Picture this: It’s Monday morning and you’re ready to start the week out right. You get to the office and check your messages. You’ve received the results to the company’s annual engagement survey.
You try to settle in at your desk as you scroll through the report, but the results leave you uneasy. “This can’t be right,” you mutter. “How can these scores be so low?” And you believe it as you say it too. From your perspective–a high-ranking company leader–you’ve been making all the right moves, and measuring employee engagement should reflect that. You’ve crafted a business strategy you’re proud of, and you’re even satisfied with the company’s financial performance. But can you reconcile your personal feelings of satisfaction with the knowledge that your employees are left wanting more?
Employee engagement, and specifically a fear of its absence, is a hot button issue because the costs at hand are astronomical. While concerns over the employee experience stretch back far in our history, Gallup helped put it all into perspective when it estimated disengaged employees cost U.S. organizations a range of $450-550 billion annually back in 2014. Those numbers seem even worse when you consider the national engagement scores aren’t high either.
Every year, Gallup determines the national engagement levels in its State of the American Workplace report, and in 2017 only 33% of employees said they were engaged. In other words, two-thirds of our workforce is left on the table as either not engaged or actively disengaged. If trends hold, those numbers will likely be the same when Gallup releases its report for 2018, give or take a few percentage points.
While I by no means wish to dismiss the gravity of this situation, the engagement quagmire can at times lean into sensationalism. These numbers–big and scary as they may be–give weight to disengagement as a pandemic, a chronic affliction of which few are immune and from which even fewer are able to recover. While we should take measuring employee engagement seriously, it’s important not to overlook a more manageable and frankly honest truth:
Employee engagement is something that every organization struggles with–even the ones “doing it right.”
Let’s quickly revisit the national engagement score and take in what it actually means. Gallup isn’t saying that two-thirds of the workforce are malcontents actively seeking to hurt their companies and the people that work there. Quite the contrary, most unengaged employees are talented people who simply aren’t having their needs met. Even for companies on Best Places to Work lists, it is incredibly rare to have full engagement across your organization. Don’t strive for a benchmark that’s impossible. But do work to improve everything you can, because although you can’t make everyone happy, it is absolutely within your ability to do more.
Count your blessings and get your head right
It might be odd to think that you even have blessings to count when you see low engagement scores, but there are two things you can be thankful for as you plan your changes. The first is that you know you have a problem. When it comes to measuring employee engagement, ignorance is seldom bliss. The longer engagement issues go unaddressed, the more pervasive the issues become for the company.
The second thing to be thankful for is that annual engagement surveys are excellent diagnostic tools for helping you understand the breadth of your issues. That diagnosis often draws the attention of important stakeholders, who are often compelled by those same big, scary numbers to take action. That is a good thing, because getting leadership buy-in for any form of company culture change is tough.
Next, you’re going to need to orient your perspective. The attention that’s getting you the resources you need will also put pressure on you to find a quick fix for engagement. Surprise: there isn’t one. Before you can really outline an effective solution for your organization, you need to understand the cause of your engagement woes.
That’s a picture only partly painted by your annual engagement survey–it’s providing the diagnosis, but the roots of your affliction dig deeper. Disengagement looks different at every company. Sometimes it’s a culture issue, sometimes it’s an issue with leadership styles, other times it can be an issue with process and the actual work employees do. To figure out the flavor of your disengagement, put on your investigator’s hat and be prepared to have an open mind. To tackle this big issue, you’re going to have to think small. Team-sized to be specific.
Measuring employee engagement gets easier with help from your teams
As Jacob Morgan writes for Inc, engagement is concerned with effects, not causes. All the benefits of its presence and the detriments of its absence are expressed in big-picture terms (e.g. revenue, productivity, job satisfaction). The way Gallup reports engagement from a global and national vantage point, and even the way annual surveys diagnose engagement for the whole company is reflective of this. But these national issues are acutely felt on a local level–the teams and departments that make up the organization–and they’re best treated there too.
That’s ultimately why you need to build relationships with your department heads, managers, HR business partners, and other team leaders. At the end of the day, changes must be made at the functional and team level, and these are the people that will be making them.
It starts with communication. You already know engagement is an issue, so now’s the time to check-in with the leadership beneath you. Set up regular meetings to take the temperature of their teams. Anyone who is managing people needs to become comfortable with the process of identifying employees who have issues, and working constructively to solve them. Here’s a quick list of items that you should consider in these conversations:
- What is and isn’t working well with your processes and workflow?
- How are the dynamics between individual team members?
- How are you making yourself available to the members of your team?
- Are there ways you can promote better team-building opportunities?
- How can you support these teams with better options for growth and development?
- Are there any team members whose work deserves to be recognized?
This is a process of self-examination that is just as much an opportunity for you to provide valuable feedback to your direct reports as it for them to provide it to you. Over time through these conversations, you’ll discover ways to better support your direct reports as they will their teams, and eventually identify the roots of disengagement. You may even find that there is no singular variety of disengagement that afflicts your organization. Rather different teams and departments may have differing, often idiosyncratic needs for engagement.
For this process to work, these conversations need to occur all the way down the chain of command to the last supervisor on the front lines. Along the way, there needs to be trust amongst your teams, and throughout the chain of leadership. Unsurprisingly, disengagement and mistrust can go hand-in-hand. A lack of trust isn’t the only reason for an engagement deficit, but our stance on the matter is that you can never improve workplace engagement if a foundational sense of trust is absent from your teams. Building trust in the workplace is a separate issue that takes its own time and effort to get right, but like all culture changes in the workplace, it comes down to two things: authenticity and effort. You can read more about modeling behaviors that stick here.
Finally, if you needed any proof that a large scale team communication and feedback effort is worth it, precedent shows that it is. A recent Forbes article documents the journey of an organization that was able to consistently raise its engagement levels from 2009 to the present. The secret to its success was that every leader that managed five or more employees was given regular feedback about the engagement of their direct reports. Those leaders, in turn, were tasked with creating action plans for working on their teams, and sharing those plans with the leaders above them to create accountability and open up conversations for support. As a result of this yearly coordinated effort, the organization now has more than twice as many engaged employees as global norms.
While you might be tempted to set your sights on that tantalizing goal from the outset, getting there will take practice and dedication. To start, just set your sights on a modest goal for improvement. As you investigate your engagement issues alongside your workforce, you’ll find not every conversation will be easy to have–some will be downright uncomfortable. But if you make internal examination a consistent part of how you’re measuring employee engagement, the sky’s the limit.