Low Employee Engagement isn’t the Problem…


Employee engagement graph

…Low leadership engagement is.

Not long ago, I received a request for comment about employee engagement being at a record high. That seemed like an odd request, since almost everything I’ve read in recent memory was lamenting dismal engagement survey results.

Poking around some, I found that employee engagement soared to its highest level in five years – a whopping 37% last October – rebounding again in February 2017 to 36.7%, only to fall back to 33% at the end of August. In other words, it sucks. If there are any managers or leaders out there that think having two-thirds of your workforce disengaged, I’d love to get paid for what you’re not doing.

Thanks, Gallup, for keeping it real.

I’ve got the sitck for a minute.

I’d been the boss for about six months and decided that we needed a climate survey to get to what was below the surface. It hadn’t been too long since the folks had endured that kind of survey, but it was under the last commander who had been gone a couple of months before I arrived. I’d just spent six months balancing listening to people and trying to address their concerns with getting the mission done. The biggest issue from the new survey was – wait for it – I was the only one who could use my reserved parking space. Yep, that was it. Who knows who was used to using the space when the commander was gone, but I sure as hell wasn’t giving up the one perk a commander gets on an Air Force base.

But I was listening. It’s possible there were some additional non-base commander approved parking spaces painted around the building just for the fun of it… obviously without my approval.

Anyway, we spend way too much time and effort trying to measure engagement, not to mention the money we throw at employee engagement programs. Based on the almost flatline chart above, we’re spending a lot of money without much results. I’m convinced it’s because we’re letting the wrong people lead – and take the blame for – our unsuccessful engagement efforts.

News flash: Low employee engagement is NOT an HR problem. It’s a leadership problem.

I’m not knocking HR–far from it. But much like with leadership development efforts, HR takes its cue from senior leadership. If there’s just lip service and no involvement at the top, employee engagement efforts are doomed.

If your company is hiring consultants to find out why your employees aren’t engaged, you’re wasting your money. I’ll give it to you for free: your employees aren’t engaged because they don’t feel valued doing worthy work, and that’s a leadership issueIf your latest employee engagement program is aimed at the employees, you’re missing the whole point. Your employees aren’t engaged because their bosses aren’t engaging them. Focus your efforts on providing your managers and leaders with the skills and tools to better engage their people every day.

But, you say, what about that annual engagement survey we take and the mandatory engagement reporting we have to do? Doesn’t that count for something?

No. Most employees would love to tell you exactly how they feel about the workplace but aren’t going to if they don’t believe you a) are listening to them, and b) will do anything about it. That’s a leadership issue, too.

How do you know what makes them feel valued? Ask them. And don’t do it with surveys and suggestion boxes. Actually talk to them. Effective leaders know how to have meaningful, face-to-face conversations with their employees and are okay with getting feedback from the people who work for them. Ask them what makes them feel valued, and listen to what they say.

What about the worthy work part? How do you know what would make them feel like they’re engaged in worthy work… like their efforts are part of something bigger than their paycheck?

Right… ask them. And not just once a year at performance evaluation time. They’ll say anything they think you want to hear to get their evaluation over as quickly as possible, and chances are it won’t change what you’re doing anyway.

When we develop leaders, we help them improve communication and feedback effectiveness, empowerment and delegation, conflict management and trust building… all skills that involve engaging the people who work for and with them. In other words, if you’re employees aren’t engaged, they’re not being led.

So when it’s time for your company’s next annual employee engagement survey, how about suggesting spending less time measuring employee engagement and more time engaging employees?

It’s up to you, leaders.

You have the stick.

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