Employee Engagement

The Worldwide Employee Engagement Crisis

Story Highlights

  • Employee engagement has barely budged in years
  • Measuring engagement isn't sufficient to improve it
  • Five proven strategies can improve employee engagement

The world has an employee engagement crisis, with serious and potentially lasting repercussions for the global economy.

Though companies and leaders worldwide recognize the advantages of engaging employees -- and many have instituted surveys to measure engagement -- employee engagement has barely budged in well over a decade.

Gallup has been tracking employee engagement in the U.S. since 2000. Though there have been some slight ebbs and flows, less than one-third of U.S. employees have been engaged in their jobs and workplaces during these 15 years. According to Gallup Daily tracking, 32% of employees in the U.S. are engaged -- meaning they are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace. Worldwide, only  13% of employees working for an organization are engaged.

Why Aren't the Numbers Moving?

With so many organizations focusing on engaging their employees, the question is: "Why aren't engagement levels across the world increasing?"

Many different factors can lead to stagnant levels of engagement. Executives can find clues to answer this question for their company among the various ways organizations provide employee engagement data.

Gallup sees a clear divide emerging within the engagement industry. On one end of the spectrum are scientifically and experientially validated approaches that lead to changes in individual and business performance, supported by strategic and tactical development and performance solutions that transform organizational cultures. Though these approaches require more intentionality and investment, companies that use them are more likely to see increases in employee engagement.

At the other end of the spectrum are invalidated, unfocused annual surveys. Much like a traditional employee satisfaction survey, this type of survey usually measures a multitude of workplace dimensions that often have limited alignment with other business objectives and can be difficult to take action upon after receiving results.

Technology also makes it easy to create an "employee survey" and call it an engagement program, which allows a company to fulfill an apparent organizational need and "check a box." But metrics on their own don't drive change or increase performance. Many of these survey-only approaches measure employee perceptions and provide metrics instead of improving workplaces and business outcomes.

In reality, when companies focus exclusively on measuring engagement rather than on improving engagement, they often fail to make necessary changes that will engage employees or meet employees' workplace needs. These shortcomings include:

  • viewing engagement as a survey or program instead of as an ongoing, disciplined method to achieve higher performance
  • focusing more heavily on survey data or reports than on developing managers and employees
  • defining engagement as a percentage of employees who are not dissatisfied or are merely content with their employer instead of a state of strong employee involvement, commitment and enthusiasm
  • relying on measures that tell leaders and managers what they want to hear -- "We're doing great!" -- rather than research-based metrics that set a high bar and uncover organizational or management problems that are hindering engagement and performance
  • "feeding the bears," or measuring workers' satisfaction or happiness levels and catering to their wants, instead of treating employees as stakeholders of their future and their company's future

Though most approaches are well-intended, with an ultimate goal of improving the workplace and performance, too many contribute to a status quo that is not helping the business. Businesses must choose among these different approaches, and procurement departments often make decisions based on cost and proposed deliverables rather than on a close evaluation of the end-game deliverable of an improved workplace and performance.

These flawed approaches pose significant barriers to improving engagement, increasing performance, promoting manager development and achieving lasting change. Companies that base their engagement strategy on a survey or metrics-only solution can find themselves caught in a "rinse and repeat" pattern, focusing on engagement periodically -- usually around survey time. The result is that these companies make false promises to employees, pledging change through intensive communication campaigns but providing little actual follow-through.

Ways to Improve Engagement

By studying and working with highly engaging and high-performing organizations, Gallup has identified five best practices that improve engagement and performance:

Integrate engagement into the company's human capital strategy. High-growth companies have a clear purpose behind their strategy for engaging employees, Gallup research shows. This approach includes leadership involvement and commitment, a communication strategy, systems that hold leaders and managers accountable for follow-up and for using engagement data, and learning and development that align with the engagement elements. The most effective approach to engagement isn't "start and stop" -- instead, it's an ongoing process that works alongside regular business activities.

Use a scientifically validated instrument to measure engagement. Since the engagement industry began in the late 1990s, it has taken on a life of its own. Almost every employee survey, regardless of its purpose, is referred to as an "engagement" survey. But few instruments have been validated or subjected to academic peer review. As a result, many companies are attempting to increase engagement by focusing on problems that may not affect engagement or by tackling problems in the wrong order.

Understand where the company is today, and where it wants to be in the future. Many businesses seek to chart the same one-, two- or three-year journey to improved engagement. But every company's starting point is different, as is its internal capabilities and how fast it can change. After a company takes a baseline measurement, a three-year road map is a recommended strategy; however, it should be based on the company's needs for improving engagement. This approach will help create realistic milestones and actions.

Look beyond engagement as a single construct. Some companies focus on moving the overall engagement number while overlooking the tactical elements that drive improved performance. Engagement isn't determined by an abstract feeling; it's the result of concrete performance management activities, such as clarifying work expectations, getting people what they need to do their work, providing development or promoting positive coworker relationships. For example, "expectations" are more than a job description. And "doing what you do best" has more to do with productively applying individual strengths than with general competencies.

Align engagement with other workplace priorities. Engagement shouldn't be "something else" an employee, manager or leader has to do -- instead, it should be how work gets done. Engagement is about investing in everyday working moments and incorporating engagement concepts into the workflow, even as businesses change and adopt new initiatives. When leaders prioritize new initiatives, managers may need to reset employee expectations, provide workers with new resources and ensure employees have opportunities to do what they do best.If you are a leader, check out digital health programme that works.

Creating a culture of engagement requires more than completing an annual employee survey and then leaving managers on their own, hoping they will learn something from the survey results that will change their daily behavior. It requires a company to take a close look at the critical engagement elements that align with performance and with the organization's human capital strategy. Managers and leaders should keep employee engagement top of mind -- because every interaction with employees can have an impact on engagement and organizational performance.

Employees Want a Lot More From Their Managers

STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • Managers account for up to 70% of variance in engagement
  • Consistent communication is connected to higher engagement
  • Managers must help employees develop through their strengths

Less than one-third of Americans are engaged in their jobs in any given year. This finding has remained consistent since 2000, when Gallup first began measuring and reporting on U.S. workplace engagement.

Gallup defines engaged employees as those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace. But the majority of employees are indifferent, sleepwalking through their workday without regard for their performance or their organization's performance. As a result, vital economic influencers such as growth and innovation are at risk.

Gallup's latest report, State of the American Manager: Analytics and Advice for Leaders, provides an in-depth look at what characterizes great managers and examines the crucial links between talent, engagement and vital business outcomes such as profitability and productivity. Our research shows that managers account for at least 70% of variance in employee engagement scores. Given the troubling state of employee engagement in the U.S. today, it makes sense that most managers are not creating environments in which employees feel motivated or even comfortable. A Gallup study of 7,272 U.S. adults revealed that one in two had left their job to get away from their manager to improve their overall life at some point in their career.

Having a bad manager is often a one-two punch: Employees feel miserable while at work, and that misery follows them home, compounding their stress and negatively affecting their overall well-being. But it's not enough to simply label a manager as "bad" or "good." Organizations need to understand what managers are doing in the workplace to create or destroy engagement. In another study of 7,712 U.S. adults, Gallup asked respondents to rate their manager on specific behaviors. These behaviors -- related to communication, performance management and strengths -- strongly link to employee engagement and give organizations better insights into developing their managers and raising the overall level of performance of the business.

Reliable and Meaningful Communication

Communication is often the basis of any healthy relationship, including the one between an employee and his or her manager. Gallup has found that consistent communication -- whether it occurs in person, over the phone or electronically -- is connected to higher engagement. For example, employees whose managers hold regular meetings with them are almost three times as likely to be engaged as employees whose managers do not hold regular meetings with them.

Gallup also found that engagement is highest among employees who have some form (face to face, phone or digital) of daily communication with their managers. Managers who use a combination of face-to-face, phone and electronic communication are the most successful in engaging employees. And when employees attempt to contact their manager, engaged employees report their manager returns their calls or messages within 24 hours. These ongoing transactions explain why engaged workers are more likely to say their manager knows what projects or tasks they are working on.

But mere transactions between managers and employees are not enough to maximize engagement. Employees value communication from their manager not just about their roles and responsibilities, but also about what happens in their lives outside of work. The Gallup study revealed that employees who feel as though their manager is invested in them as people are more likely to be engaged.

The best managers make a concerted effort to get to know their employees and help them feel comfortable talking about any subject, whether it is work related or not. A productive workplace is one in which people feel safe -- safe enough to experiment, to challenge, to share information and to support one another. In this type of workplace, team members are prepared to give the manager and their organization the benefit of the doubt. But none of this can happen if employees do not feel cared about.

Great managers have the talent to motivate employees and build genuine relationships with them. Those who are not well-suited for the job will likely be uncomfortable with this "soft" aspect of management. The best managers understand that each person they manage is different. Each person has different successes and challenges both at and away from work. Knowing their employees as people first, these managers accommodate their employees' uniqueness while managing toward high performance.

Performance Management Beyond Annual Reviews

Performance management is often a source of great frustration for employees who do not clearly understand their goals or what is expected of them at work. They may feel conflicted about their duties and disconnected from the bigger picture. For these employees, annual reviews and developmental conversations feel forced and superficial, and it is impossible for them to think about next year's goals when they are not even sure what tomorrow will throw at them.

Yet, when performance management is done well, employees become more productive, profitable and creative contributors. Gallup found that employees whose managers excel at performance management activities are more engaged than employees whose managers struggle with these same tasks.

In our Q12 research, Gallup has discovered that clarity of expectations is perhaps the most basic of employee needs and is vital to performance. Helping employees understand their responsibilities may seem like "management 101," but employees need more than a written job description to fully grasp their role. Great managers don't just tell employees what's expected of them and leave it at that; instead, they frequently talk with employees about their responsibilities and progress. They don't save those critical conversations for once-a-year performance reviews.

Engaged employees are more likely than their colleagues to say their manager helps them set work priorities and performance goals. These employees also more likely to say that their manager holds them accountable for their performance. To these employees, accountability means that their manager treats all employees fairly and holds everyone to the same standards, allowing those with superior performance to shine.

Strengths Over Weaknesses

Gallup researchers have studied human behavior and strengths for decades and discovered that building employees' strengths is a far more effective approach than a fixation on weaknesses. A strengths-based culture is one in which employees learn their roles more quickly, produce more and significantly better work, stay with their company longer and are more engaged. In the current study, a vast majority (67%) of employees who strongly agree that their manager focuses on their strengths or positive characteristics are engaged, compared with 31% of employees who strongly agree that their manager focuses on their weaknesses.

When managers help employees grow and develop through their strengths, they are more than twice as likely to engage their team members. The most powerful benefit a manager can provide his or her employees is to place them in jobs that allow them to use the best of their natural talents, adding skills and knowledge to develop and apply their strengths.

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