3 Honest Mistakes That Kill Employee Engagement

by John Whitaker on Apr 7, 2015 11:00:00 AM

iStock_000015567238_SmallIt may have gone unnoticed in your neck of the woods, but this was a landmark year in the world of engagement. It was 25 years ago that the term “engaged employees” was discussed in print when William Kahn‘s article, “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work” appeared in an Academy of Management Journal.

Though the definition of employee engagement has been inconsistent over the last several years, the behavioral concept has grown into a key Human Resources metric during that time. Not surprisingly, researchers have found direct correlations between employee engagement and profitability — as well as customer loyalty, productivity, turnover, and employee wellness. Engagement impacts them all.

That could explain why, according to a 2012 Bersin & Associates report, employers spend somewhere in the realm of $720 million per year on improving engagement — and yet 70% of workers are still actively looking over the fence.

So allow me to make a bold statement: It ain’t working.

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We have plenty of theories on what engagement is, but despite our best efforts, the needle is barely moving.  Are we wasting our time? Or are we going about this the wrong way?

Consider these three critical mistakes disguised as honest actions: 

1. We make it an HR initiative: It’s an obvious pairing: Human Resources is the advocate of the people, and engagement is the voice of the people. But engagement dies if it’s left in the hands of HR. 

HR is not on the front line. We can provide the data and the communication, and even measure the impact — but we aren’t the eyes and ears of the company. Frontline management must embrace and accept the responsibility of owning engagement.

2. We make it an annual event: The annual Employee Engagement Survey —the effort is usually in good faith, but it’s shortsighted to consider a one-time snapshot survey as a true indicator of engagement. Engagement is a fluid, rapidly changing dynamic.

3. We don’t actively look for (and address) disengagement:There’s a common misconception that you can hear disengagement, so we are trained to listen for discontent. But don’t confuse happiness with engagement. Gossip, chatter, and complaining are outward manifestations of fear, worry, and anxiety, but not necessarily disengagement. Employees who are communicative still care about the company. The real indicators of being disengaged are quite the opposite. Do you hear it? Of course you don’t — because there’s nothing to hear. When an employee is disengaged, chances are you won’t hear a peep until they hand you a letter of resignation. Remember, disengaged looks a lot like content at first glance. 

The changes are not overly difficult to implement:

  1. HR can assume a role of guidance and development to assist managers in identifying areas of disengagement.

  2. Engagement surveying can be done in “bursts” — more frequent, less cumbersome, and less predictable than the traditional annual survey.

  3. Using the guidance of Human Resources and more timely data, line management can assume the responsibility for actively seeking disengaged employees.

If the figures are correct, you currently have as many as 70% of your employees existing in a state of disengagement. After 25 years of discussing the concept, isn’t it time to do something about it?



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This post was written by John Whitaker

John Whitaker is a thought leader in Human Resources, specializing in the employee experience. After 15 years in the corporate Human Resources suite, John has spent the last five years consulting in the biotechnology space, including Alcon, Bayer, Bausch & Lomb, Genentech, and Avalanche Biotech. He lives in Southlake, Texas with his wife and two sons.

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