The Disengaging Truth About Employee Engagement

Updated: Sep 10, 2019

*Originally published for the World Employee Experience Institute (WEEI)*

I often talk about the difference between “employee experience” and “employee engagement”, admittedly with plenty of bias toward the former. My skeptical stance stems from the fact that, while engagement is nothing but positive for employee and organization alike, the concept of what “employee engagement” means and how it should be addressed is typically flawed.

Engagement is a matter of how hard and how often employees work, but why do so many companies struggle with it? I have seen every “engagement” strategy in the book first-hand, and none of them seem to have any significant, long-term impact on how engaged, happy, and loyal employees are. This is often because they aren’t focusing on the real problems, thus they are not delivering the real solutions.

Every day I see a plethora of articles about how to improve employee engagement, and nearly every one of them is similar. The most recent example was an article that claimed to provide the “top five budget-friendly employee engagement strategies”. Are any of the specific solutions mentioned in the article inherently bad? Absolutely not. I can’t stress enough that doing anything more for your employees than what is currently being done is always a good thing. The problem is that most of these are often surface-level gestures by executives who will later say, “We let them sing karaoke during an extended lunch break and they’re still unhappy? What more do they want from us?!”

Using the aforementioned article as an example, let’s break down some of the reasons why the idea of employee engagement is flawed.

  • The article starts with, “When employees are engaged, they are happy, productive and loyal.” This logic is backwards, and the biggest factor of why employee engagement strategies so often fail. Instead, it should be, “When employees are happy, productive and loyal, they are engaged.” If you’re wondering why your people aren’t busy working hard, it’s probably because they are undervalued, depressed, and scared of losing their job. Fix those FIRST and their hard work will automatically follow.

  • “Budget-friendly” solutions aren’t going to help because that suggests you’re looking to fix it with money. I know of companies that spend literally millions of dollars on individual company parties and recognition events, several times a year, yet have serious engagement issues. Ask any employee and they’ll say, “I’d give up every party forever if it meant I felt valued in my work.” All the best solutions that have been proven to improve engagement are 100% free.Gratitude, autonomy, trust, transparency, and responsibility cost absolutely nothing, yet fix nearly everything.

  • Engagement requires loyalty, loyalty requires trust, and trust is a two-way street. How many engagement strategies do you see that are meant to be perks for employees, but are riddled with restrictions? You might “surprise and excite” your employee by rewarding their hard work with a day off, but you’ll also surprise and excite them by saying their manager has to approve when they get to use that day off. If I won a Tesla, but was told I can’t drive it on the weekends, it would feel like a cruel joke, not a gift. I would be angry, not ecstatic.

  • Employee engagement strategies always reveal that employees are micro-managed, which is probably why they aren’t engaged. Saying, “You can leave early on a Friday!” isn’t a benefit, it’s merely ever-so-slightly reducing the strict working requirements temporarily. An “achievement board” might be nice, but it’s only necessary if leaders aren’t providing genuine gratitude and feedback to their team members. A “get out of jail free” card for being late isn’t a reward, it’s fleeting reprieve from the unending fear of losing one’s job at any moment because of life circumstances beyond their control. Give employees more freedom, and more responsibility, and you will both be better off.

  • Asking for feedback and doing nothing with it does more harm than good. The idea of an “employee council” is a great one. Sadly, most companies I see that use councils or surveys to gather employee feedback do nothing with the information. This only worsens problems, because your employees now know executives are aware of the issues, yet nothing gets done. Now it’s not a matter of ignorance, it’s a matter of blatant disregard. If you are going to create a council of employees, give those employees the power to fix whatever problems they bring up. If you are going to run a survey, publicly commit to fixing whatever issues the data highlights.

Again, improving employee engagement is wonderful and a business necessity. However, if you find yourself wanting to improve your employees’ engagement, don’t think about how to make them engaged. Instead, ask yourself why they would want to be engaged. What does your company do for them that makes them want to come in early, work hard, stay late, and do it again tomorrow? Find that out and you’ll have your answer to improving employee engagement.