy Conflict On Your Team

4 Steps To A Clear, Powerful Brand Promise

Values Based Leadership At Luck Companies

Millennials And The Fifth Age Of Work

Here's How To MINT New Ideas

How To Make Culture Your Co-Founder

No Office, No Boss, No Email: A Look At

  • Ilene Fischer

    The culture of business that stems from the industrial age of hierarchy,command and control, the soul crushing conditions in the work place are driving the lack of engagement in the work place.
    Many of us have become entrepreneurs because we are committed to expressing what we are passion about at work. Until organizations can tap into the passion people have for what they are doing and shift their cultures and ways of operating we will continue to disengaged workers .

    Ilene Fischer CEO

    • Gianluigi Cuccureddu

      Great insight Ilene!

  • Dennis Drent

    I think another reason they fail is CEO’s become overly focused on the engagement survey score versus engagement – sometimes to the point of using engagment survey scores in performance evaluations. You can imagine the creative ways middle managers will encourage their staffs to rate their personal engagement as high in the annual survey. The message is clear that a price will be paid for a low team score that reflects badly on the manager. The CEO is then puzzled because the engagement score has improved so significantly but nothing has changed.

    • Meg Ward

      It should never be about ‘scoring’ people – when people feel they are about to be judged, their interest in looking good will affect their ability to let go of the outcomes, i.e. the essential ingredient ‘trust’ will go out of the window! It takes courage and confidence to hand over power and decision-making to others (therefore improving engagement) and an awareness of being scored/judged on results will reduce that courage.

  • Jill Ransome

    Annual surveys are not enough…Continuous, multi-channel and inclusive, feedback (incorporating event driven components) can really take your overall engagement strategy to new levels. If you give your customers & employees the opportunity to give feedback…also actively listen and respond.

    QuestBack technology helps organizations to communicate with individuals ‘en masse’ (personalized without jeopardizing anonymity requirement) or on an individual basis.

  • Barry Jones

    Firstly I agree with the 5 reasons mentioned and Dennis’ comment about the focus of senior leadership on the score rather than meaningful angagement. Engagement surveys, particularly in large organisations I have been part of, have been too long in content and operation and especially too long in communication to teams. By the time the information has been cascaded, it has been 4-5 months since the survey was conducted, let along engaging teams on initiatives which take several months to come to fruition because everyone has their direct job responsibilities.

    My suggestion is keep them simple and run through small teams at a time to focus on the line leader and team feedback. I also suggest a 360 degree approach so the team can receive feedback from their key stakeholders and customers so the leaders and team can make real changes linked to values and behaviours.

    Thinking Human Resources will be happy to outline some worthwhile resources in this area.

  • Bob Bennett

    “The secret to engagement is that it comes from the relationships front line managers have with their direct reports.”

    Great point. You need to talk to your employees and managers themselves to figure out what makes people tick and what gets them excited to come to work every day. The C-suite can hypothesize but the average employee knows.

  • Robert Gately

    Thanks Kevin,

    Employee engagement is the reward organizations get for having all their executives, managers, supervisors, and employees doing their jobs well.

    Start at the top and make sure everyone does their job well

    The hierarchy of happiness and job success;

    #1. Employers prefer to have happy employees who are successful.
    #2. Employers prefer to have unhappy employees who are successful.
    #3. Employers prefer not to have happy employees who are unsuccessful.
    #4. Employers prefer not to have unhappy employees who are unsuccessful.

    It is obvious that job success trumps employee happiness.

    The lack of happiness is not misery and the lack of misery is not happiness.

    It is far easier to change our own behaviors than to change other people’s behaviors and changing our own behaviors is nearly impossible for most of us without wanting to change and without help. Telling and insisting that others change is a fools errand and a cause of employee disengagement.

  • Mutual Force

    Big problem with annual surveys is that action never follows after a survey. Employees become more dis-engaged. Also the feedback lacks any context and without resource intensive follow ups and meetings, the feedback is not actionable. Other problem is that managers are already busy with their regular job and consider any action to be extra work. There is no incentive for them to action on this feedback.

    To address these issues, we have introduced a next generation employee engagement and leadership development platform called Pulse. Learn more here.