August 27, 2015 Anil Saxena

Your Employee Engagement Isn’t Going To Work

“After five years of doing engagement, I’ve not seen a real impact.  The sad part is that I feel like I can predict the results before they happen,” stated a senior level executive.  He looked at me and asked, “Why do we keep doing this?”
As a former Gallup consultant, Employee Engagement is near and dear to me.  I have led engagement initiatives and witnessed the power of their impact on organizations.  Yet, far too often I hear this same concern.
There has been a great deal written about the power of employee engagement.  After the landmark study that launched employee engagement in Coffman and Buckingham’s First Break All the Rules, there have been hundreds of studies showing the impact of engagement. Every year all of the major employee engagement providers put out their annual “state of the state” regarding engagement.  Each year, there are many examples of companies leveraging engagement to be even more successful – Campbell’s Soup, Toyota, and Apple just to name a few.
But, the sad truth is that there are many more examples where employee engagement is not having the impact that it could.

“The latest findings indicate that 70% of American workers are ‘not engaged’ or ‘actively disengaged’ and are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and less likely to be productive. These actively disengaged employees cost the U.S. between $450 billion to $550 billion each year in lost productivity. They are more likely to steal from their companies, negatively influence their coworkers, miss workdays, and drive customers away.” – Gallup State of the American Workplace
I discussed why this is so with leaders and employee engagement practitioners. According to them (and my experience) there are three prominent reasons Employee Engagement fails to produce the results intended.

Time and time again, Employee Engagement is brought into an organization with a great deal of promise.  Senior executives are sold on the notion that Employee Engagement is a panacea that will make their business better, faster, stronger.  That somehow, just by taking this magical survey

1. Employees will sing the praises of the company
2. Customers will line up to buy and will actively sell without compensation
3. Competitors will fall by the wayside
Either it is said and executives don’t listen or it is not explicit that just like the ab machine bought on QVC at 2 AM if engagement is not linked to impacting business or organizational goals it will be largely ignored.  Employee Engagement is a powerful measure that can anticipate the performance of an organization.  Unlike revenue or profit or compliance, it is a predictive measure of performance (get quote or link) IF IT IS LINKED TO BUSINESS OUTCOMES.  Just taking the survey, rolling out reports and doing action plans will do little in the long term to impact business results.
In order for engagement to have impact, employees can’t just be engaged they have to be engaged to something.  Prior to rolling out an employee engagement survey, there has to be work done to link engagement to some measure that is important to the business.

“Researchers studied 49,928 work units, including nearly 1.4 million employees. This latest iteration of the meta-analysis further confirmed the well-established connection between employee engagement and key performance outcomes:
• Customer ratings
• Profitability
• Productivity
• Turnover (for high-turnover and low-turnover organizations)
• Safety incidents
• Shrinkage (theft)
• Absenteeism
• Patient safety incidents
• Quality (defects)

Work units in the top quartile in employee engagement outperformed bottom-quartile units by 10% on customer ratings, 22% in profitability, and 21% in productivity. Work units in the top quartile also saw significantly less turnover (25% in high-turnover organizations and 65% in low-turnover organizations), shrinkage (28%), and absenteeism (37%) and fewer safety incidents (48%), patient safety incidents (41%), and quality defects (41%).” – Gallup Business Journal

Any of these measures can be linked to engagement because what impacts them the most is PEOPLE.  But without that causal link, eventually engagement will be a “program” that managers and leaders “have to do”.  There will be less and less emphasis put on it.  Eventually leaders will only give it lip service.  Then a new Employee Engagement vendor will be selected and the cycle will start anew.

HR is the very best place for Employee Engagement to “live”.  However, HR being its owner and champion is misplaced.  In order to ensure that Employee Engagement carries its required weight, the owner must be a senior leader from the business, preferably someone that is in charge of a revenue generating part of the organization.  It is impossible for HR to be administrator, facilitator, coach AND enforcer.  At some point those roles will be indistinguishable.
In order for Employee Engagement to be seen as a business initiative, it has to be owned by the business.  It also means they are accountable for its success.  But, a business leader won’t take on owning an initiative that isn’t tied to business outcomes they care about.  Hence the reason #1 is so important.

The drumbeat from thought leaders in Employee Engagement is it cannot be a “once a year event”.  It is doomed to insignificance if the focus is on survey, report and action plan.  That makes it a program with checkoffs.  It undermines the most important part, conversation.  Employee engagement must be a mindset.

“Employee engagement will not thrive when it’s handled like an event. But when it is vigilantly cultivated and purposefully spread through the interactions between managers and employees, it becomes a way of working. It becomes part of a company’s culture.” – Shawn Murphy (@shawmu)
The survey and all that is part of it are only a portion of actually creating an engaged workplace.  It is not enough to talk about engagement or promote being more engaged.  Developing an engaged workforce takes ENGAGING THEM.
Employee engagement has been proven to improve organizational performance.  What is your organization doing to increase the impact of Employee Engagement?
Anil Saxena is the President of Cube 2.14, an organizational development consulting firm that works with clients to increase both customer and employee engagement while decreasing turnover, improving customer retention, and increasing profitability within organizations.

Saxena is a certified High Impact coach and trainer and a Joint Application Design facilitator. He is also certified by both Rush Systems and IBM as a focus group facilitator. He is an inaugural member of Northwestern University’s Learning and Organizational Change program, and he earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology.


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