← IC Matters · Best Practice

How to End Your Employee Engagement Problem

Lawri WilliamsonLawri Williamson·

I first ran across Gallup’s “State of the American Workplace” report in 2013, and distinctly remember the disgust I felt as I read it.

Until that moment, I had assumed I was an anomaly—an individual who’d had the misfortune of landing at several of a small handful of poorly run companies in existence. I didn’t think it possible that an economic force like the U.S. could be loaded with businesses that weren’t putting their best foot forward.

At that moment, I realized I wasn’t an anomaly. I was the norm.

It’s 2018, and Gallup is still reporting the same dismal numbers: About 30% of workers identify as engaged, while the other 70% either sleepwalk through the day, doing the bare minimum, or actively look for ways to sabotage their employers in some way.

Why is this happening?

The source of the problem is glaringly obvious to me, for the simple reason that I’ve had a lot of experience being an employee, and I’m a rational, thoughtful person. In companies where there is a serious engagement problem, one of two mindsets is steering the company culture:

  1. The head-in-sand mindset, a.k.a., “What engagement problem? We make our numbers every quarter. We’re fine.”
  2. The gimmicks-solve-everything mindset, which might express itself as either “We have an employee engagement platform, we’ll be fine,” “We just need a different engagement platform,” or “We run an annual employee satisfaction survey.”

C-suite, this is your wake-up call

You were smart enough to rise to the upper echelons of leadership, so you should be able to see the problem for what it is and understand the importance of solving it. It’s time to ditch the “I just need to make my quarterly numbers” tunnel vision, and examine the big picture.

If you want to be an actual leader, you have to think long-term—as in decades, not quarters. You have to care more about the overall health of your company than you do about whether or not you’ll get your annual bonus. And you have to have vision.

But here’s the kicker: The only way to manifest that vision is to lead a team of people who:

  • Respect you
  • Care about producing quality work
  • Share your vision, and want to be part of the team that brings it to fruition.

In other words, they have to be engaged.

The secret to employee engagement

It’s so easy to engage employees that I find it baffling as to why the problem even exists. You don’t need to take a class, read a book, or buy a platform to do it. All you have to do is treat your employees with humanity, empathy, and respect. You give it to them, and they’ll give it back to you.

Not convinced? Let’s look at the difference from the employee perspective.

The disengaged employee

This employee does not feel respected at work. As you can imagine, someone who feels like this isn’t going to happily skip through the front door each day, so he’ll avoid coming to work whenever possible.

When he does manage to drag himself in, he’s apt to feel like making any type of effort isn’t worth the stress.

He’s so beaten down by obstacles—broken processes, uncooperative teammates, managers that treat him like a child rather than as an experienced professional—that he has no fight left.

Or he’s been told time and again that his efforts aren’t appreciated. You’ll have to ask a lot of difficult questions and listen to the painful answers if you want to get at the root of the problem.

Whatever that problem is, for him, it makes the work not worth the misery. So, he’ll do just enough of it to ensure he gets his annual pay increase, and not a shred more.

Big red flag: If this employee has a customer-facing role, he will treat customers the way he feels he is treated. On good days, he will be pleasant to interact with. On bad days, you’ll lose customers.

Here’s the scariest part: Based on those Gallup reports, the above description fits 70% of your workforce. (If you’re making your quarterly numbers with a staff comprising people like this, imagine what you could accomplish if they were engaged.)

The engaged employee

This employee is in a whole different league. She:

  • Feels valued and respected at the office, so she’s happy to get there each day.
  • Thinks about her job outside of working hours, looking for ways to add value, because she is personally invested in the company’s success.
  • Empathizes with customers. She doesn’t merely provide service, she builds relationships.
  • Actively looks to recruit other quality people.

In case it’s not obvious from the above description, you want more than 30% of your team functioning this way, and here’s why:

  • Engaged employees give more of themselves—more of their time, more of their intellect, more of their effort.
  • Feeling relaxed and welcome at work frees them up to think strategically and creatively, which means they are better equipped to problem-solve.
  • People who enjoy their work help to create an enjoyable workplace. In this environment, cooperation flourishes.
  • They treat customers with empathy and respect because they get the same from you. They are grateful for how they are treated, and delight in paying it forward.
  • They reach beyond the bounds of their job description (for you number crunchers, this means they do more work than you pay them to do!)
  • They help you build a strong brand, both as a service provider and as an employer.

Fortune’s “Best Places to Work” weren’t built in a day

A cultural turnaround takes commitment. You have to accept that it’s an ongoing process and that there is no finish line. Once you start the process, you have to see it through.

You can start strong by coaching your managers to understand and embrace the idea of respecting their direct reports as people first, and employees second. When hiring and promoting managers, focus less on the quantity of experience, and instead look for people with a mentoring mindset. And always lead by example! You can’t tell managers to be empathetic without showing them empathy.

Once this philosophy takes hold within your organization, you will see and feel a positive difference in the culture—happier people, fewer attendance issues, lower turnover, more loyal customers.

If you have an employee engagement program in place, leave it be while you focus on rebuilding your culture. Once a change is underway, relaunch your program to your now-more-receptive workforce, maybe with a little fanfare. At that point, an incentive program can inject additional excitement into the culture, and help deepen the engagement that is already present.


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