Summing Up: Why Can’t Organizations Engage Their Employees?

Who is responsible for generating employee engagement? The employee, or the employee's managers? Readers of this month's James Heskett column have a lot to say on the issue.
by James Heskett
Engaged workers are more productive. (iStock) iStock

SUMMING UP: How Can We Prepare Leaders to Engage Their Associates?

This month’s column elicited a number of reasons on why organizations around the world do such a poor job of engaging their employees. The dominant theme was that we lack leadership talent with the attitude, training, and willingness to devote the time to this difficult task of engagement, which can have a significant impact on performance.

Too much emphasis on “making the numbers” to the exclusion of other goals was cited as a major problem. ExNeoLiberalist put it this way: “Engagement comes from spirit, and if the organization has little or no spirit—if it see mission as simply ‘maximizing shareholder value’—then engagement will remain an elusive thing.”

George Yurieff added that “as long as the order entry numbers are on (or over) target probably not much will change.” In the opinion of davidfinaz, employees walk through the door of their new employer with hidden skepticism based on previous work experience. “Organizations have a huge hurdle of mistrust to overcome.”

Christopher Hunsicker advanced an interesting hypothesis: “Because being engaged is an employee choice, they must in essence volunteer. Most managers or organizations do not see their employees as part of a volunteer workforce.”

The idea that engagement is a personal, one-on-one, matter came through clearly in the comments. As Vince McGevna put it, “employees are seen more as body count rather than resources.” Managers don’t want to listen to those ‘below’ them, he wrote. Stephen Achilles added that “leadership does not understand the strengths and interests of their workers.”

A number of remedies were suggested. David Jones provided a checklist: set the bar high, don’t settle for anything less than excellence; treat everyone with respect; provide training and role models; and reinforce the right behaviors and hold people accountable for the wrong behaviors. David Wittenberg offered advice on measurement: “It’s better to measure effects, such as corporate results, employee attrition, or even desired behaviors at work, than merely to measure … employee engagement.”

Gregory Enjalbert offered a more personal perspective: “Engaging people is therefore very much about talking to them and listening actively to them… taking a keen interest in what is going on in people’s life at work and sometimes outside of work.” He added, “Everybody needs to be touched by someone who cares.” Of course, this takes time that many managers don’t feel they can spare. As Guy put it, “Improving employee engagement is not done through some blanket program run out of HR or Admin or whatever—it’s improved by every single leader in the organization working one-on-one with all of their employees… It’s hard—damned hard.”

Judging from the views of employees, too few managers have figured out how to engage those working with and for them. Is it something we can even systematically prepare them to do? As Miki pointed out, “Respect and valuing employee input have little to do with education and much to do with personal values.”

We’re told that personal values are very difficult to change beyond a very early age. How can we prepare leaders to engage their associates? What do you think?

Original Column

Organizations around the globe are doing a poor job developing employees who are engaged—“emotionally invested in and focused on creating value for their organizations every day,” as the Gallup organization defines it. Worse yet, even though ample research suggests how to do it, the numbers of actively disengaged employees far exceed those who are engaged. And the numbers aren’t improving.

This is puzzling, because employee engagement may be the single most effective competitive strategy available to many organizations.

The positives of energized workers have been well documented. According to Gallup, those who are engaged are:

  • More than twice as likely to remain on the job as those characterized as disengaged, and more likely to refer friends and family members for employment. These factors lead to lower costs of recruitment, hiring, training, and lost productivity.
  • Up to 2.5 times more productive than the disengaged.
  • Less likely to be absent, work more safely on the job, produce fewer quality defects, and are less likely to steal.
  • Foster higher levels of customer engagement that lead to higher customer loyalty, greater growth, and more profit.

Those are the potential gains, but how does management engender that kind of excitement about work? Too often, here’s what happens: An annual employee engagement survey is taken, trends analyzed and reported back, opportunities for improvement discussed ... and management returns to handling other primary responsibilities.

As a result, it should be no surprise that Gallup reports that its multinational studies of employee engagement regularly show that only about one in seven of employees is engaged. The figure varies from one country to the next. For example, in 2012, it ranged from 6 percent in China to 37 percent in Panama. But here’s the downside: Globally, this figure is usually a little more than half as large as the number of employees characterized as actively disengaged.

Reasons for a disengaged workforce

One problem may be that responsibility for employee engagement is too often diffused among several functions and levels in the organization. Why isn’t the human resource function dealing with it? Is HR too buried in operating details, recruiting, and training to be concerned about engagement? Are frontline managers—who researchers tell us have the greatest impact on employee engagement—too rarely judged or rewarded on the engagement levels of their charges?

The challenge begins with hiring the right people. When Amazon announces, as it did last month, that it plans to hire 50,000 people in one day into an organization with about 350,000 employees, what is the likelihood that a high proportion of those new hires will end up engaged?

If employee engagement can spell the difference between profit and loss in a business, why can’t organizations engage their employees? What do you think?


State of the Global Workplace: Employee Engagement Insights for Business Leaders Worldwide , Gallup, Inc., 2012.

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