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.

  • heathen

    1 – You’ll can never make everyene happy, but you can make them afraid to tell you they’re unhappy, except on anonymous surveys.

    2 – Measurement of engagement is a false premise, like the squre-root of -1, its a theoretical construct. The regular groans I’ve witnessed about even having to complete an engagement survey (or being compelled to in certain cases) tells me that Employee Engagement is deeply imperfect science.

    3 – Senior managers in the organisations I’ve worked in have shared their engagement results but their interpretation of the data has been so obtuse as to be irrelevant e.g. seeing that only(!) 15% of staff are not proud to work in the organisation and would never encourage others to join, as a positive view, rather than something deeply concerning.

    4 – Senior managers say they want to hear ideas from every level of the organisation, but in my experience this is only lip-service as they often is no route for rank-and-file employees to communicate with the senior levels.

    5 – an organisation lives and dies by its core business and while team-building exercises are fun they normaly mean a subsequent catch up period for all participating staff, especially the lower grades.

    In my opinion Employee engagement is a collective delusion. A myth, that all staff are encouraged to pay lip service to, but no-one or at least very few people actually believe in private. Stacked rankings that include workplace behaviours, only foster the growth of this ongoing culture of collective lying.

    My rule of thumb is that anyone who says that sort of thing publicly *and* privately is deranged or delusional or both.

    “Oh of course I’m engaged and I take pride in the company and I work outside my comfort zone to liaise with my stakeholders.”

    It’s in the same category of lunacy as anyone who regularly says they are “passionate about change”. Either they’re lying to me or to themselves or both. Either way they’re to be avoided. To me it is deeply concerning, that that this sort of facade, has now made its way into political speak on either side of the spectrum.

    Senior leaders seem unaware of this and have bought into the culture of relentless, enforced, staff engagement. When a new CEO took over my company and immediately announced his “vision” (a recognised senior mangement approach, sadly). All of my co-workers thought it was as hilarious as it was irrelevent. But of course no-one expressed this view to management, as this would be “negative thinking”.

    • heathen, excellent observations.

      1. Happiness is a diversion.
      2. Don’t directly measure engagement by asking employees if they are engaged. In fact, don’t bother measuring employee engagement but rather measure the results.
      3. Poor managers often draw poor conclusions even from good data.
      4. Most senior managers can talk the talk but few can walk the talk. Too many managers are in the wrong jobs for the wrong reasons.
      5. If we want team players, then we ought to hire team players.
      Stacked rankings is a poor management practice since there will always be a top 20% and a bottom 20%.

      Few leaders/managers ever address their own failures.

      People get to be managers because they were very good at doing the work of the people they will manage or they earned management degrees neither of which insures job success as a manager.

      As managers moves up the career ladder they focus on what they had focused on to get them there. Once at the top they focus on what they are interested in doing. That may be what got them to the top but may not be what they need to do. However, who is to tell the boss he is focusing on the wrong things? Even if he is told who can influence him to change his focus?

      Leaders often ask the wrong questions such as…
      * Do you know what I mean?

      * Do you know what I want?

      * Do you know what I said?

      * Do you know what I want you to do?

      * Do you know what is required?

      All such questions presume the listener knows but is that reasonable? No, because the answers are almost always “yes”; no one wants to tell the boss that they don’t know what he just said, means, wants, etc. The problem and the fix resides with the boss, too many leaders and managers speak too quickly. People hear what they hear and remember what they remember but all too often what they remember is not what was said or only part of what was said or was not said at all.

      • heathen

        Interestingly, I once began a project to find a way to get the bad news through to senior management. Its a little studied but fascinating area of organisational study. If staff are afraid to share the bad news for of being seen as incompetent or negative (or both), then the most senior managers will never get a true picture of the front-line business.

        To their credit, the few Senior management I did broach the subject with were actually very interested.

        Sadly middle management blocked the project as they felt it wasn’t core business, or relevant. I was taken aside and literally asked “Why are you doing this?”

        I moved sideways from that business area at the first opportunity.

        • Hello again heathen, sorry for the six month wait.

          In January 1991 I started an Executive MBA. Within a month I learned how to calculate overhead and its impact on the employer. I verified my thoughts with the Accounting Professor and the Marketing Professor. Both Professors thought I was kidding when I told them my company president always said, “Don’t take jobs with an overhead rate lower than our current overhead rate.” I presented what I had learned to my department manager, who was a member of the board of directors, in a two-page memo. He read it and said, “I’m glad you shared this with me since the Board is discussing taking a project with a lower overhead rate that we currently have.” With that one memo my employer received a return on investment far in excess of their minimum ROI for my tuition reimbursement.

          I then visited another senior director and said, “Bob, you are a much better business man today that you were two weeks ago,” He laughed but was confused. I reminded him that the company president always told my fellow associates, “Don’t take jobs with an overhead rate lower than our current overhead rate.” He smiled and said, “We tried years ago to explain it to him but he just couldn’t get it.”

          Lesson to be learned, good engineers often make bad managers and even worse executives.

          • heathen

            At least you managed to get through to someone!

            And on the subject of stacked rankings, a colleague has just emailed me to say they’ve received a negative end of year marking from their manager. This is an employee who was the main drive and organiser of a large project that permanently resolved a potential critical failure on an IT system.

            Their manager has put them in the bottom 20% because they yawned in a meeting, and this was “unprofessional”.

            i doubt this will encourage more staff engagement.