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The Back Side of Employee Engagement

October 14, 2014

You’re probably familiar with the research on employee engagement.  Things like only 30% of US employees are actively engaged, 45 – 50% are showing up but not engaged, and 20-25% are actively dis-engaged, doing the minimum and ready to leave.  And most other areas of the world are worse.  If this is new to you, don’t worry, I’ll share a couple of findings below, but this blog is about the flip side of all the studies on engagement you read.  You see there are several key questions that aren’t getting asked, questions that you won’t find in the research on employee engagement.  To me, they look like large elephants, standing in the room.  Stay with me in the blog. we’ll go pet the “elephants”, and I bet you’ll feel like it was more than worth your time to read.

First of all let’s recap the findings on employee engagement that are widely published.  I’ll do this as a quick, but certainly not complete, set of bullet points:

  • Engaged employees work harder and invest discretionary effort.
  • Actively disengaged employees cost their companies $450-$500 billion dollars annually in the US alone.
  • The 30 million engaged employees in the U.S. come up with most of the innovative ideas, create most of a company’s new customers, and have the most entrepreneurial energy.
  • The two biggest drivers for engagement are
    a) the relationship with an employee’s direct manager (specifically are both interest in the person and performance stressed, as well as strengths identified and used?) and
    b) trust and confidence in the senior leadership.
  • Every 1% increase in employee engagement is equivalent to/results in a .6% increase in sales.
  • Workers are typically more engaged (52%) in their first six months on the job than they will be at any other stage in their employment with that company.

Ok, got that?  Let’s start with the first elephant and it has to do with that last bullet.  Take a look at the engagement “honeymoon” phenomenon for a moment.  What does that tell you?

ElephantinRoom  Elephant # 1 – More engagement is lost, than is ever created!

You see most of the studies published are about how to create engagement, when frankly it looks like they should be talking about how to avoid losing it.  It looks like we have a big hole in the bag when it comes to engagement, but we don’t really focus on what we do at work to lose engagement, it always seems like the spotlight is on how to build engagement and what the benefits are for doing so.

I was out picking blackberries a couple of weeks back and I can assure you I would rather not lose the berries I did pick, then be able to pick them 10% faster.  I bet you feel the same.  Not one likes losing.  So why don’t people talk about what we do to avoid losing engagement?  Well actually it is discussed some, but not nearly clear enough.  By-the-way I’m not going to answer that question, I’ll leave that one for you or another blog, but try this for a moment.

Imagine you had to come up with a checklist for leaders and managers, and it was a checklist for how to get your employees to drop from 50+% engagement to 30% in just 6 months.  It shouldn’t be hard, because it looks like almost everyone is following the checklist. 😉  So what’s on the list?  You’ve experienced it.  I’m sure you’ve had a job, probably more than one, where you started out excited, enthusiastic, optimistic… and then weren’t so much later on.

 You see I think most of us lose engagement, or put the other way management actively diminishes engagement in others by doing just two things:

  1. Not acknowledging others, their strengths, their contributions, etc. for 101 reasons, and
  2. Frustrating others.  Again you can do this in 101 ways, but the gist is you ask or insist on things that don’t make sense to others, an/or act inconsistently, or keep changing the priorities.  Showing poor ethics also works.  Again there’s lots of ways to frustrate others at work.  And apparently not a lot of prohibition against doing so.

I want to talk about one other elephant, so let me just wrap this point by noting that there’s lots of emphasis upon “What to do,” to build engagement, but in reality it looks like “What to stop doing or not do,” is just as important, perhaps more so.

ElephantinRoom  Elephant #2 – Engagement isn’t that important!

I don’t know about you, but when I read the engagement research it always seems like the data is so compelling, and then it strikes me that the research is written with sort of a “sell them on the value of engagement” perspective.  Like, “How can you not want to improve engagement, look at all the great things it does?”

The truth is, apparently, that most of the world isn’t that sold on engagement being all that important.  Most of the world doesn’t buy into the value of engagement, all the research and data aside… otherwise you wouldn’t see the 30% engaged, 70% not-engaged numbers.  Otherwise you would see the numbers improving dramatically, given all that benefits from increased sales, to reduced turnover and health care costs.  But you don’t see that.

If you want to go deeper on the back side of engagement on this one, you would notice that management regularly hires and retains people that aren’t engaged.  It’s another way of saying engagement isn’t that important as compared with other priorities or topics of focus.  It’s a good challenge isn’t it.  Why hire someone, why let someone stay on your team if they aren’t actively engaged?  And yet that’s exactly the tolerance that management creates and lives with in a majority of companies.  Why?… because it isn’t that critical or disruptive to the work flow we expect or tolerate.  If I get even more out on the edge, and pull you with me, we would both realize that HR policies, while highly supportive of employee engagement, often contribute to protecting and allowing non-engaged employees to remain on the work force.  Yikes!

One more thought.  Building engagement and/or stop losing engagement is a not something most people in management are held tightly accountable for.  Isn’t that interesting?   Why not?  Is it really all about winning, and you can always get other people on the team… until it collapses?  Or so it seems.  If you are in management, what % of your bonus is directly tied to improving engagement at your place of work.  I would bet it isn’t in the small print… but if you are in the position to make that change, wouldn’t that be different?  Food for thought.  Hope you had fun with the elephants.

Bottom Line:

The back side of the doorway on engagement reveals two elephants in the room.

  1. The first is simply that the emphasis in research and consulting efforts has historically been upon building engagement, when in fact more engagement is lost in the first 6 months, than will ever be rebuilt.  It begs the question of why not focus on stopping those behaviors and choices that lose engagement as the first priority.  It’s basic triage, first stop the bleeding.  
  2. The second is the uncomfortable fact that engagement is really not that valuable in today’s work place, all presentations and power points aside.  You will know when it is really important, because it will drive a significant % of bonus compensation.




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