Employee Engagement – Why your employees aren’t stepping up
Employee Engagement

The business world has a seemingly intractable employee engagement problem.

Lifting engagement levels was the holy grail, regarded by many as the primary means by which we would achieve higher levels of corporate performance. For well over a decade now, countless research projects, HR Forums and hundreds of millions of dollars have been expended on so called engagement measures, all aimed at getting employees to ‘step up’ and put in more discretionary effort.

The logic behind this effort is perfectly sound. Highly engaged employees are 20 to 30% more productive, more creative, and almost twice as likely to stay with a company. You don’t need to be a CFO to know these numbers translate directly onto the balance sheet. Engagement is foundational to any operations transformation.

What’s the problem then?

10 years ago, Gallup found that just 30% of employees were engaged, with 70% of employees either ‘moderately’ or ‘actively’ disengaged (for the latter, think ‘undermining’). The annual cost of this disengagement is put at between $450 and $550 Billion in the US alone.

And now this years’ results have been revealed (drum roll)…… and they’ve found that 30% of employees are engaged. Wait, what?…..That’s right, despite our presumed enlightenment on this topic, and the massive investments made, the needle on employee engagement has not shifted in a decade.

There’s an obvious explanation, but first let’s recap the root causes.

After 10 years of research, one thing is very clear; there is a strong causative relationship between line leader behaviour and employee engagement levels. All the research points to the line manager as the key influencer of how engaged an employee feels. To put it plainly – direct managers are the number one reason people quit their jobs.
A lack of skill, and a lack of will

Why haven’t we made more (or any) progress on employee engagement in a decade?

When we discuss the engagement problem with managers, it can take a while to get to the bottom of the issues. But when we do, we get two predominant responses. The first relates to ‘feeling uncomfortable about providing feedback and recognition’, and the second is ‘I’m just too busy’.

Employee engagement has been treated as a skill problem, but it’s also a ‘will’ problem.

The leadership habits that make a difference are not too difficult to master; showing interest in your employees lives beyond work; focussing on strengths; listening generously; speaking straight; providing regular, informal feedback and recognition; and holding team members accountable. But the pressure managers feel to deliver short term results means they sacrifice spending time on these things, despite knowing that they would pay a dividend over the long term. Take a look at these habits – do these require any particular skill?

  • Asking people how they a doing, spending time in conversation over lunch, or showing interest in the individual and their life outside of work.
  • Remembering people’s names. The Dale Carnegie technique really does work and removes any possible excuse; saying ‘I’m terrible with names’ is essentially saying ‘I don’t care enough to try to remember your name’.
  • Putting a sticky note on someone’s desk to recognise the good work they have done

The Bottom Line

Managers struggling to practice behaviours like these need to make one significant choice; to transition away from being ‘crazy busy’. Back to back meetings, after-hours emails, and seemingly being ‘on the edge of control’ isn’t a good look for any manager (employees are asking themselves ‘should we be worried?’). Managers need to slow down, take control of their schedules, and spend a lot more time in the ‘Important / Not Urgent’ quadrant (What we call Quadrant 2). They then need to reinvest time into building relationships with their people.

If you want people to ‘step up’, it’s leaders who need to take the first step. The research is clear; leaders who take an interest in their employees as people, and who dedicate time to ‘catching people doing the right thing’ end up with the most productive, committed and creative teams around.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post – I hope you’ll share it with others.

John, Ishan and I founded The Operations Academy out of our passion for helping people master new skills in leadership, collaboration and innovation, for the benefit of employees and workplaces everywhere. We’re excited to be part of the movement creating more positive, productive and purposeful workplace culture. We’re still on the learning journey ourselves, and we’d love to hear about your experiences, successes and challenges – just drop us a note at enquire@ops-academy.com.


Tony Broughton

Tony Broughton B&W

* Gallup. ‘Millions of Bad Managers are Killing America’s Growth’.