If efforts to increase employee engagement in your organization have been a bust, you’re not alone. Over the last two decades, most organizations have launched engagement initiatives or programs at their worksites with minimal success. Yet employee engagement continues to be the Holy Grail in the management of human resources. According to the Harvard Business Review, companies spend over$720 million each year on employee engagement—which is projected to rise to over$1.5 billion per year—yet; employee engagement is at a record low. Just 30 percent of employees are currently considered engaged, according to The Gallup Organization—roughly the same percentage as when Gallup first started measuring the topic over 20 years ago.

What’s wrong with this picture? Why is increasing employee engagement so difficult?

What is Employee Engagement?

Employee engagement solutions play a crucial role in bringing out the best in your employees.
Simply stated, employee engagement is the alignment of individual aspirations and organizational goals to better drive both. It captures the spirit, drive, and discretionary energy on the part of all its employees and is one of those ubiquitous notions in corporate America like “employee empowerment” before it and “employee satisfaction” before that has become all things and yet, as a consequence, nothing. Ever elusive, it seems the more companies strive to attain it, the more it slips from their grasp. But the quest continues, for the topic has proven to be too important to ignore.

Why Are Employee Engagement Solutions so Important?

Only one in five workers is giving full discretionary effort on his or her job today, a statistic that according to the Gallup Organization pretty much hasn’t changed in recent decades. Four out of ten employees are “disengaged” from their work that is going through the motions but not committed to giving their best effort at work. Since committed employees reportedly deliver 57 percent more discretionary effort than uncommitted ones (in research conducted by Will is Towers Watson), mastering the topic of employee engagement is critical for any organization that is striving to be successful today. Applying employee engagement solutions well can make the difference between achieving an organization’s mission and goals, its ability to attract and retain talent, and achieve its desired financial results or not.

If employees are engaged in their work, they have a greater desire to work harder, to be more productive, and to be more responsible in completing work to the best of their ability. When organizations make employee engagement a priority, they can obtain increased organizational profitability, productivity, flexibility, and employee retention, and better be able to attract talent as well. Employee engagement also creates trust between the organization and its employees so that both parties can better work together to be adaptive to changing needs and circumstances of the environment in which they operate.

Without engaged workers, managers have a tough time accomplishing much—let alone the best work possible from their employees. If employees are engaged in their work, they have a greater desire to work harder, to be more productive, and to be more responsible in completing work to the best of their ability.

Why Have Efforts to Improve Employee Engagement Failed?

Despite the massive spending on surveying, training and related programs, many companies end up doing things that stifle rather than promote engagement. Why is that? I believe that it’s primarily for three reasons:

  1. Companies frame the problem incorrectly,
  2. Companies focus more on measuring employee engagement rather than improving it, and
  3. Companies are overly ambitious in trying to change too much, too fast.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these reasons:

1) Companies frame the problem incorrectly. Starting with who should be held responsible on the topic. The standard practice in almost all organizational surveys about employee engagement is to rely on “passive questions,” that is questions that describe a static condition. “Do you have clear goals?” is an example of a passive question. It’s passive because it can cause people to think of what is being done to them rather than what they are doing for themselves.

When people are asked passive questions they almost invariably provide “environmental” answers. Thus, if an employee answers “no” when asked, “Do you have clear goals?” the reasons are attributed to external factors such as “My manager can’t make up his mind” or “The company changes strategy every month.”The employee seldom looks within to take responsibility and say, “It’s my fault.”Blame is assigned elsewhere. The passive construction of “Do you have clear goals“ begets a passive explanation: “My manager doesn’t set clear goals.”

The result is that when companies take the natural next step and ask for positive suggestions about making changes to improve things, the employees’ answers once again focus exclusively on the environment, not themselves. “Managers need to be trained in goal setting” or “Our executives need to be more effective in communicating our vision,” are typical responses. The company is essentially asking, “What are we doing wrong?”—and the employees are more than willing to oblige with a laundry list of the company’s mistakes and shortcomings.

Even if the company improves on what employees want them to do, it’s too easy for employees to continue to deflect any responsibility for the behavior and subsequently tell their employers: “It’s still not good enough; you’ve got to do more.”This becomes a no-win approach to the behavior as organizations are forced to chase an ever-shifting impossible dream. Passive questions set individuals up to shirk personal responsibility and accountability. They can give people the unearned permission to pass the buck to anyone and anything but themselves.

How much better to start with each employee as the center of focus, so instead of asking them “Do you have clear goals?” you might ask “What are you doing to assure that your goals are clear?” or “Did you do your best to set clear goals for yourself?” Now the onus is on the employee to take responsibility to get what they need to be successful in their job.

2) Companies focus more on measuring employee engagement rather than improving it. What companies have historically been shown to be especially good at is measuring employee engagement. Improving employee engagement? Not so much. How else could you explain the fact that there has been very little overall change in the number of engaged and disengaged employees in the workplace over the last 20+ years? Instead of just focusing on measuring employee engagement, why not focus on those things that can best impact employee engagement in your organization? More times than not, these will be specific behaviors on the part of your leaders when interacting with their employees.

3) Companies are overly ambitious in trying to change too much, too fast. Instead of focusing on a dozen employee engagement elements which become difficult to individually track, let alone make substantial improvements on over the course of a year, try focusing on just a single key variable. For example, have this year be the “Year of Employee Recognition” and do a deep dive to systematically improve the strategy, systems, tools, and behaviors associated with that topic on the part of each of your leaders.

How Best Can You Impact Employee Engagement?

My recent book, 1,001 Ways to Engage Employees, examines the top ten variables that most impact employee engagement in order of priority, according to a regression analysis of 3 million employee surveys, and provides specific real-life examples of what each dimension looks like in practice in successful companies today. The top three dimensions I identified are 1) Employee Recognition, 2) Career Development and 3) One’s Immediate Manager.

Employee Recognition, or more specifically, recognition for high performance, has been shown to drive 56 percent of engagement for employees. It’s a simple concept: “thank workers when they do a good job,” yet only 12 percent of employees report receiving such thanks or praise where they work. Contrast that with the findings that 85 percent of today’s workers feel overworked and underappreciated and you start to see the grim reality most employees face in the workplace.

Career Development, or, more specifically, a continual focus on career growth and development, is the second most important aspect of employee engagement. This isn’t an occasional training class or periodically being promoted, but rather the daily journey of learning, job skills, and networking that puts you on the course you most want to travel in your career—and your manager’s help in getting you there.

One’s Immediate Manager rounds out the top three drivers of employee engagement. One’s manager is the most important person at work for almost every employee and if that person shows through his or her behaviors that you are important, that is, how the person listens, encourages, and supports you, it allows you to do your best to excel on a daily basis. “If you have a good boss, you have a good job” is true the world over.

Focusing on these three elements can serve as a great starting point for organizations who truly want to “move the needle” in creating greater employee engagement in their organizations, not just measure the topics year after year.


Bob Nelson, Ph.D., is the world’s leading authority on employee recognition and engagement. He’s worked with thousands of companies on these topics, including 80percent of the Fortune 500, spoken on six continents, and authored related books on the topic that have sold over 5 million copies. For more information, visit www.drbobnelson.com.