Why Your Employee Engagement Tactics are Destined to Fail

engagement failure

Organizational leaders and HR professionals love tossing around the word engagement. They’re quite fond of saying things like “we need to increase our employee engagement” or “let’s do an annual survey!” or “what’s the budget for employee engagement activities?” (more on that later). We can’t fault them; the engagement industry is a bajillion dollar cottage industry loaded with HR tech solution providers, pundits and ‘thought leaders.’

Over the years however when I’ve asked leaders/HR folks “what specifically do you mean when you say these things?” they’ve usually been unable to provide an answer. (Hint: use of buzzwords does not equal strategy and successfully tossing a word-salad does not improve outcomes).

To avoid being doomed to failure, here are five issues to tackle before launching the next-great-initiative:

Issue 1: You lack a definition of “engagement”

Part of the reason is there is no common definition of engagement; it will, in fact, vary from company to company. At some organizations it means emotional commitment, It may refer to employees who care about both their own work performance and the organization. It may mean discretionary effort; employees who go-the-extra-mile. It may be as simple as “engagement at Acme Corporation means that our employees give a shit.”

Issue 2: You haven’t defined the “why”

Saying we have a focus on increasing engagement (which most of us haven’t even defined as listed above!) sounds sexy. For HR people it’s way more fun to talk about engagement as opposed to EEOC claims or employee benefits. Often missing though is the “why” – and again, this will be unique and specific to an organization.

Why is the organization focusing on this? Is it to create a better work environment? Promote trust? Increase collaboration? Drive revenue? Cut costs? It’s critical to articulate the purpose in order to fully determine if there are any realized results from the time and effort put forth.

Issue 3: You have no means/methods to measure and monitor

If you’re like lots of other organizations you run an annual survey, gather a lot of data points, slice-and-dice it (“tsk tsk; they sure have some low engagement in the warehouse!”), craft action plans, and assign a bunch of goals to Department leaders. You have monthly (maybe quarterly) meetings, talk about what activities have happened or programs have been implemented and hope and pray that 12 months from now you’ve moved the needle in an upward direction.

But are you measuring the right things? Are you reviewing the data appropriately and comparing apples to apples? Is, for example, engagement so low in the warehouse because the turnover for those jobs is 70%? What will happen next year, come survey time, when 2/3’s of the employees being surveyed are brand new?

Issue 4: You really don’t want to do the hard work

Here comes the hard part – fixing the problems. What actually has to be done to achieve engagement (however you’ve defined it) nirvana? You’ve asked the right questions (ideally) and gotten answers from employees…so now what are you going to do about it? I worked with an organization with very low (abysmal actually) pay and benefits; compensation was most assuredly, at that company, a primary driver of poor engagement.

Survey after survey, year after year, the same responses were loud and clear: “I work here because it’s close to home but I can’t survive much longer on this low pay. I just want to come in and get through my shift.”  Yet, even though this was number 1 (year after year) there was no intent to do the hard work to fix it.

Rather, as is quite common, the leaders and corporate HR team decided the answer was more “stuff and fluff.” They upped the $$ in the “engagement” budget (literally a line item in the HR Department budget) in order to purchase t-shirts in March, increase the food offerings at the annual picnic in June, and purchase fancy service award pins. Stuff and fluff.

Issue 5: You’ve decided it’s an HR issue

While the HR team may be the architects of the over-all initiatives and planning, they don’t “own” engagement. They aren’t solely responsible for improving engagement scores. (Would you believe I’ve spoken with HR Leaders who have “increase engagement scores by xx% year-over-year” as part of their performance/bonus plan while none of the managers/executives do? That’s absurd).

Any work (and it might very well be hard work) is owned across the organization with the need to do some heavy lifting firmly in the domain of managers/supervisors. As my very wise friend Paul Hebert has said “most engagement problems exist in the three feet of air between an employee and their manager.”

Train and involve your managers and then hold them accountable; they will make or break any efforts at improvement. This is not an HR program; this belongs to everyone.

Checklist for success

  1. Define engagement for your company
  2. Define why engagement is important
  3. Measure and monitor
  4. Do the hard work
  5. Remember: managers matter

You can do it!


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