Employee Engagement

5 ways leaders ruin employee engagement

By Sarah Fister Gale

Jan. 23, 2020

Employee engagement levels are woefully low. The latest Gallup data shows only 34 percent of employees are actively engaged in their work.

That means more than half of all employees are not engaged in their work, and 13 percent are actively disengaged, according to the survey.employee engagement

These are troubling numbers given the proven benefits that employee engagement brings to a business, which include higher share prices, greater customer loyalty, lower turnover, easier recruiting and a host of other desirable business outcomes.

The good news in this story is that HR is not to blame. While HR leaders may be responsible for overseeing benefits programs, gathering employee engagement survey results, and rolling out employee programs and campaigns, they are not the ones who actually move the needle on engagement.

Studies consistently find that employee engagement hinges entirely on the way leaders lead and the kind of culture they create, said Patrick Kulesa, global head of employee research for Willis Towers Watson in New York. “The numbers show that how leaders inspire people with their strategy and mission determines whether employees will be engaged,” Kulesa said.

The problem is that leaders rarely take responsibility for employee engagement. They see it as a people issue, so they assume HR will fix whatever is broken. This is one of many mistakes leaders make when it comes to engagement.

Here are some of the other mistakes leaders make that damage employee engagement and how they can do better.

  1. Leaders assume company perks will make a difference. Offering free coffee, half-day summer Fridays and other creature comforts may deliver short-term positive vibes from overworked employees. But if you aren’t also addressing the core problems in your culture — like a lack of acknowledgement for work well done, managers who can’t be trusted or limited opportunities for development — no amount of free snacks will solve your employee engagement problems, Kulesa said.
  2. Leaders talk, but they don’t listen. “Employees don’t need to be told what to do. They need to be encouraged to trust their instincts,” said Kevin Hancock, CEO of Hancock Lumber in Casco, Maine and and author of The Seventh Power. Hancock learned this lesson after acquiring a rare voice disorder in 2010 that made it difficult for him to speak. To protect his voice, whenever anyone asked him a question, he responded with, “What do you think is the right answer?” He wasn’t trying to improve engagement, but that’s what happened. Over the course of a year, engagement levels rose as employees gained confidence in their ideas and became more innovative and invested in their work. It made him realize the power of distributed leadership, and giving everyone a voice.
  3. Leaders think employees should serve the business, not the other way around. When business leaders make financial performance the most important factor in every decision, employees become slaves to business outcomes. “But what if you rethink the purpose of work?” Hancock said. When leaders prioritize improving the lives of employees, improved employee engagement is the natural result. That leads to better performance, higher revenues and other business benefits that every leader wants, he said. “When the company exists to serve the employees, it creates a stronger company and a better future for everyone.”
  4. Leaders focus on numbers, not outcomes. When leaders only care about achieving the right employee engagement score, they lose focus on the ultimate goal, said Jim MacLennan, founder of Maker Turtle, a digital transformation consulting firm, and author of “Don’t Think So Much.” “Once they reach the target metric they move on to something else.” That makes employees cynical about their motives and can cause any short-term improvements to quickly sag. Instead, he suggested using employee engagement surveys to identify the biggest problem in your culture, then to spend the year solving it. “Keep it simple and define what ‘better’ looks like so it doesn’t get diluted,” MacLennan said. Once you see improvements, move on to the next thing. When leaders focus on outcomes rather than metrics, continuous improvement becomes part of the way things are done.
  5. They mistake surveys for conversations. If you want engagement to improve, leaders have to actually talk to employees, listen to their needs and build a corporate culture that inspires trust and respect. “You can’t do that with a survey,” MacLennan said. “Once you wade in and start having conversations, you’ll be amazed at what you learn.”


Sarah Fister Gale is a writer in Chicago.

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