Why Most Employee Engagement Initiatives Fail

Among business leaders, a kind of herd mentality has existed around employee engagement rates for the last decade. According to a 2017 study by Maritz Motivation Solutions, 78% of companies have a documented employee engagement strategy, proving it’s rare to find a company that hasn’t jumped on the employee engagement bandwagon.

Organizations spend over $720 million each year to generate employee engagement, and it’s easy to see why. According to Gallup’s “State of the American Workplace” report, disengaged employees have 37% higher absenteeism, 18% lower productivity, and 15% lower profitability. They also cost their companies 34% of their total salary. That means a company will lose $20,400 annually for a disengaged employee earning $60,000 a year. The higher the salary, the greater the stakes.


So why, after decades of measuring engagement, are only 34% of U.S. employees engaged? Why, with billions of dollars funneled into engagement initiatives over the last several years, have global engagement rates stagnated?

The simple answer: We’re going about it all wrong!

To understand exactly what we mean by this, let’s consider the three core challenges most organizations face when addressing employee engagement.

1. Engagement scores cause the entire workforce to externalize responsibility for the fix, placing it on the shoulders of upper management.

2. Engagement scores launch leadership teams into an unproductive cycle of action-planning in an effort to attain higher levels of engagement.

3. Engagement scores typically fail to address the cultural issues at the root of poor employee engagement.

Problem 1: Externalization (It’s Not My Problem)

Current employee engagement strategies tend to do very little to engender a sense of employee ownership in the engagement process. In fact, employee engagement assessments often do exactly the opposite, prompting employees to externalize the need to fix engagement onto management’s shoulders. The workforce tends to collectively think, “I hope management figures it out this year. They’ve got a lot of work to do to get me reengaged!”

Even the very questions listed on engagement surveys facilitate externalization: “Does someone at work encourage your development?”; “Have you had opportunities to learn and grow in the last year?”

Why are we communicating to our workforce that someone else is accountable for their learning, growth, and development? These questions contribute to a culture of victimization and externalization in far too many organizations. Enough is enough.

To better understand this problem, let’s view it through the eyes of Elizabeth, a fictional, mid-level manager at a global medical device company. Elizabeth is approaching her five-year work anniversary, and she isn’t happy about it. She’s feeling dissatisfied and recently ranked her company a 3 out of 10 on their engagement survey, noting, “My manager fails to help me take on new opportunities and develop my role within the company.” Elizabeth, like many employees we see, is externalizing her ownership for low engagement levels onto management. She doesn’t hold herself accountable for creating new opportunities and paving her own career path.

Most employees who progress in their career don’t do so because they were developed well by management. They do so because they take accountability for their circumstances, lean into obstacles, and deliver results. The byproduct of that mindset is growth and development. Can management play a role in the learning process? Absolutely! But the current approach to measuring engagement suggests growth is a one-way street and management is in the driver’s seat.

According to LinkedIn’s Workforce Learning Report, 93% of employees would stay at a company longer if it invested in their careers. That’s great — but what percentage of employees are willing to invest themselves? Employee development and engagement operate on a two-way street, and must be treated as such.

Problem 2: Action Planning (A Vicious Cycle)

When an organization is disheartened by low levels of employee engagement, pressure kicks senior leaders into action-planning mode. They begin assembling lists of 80-plus ways to improve engagement levels. This shotgun approach is usually highly decentralized and unfocused, generating skepticism among employees and leaving management under appreciated for their efforts.

For Elizabeth, our fictional mid-level manager, her company’s recent rollout of an internal Culture Lift campaign is nothing new. HR starts with an employee engagement survey, then launches a slew of new initiatives to help boost morale. She appreciates the Summer Fridays and Taco Tuesdays, and even sees the new popcorn machine as a nice touch. But it’s a new version of the same initiative every year. Each gets wrapped up in the next, and the novelty quickly fades.

Initiatives such as these prove largely futile year-over-year because a sense of engagement fatigue settles in — employees roll their eyes with each new wave of surveys since no real change ever comes of these efforts. This vicious action-planning cycle only fosters skepticism of management’s ability to deploy a truly sustainable solution. It also furthers the belief that leadership alone is responsible for boosting engagement levels, propelling the “It’s your problem, not mine” attitude among employees.

Problem 3: Misdirected Focus (Ignoring Culture as the Root Cause of Engagement)

Employee engagement surveys have more than externalizing questions in common — they also fail to get to the root cause of poor employee engagement. That’s because these assessments are designed for measuring an outcome — overall engagement rates — without attempting to address many of the deeper challenges underpinning employee satisfaction. Only leaders who get to the source of the problem are able to boost employee engagement in a sustainable way.

But so often employees like Elizabeth bump into systemic, cultural challenges that impede their ability to perform their job at a higher level. Most employees want to be successful, yet company policies or ineffective leaders slow them down. For example, a policy that requires an employee to attain three signatures before using the company credit card undermines trust and any sense of empowerment within the workplace. Or, how about a leader who insists on excessive, arduous testing of new marketing campaigns, delaying every initiative’s deliver-to-market strategy and fostering a culture of, “We’re late on everything!”

Over time, such policies and leadership practices erode any sense of engagement that employees may have had. Well-intentioned employees who once thought they could move mountains for their employer begin to mentally check out, not because they’re now ill-intentioned, but because the culture is undermining their engagement.

Everyone knows you can’t fix a leaky canoe if you don’t know where the hole is, so why do so many leaders attempt to launch engagement action plans before truly understanding why their employees are disengaged in the first place? For many, it’s the only way they know how.

Problem Summary

Taken together, externalization, an endless cycle of action-planning, and misdirected focus weaken the effectiveness of the already-ineffective modern engagement assessment. If current engagement assessments reveal engagement ratings of just 34%, it’s time to question your current methods. Fortunately, there’s a solution.

This solution is not complex. It doesn’t require fancy new systems or big budgets. But it does necessitate a flipping of the script, if you will. There’s no other way.

Leaders know that higher engagement leads to increased productivity, lower turnover, and fewer safety, quality, and compliance issues, but do they know what drives engagement? Understanding this is crucial to the success of any engagement campaign. We’ve outlined the following three-part solution, each step of which is designed to get to the root of poor employee engagement and propel companies forward.

Three Solutions That Alter our Approach to Engagement

These solutions exist to counter the top three core engagement problems outlined above:

1. Make the fix a two-way street by focusing on accountability, at every level, rather than engagement.

2. Create new experiences that push action-planning to the wayside.

3. Intentionally shape culture to get to the root cause of engagement.

Solution 1: Tie Engagement to Accountability

For years, we’ve coached leaders on how to reframe the Engagement Conversation, turning it into an Accountability for Results Conversation. We see this reorientation as critical.

An employee may be 100% engaged at work, but are they working towards targeted results? If not, the outcomes expected by the board and shareholders remain out of reach. Why would we spend so much time focusing on something that might not produce the intended results?

In the national bestseller Propeller: Accelerating Change by Getting Accountability Right, we describe how accountability is a personal choice to rise above one’s circumstances and demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving desired results. We use a Steps To Accountability® model to provide context for this definition.

The model is divided by “The Line,” which represents engagement. Employees who operate Below The Line are disengaged at various levels, while those Above The Line are completely engaged. Below The Line employees are victimized by their circumstances and resort to externalizing their problems rather than taking ownership for them. Above The Line employees, on the other hand, focus their energy and mindset on addressing the question, “What else can I do to deliver desired results?”

Leaders put an end to externalization when they balance their singular focus on employee engagement and home in on personal accountability in the workplace. Accountable employees take ownership for driving their own improvement. They proactively seek feedback, adjust performance, and deliver better results. In fact, data from the Partners In Leadership Workplace Accountability Index indicates that employees are 59% more engaged with their work when there is a culture of accountability in place within the organization.

Leaders and frontline employees alike who hold themselves accountable are committed to the four Steps To Accountability: See It, Own It, Solve It, Do It®. For example, an accountability-driven retail associate is one who notices which items in the store aren’t selling (See It), commits to addressing the issue (Own It), finds creative ways to address the problem — such as rearranging the window displays (Solve It) — and then implements the solution and proactively attempts to improve sales (Do It). Because this associate “owns” the problem and sets out to resolve it, they engage more deeply in their work and the success of the organization at large.

Case Study: Boston Medical Center

When Boston Medical Center (BMC) first contacted Partners In Leadership, its leaders were framing all of their initiatives around a scorecard outfitted with more than 80 organizational goals. We asked employees how many of these goals they could remember off the top of their heads. Unsurprisingly, no one — not even the CEO — could recount more than a handful.

We met with the executive team to narrow the organization’s goals down to just four specific Key Results that outlined quantifiable targets for patient volume, safety, satisfaction, and cost control.

Aligned around these deliverables, leaders and frontline employees began exploring innovative ways to achieve them. For instance, the emergency room (ER) team quickly determined that managing their patient volume necessitated a 33% reduction in ER diversion. Determined to achieve a goal of reduced ER diversion, the team vigorously explored what they could do to lessen the number of times an ambulance was redirected to a competing hospital as a result of BMC’s inability to handle additional patients.

As team members began to move Above The Line, they began discovering innovative ways to meet the goal of a 33% reduction in ER diversion. For one, they found that, like clockwork, every Friday at 5:30 p.m., the BMC ER became slammed with work. There was a direct correlation between this influx and the 5:00 p.m. closing of the outpatient clinics — patients who were unable to receive care at the outpatient clinics headed to the BMC ER. One of the outpatient leaders stated it perfectly: “When we fail to take accountability for our calendar, we clog up the ER with nonemergency patients and create ER diversion.”

Once employees openly recognized this issue and owned it, they were empowered to restructure their outpatient scheduling protocol. Within two months, BMC had reduced system-wide ER diversion by 28%. Employees at every level felt they played a critical role in driving these results and others, fostering a greater sense of employee engagement within the hospital.

Thirty years of experience applying this framework has taught us that when you get the culture moving Above The Line, engagement scores will follow.

Solution 2: Get Out of Action-Planning Mode by Creating New Experiences

Employees crave a workplace culture that is open and transparent — one that promotes collaboration and trust. But, perhaps most importantly, they want to feel heard. Whether or not a frontline employee feels heard by management is based on their daily experiences in the workforce.

This is the foundation of The Results Pyramid®, a simple, powerful way of understanding the connection between culture (defined by the way people think and act) and the organizational results that are achieved.

According The Results Pyramid, experiences shape beliefs, which subsequently inform the actions that drive results. Here’s how it works from an engagement perspective: if a leader says he or she values open communication, yet closes his or her office door daily and fails to respond to emails, he or she creates experiences that foster the belief among reports, “My thoughts and feedback are not wanted or welcomed here.” Failing to feel recognized or valued, employees shut down. As a result, creative-problem solving comes to a standstill and employee engagement levels plummet.

No action plan — no matter how well-designed — will cause employees to ignore their leaders’ self-contradictory behavior. Only leaders who create experiences that facilitate open, honest, and candid conversations are able to shift beliefs in the right direction.

We’ve learned through both observation and experience that it’s impossible to simply action-plan the way to a culture fix. Culture has to be shaped by leaders creating new experiences. These experiences are expressed through their own leadership behavior and the policies they implement or adjust.

Solution 3: Get to Root Cause by Intentionally Shaping Culture

Culture is like a computer’s operating system. When the operating system functions well, all of the applications run seamlessly. When the operating system isn’t working, the user never realizes an application’s intended purpose. The systemic problems within the operating system, in other words, devalue the applications. Organizations experience the same thing every day. If the culture is functioning, the strategic applications tend to flourish, creating higher levels of employee satisfaction and morale. The reverse is also true: A culture that isn’t functioning will reject even the most valuable and brilliantly-designed applications.

Take Ted, a hospital administrator we’ve worked with, as an example. Ted discovered what he thought was the best handheld device for conducting nurse leader rounding. Engagement scores among his nursing staff were low and he was convinced this device would help reduce their administrative burden and streamline communication, leading to higher engagement scores. The device had even been proven to increase patient satisfaction scores at top-performing hospitals across the country. The question for Ted wasn’t whether the application was valuable, but how quickly he could integrate it into their operations. He wanted to improve patient satisfaction scores and decrease employee burnout as quickly as possible.

Ted confidently introduced the device during a meeting with several lead nurses. Four weeks later, to his utter dismay, he learned that very few nurses were actually employing the tool. Disappointed by the performance, he immediately assumed these lead nurses were poor executors at best, and lazy employees at worst.

As we dug into the situation and began discussing the adoption challenges with nurses, we learned that it had nothing to do with inexperience or laziness and everything to do with the existing company culture in which the nurses were operating. Their team had experienced so many “new and shiny” patient rounding solutions in the previous 18 months that engagement fatigue had settled in and the nurses had become numb to every attempt to improve patient rounding. The prevailing belief was, “Don’t hold your breath. This initiative won’t stick!” A potentially brilliant application was being rejected by the operating system. No amount of focus on engagement would fix this deeper, cultural issue. Ted had to get to the root of the issue and address the cultural beliefs shaping nurses’ behavior.

Engagement surveys are only one way to measure the cultural health of an organization. They don’t provide the answers for how to fix the deeper cultural issues. The fix to engagement, therefore, needs to be approached as a cultural fix rather than a mere strategy or application fix.

The Bottom Line

According to a survey from Compdata, workplace turnover is at an all-time high, with the hospitality, healthcare, and manufacturing and distribution industries suffering the greatest losses. Research from Gallup further supports this data, indicating that half of U.S. employees are in search of a new job. But our engagement problems will not disappear unless we change our approach.

Employee engagement assessments generate metrics, but fail to effectively identify the root cause of low engagement levels. They’re also rarely prescriptive around exactly what needs to be done to shift the beliefs communicated in the survey. Without proven solutions that get to the source of poor employee engagement, management teams introduce quick-fixes. These quick-fixes serve as mere Band-Aids to more deeply-rooted cultural problems and facilitate externalizing behaviors.

Authentic employee engagement hinges on personal accountability and creating a culture that produces desired outcomes. From our experience, the most effective approaches to engagement are those that create cultural movements designed to bolster employee engagement levels and productivity.

It’s time to push aside employee engagement assessments as we know them and put new processes into place that get to the root of the problem. Only then will leaders see employee engagement levels soar.

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