3 reasons employee engagement numbers are flat

Register now

Benefit professionals have been talking about employee engagement for decades. However, recent studies from Gallup and Aon Hewitt find workers becoming less committed to their employer's values and success -- even though organizations are spending more on tools and services to boost their engagement metrics. Why?

1. The theory of employee engagement is flawed

The theory of employee engagement is that highly engaged employees produce better work product. In other words, organizations have bought into the idea that engagement causes great work. But what if that isn’t the case?

A recent study released by the O.C. Tanner Institute provides evidence that it is actually great work that causes employee engagement, and not the other way around. Within the study, 60% of employees who are top performers of great work are among the most engaged employees and only 5% score below average on engagement. This means that 95% of employees who are top performers of great work are also above average in employee engagement, while only 80% of employees who are among the most engaged are also above average on great work performance. In other words, employee engagement follows employees who feel as though they take part in great work — successful, innovative work.

The same study, however, reveals that leadership and front-line employees have different perspectives on who should be doing great work and who, in reality, performs great work at the organization. Only 62% of executives surveyed indicated that it should be ‘all employees’ responsibility to perform great work, while 86% of individual contributors (non-managers) think the same. And only 53% of executives say that ‘all employees’ actually perform great work compared to 63% of individual contributors that claim the same. In other words, leadership thinks great work is something exclusive to leadership and front-line employees believe great work is something all employees should do. And leadership takes more credit for the great work being done, while front-line employees believes great work is coming from all employees. This is most unfortunate considering it is this great work that causes engagement.

2. Organizations approach engagement from the wrong angle

Employee engagement represents passion, commitment and caring about the organization. If you notice, each of these things is completely voluntary. Organizations that try to directly force and focus on engagement will never be successful at improving engagement. Instead of putting the focus on how to engage employees, organizations need to focus on how they can be the type of organization employees want to engage with. Employees expect a productive, rewarding and enjoyable work experience and when employers provide this type of environment, employees reward them with high levels of engagement.

There is a lot of work organizations need to do to improve their culture, and it starts with leadership. An analysis of Glassdoor reviews by Bersin by Deloitte found that the average employee gives their company a C+ when asked whether they would recommend the organization to a friend. This is a grade that senior leaders should be highly concerned with, but evidence would suggest that leaders are putting a larger priority on other initiatives away from employees. For example, according to another study by Deloitte, 67% of top business executives “believed that technology will drive greater value than human capital.” In fact, the same study revealed that 64% of top business executives believed their people are a cost and not a driver of value. To really drive engagement, organizations need a new approach; organizations need to build on top of a foundation of employee experience and organizational culture.

3. Organizations stop at measuring employee engagement

When you ask organizational leaders if they have an employee engagement strategy, they will most likely respond by saying something like, “Yes, we do a survey.” While surveys provide feedback and can be listening tools that help organizations improve culture, the measurement itself is useless without an actual strategy beyond measurement. As Gallup puts it, “Companies that base their engagement strategy on a survey or metrics-only solution can get caught up in a ‘rinse and repeat’ pattern that does nothing to improve their business.” These companies only focus on engagement during the period surrounding the survey, and because of this, make false promises to employees by committing to intensive communication campaigns without proper follow-through. Ultimately, these false promises and lack of real action end up hurting actual engagement instead of helping it.

Employee engagement is more than just the percent of employees that are engaged. Engagement is a representation of how well an organization can create an environment that its people want to connect with, and the way to measure the success of a great company culture.

As Noah Rabinowitz, senior partner and global head of Hay Group’s Leadership Development Practice, has said: “Culture is the X-factor. It’s the invisible glue that holds an organization together and ultimately makes the difference between whether an organization is able to succeed.”

Organizations can be successful at improving employee engagement, but a focus on culture will lead to engagement increases at a much more rapid pace than a focus specifically on engagement itself.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.