Employees Are Not Engaged – What You Can Do About It

Among business leaders, a kind of herd mentality has existed around employee engagement rates for the last decade. In fact, it’s rare to find a company that hasn’t jumped on the employee engagement bandwagon, establishing robust committees and launching company-wide action plans focused on boosting engagement ratings. According to a 2017 study by Maritz Motivation Solutions, 78% of companies have a documented employee engagement strategy. But is employee engagement even the right metric for success?

It’s no secret that performance improves when it’s measured. So why, after decades of measuring engagement, are only 34% of U.S. employees engaged? Why, with billions of dollars being spent on fixing engagement over the last several years, have scores never been worse, both domestically and internationally. The answer: we’re measuring the wrong thing. 

Why Most Employee Engagement Initiatives Fail

When an organization is disheartened by low levels of employee engagement, it nearly always falls on the shoulders of management to “fix the engagement problem.” This pressure kicks senior leaders into action-planning-mode, where they begin assembling lists of 80-plus ways to improve engagement levels. 

This shotgun approach is typically highly decentralized and unfocused, which generates skepticism among employees and leaves management underappreciated for their efforts. As these initiatives prove largely futile year-over-year, 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. Here are three reasons why engagement initiatives tend to miss the mark: 

  1. Identifying the root cause. Employee engagement surveys measure an outcome — engagement — but they generally fail to address the challenges underpinning employee dissatisfaction. To truly boost employee engagement levels and drive results, leaders must get to the source. 
  2. Providing systemic solutions. Employee engagement assessments generate metrics, but they are not prescriptive. Without proven solutions, management teams introduce quick-fixes that merely serve as bandaids to more deeply-rooted cultural problems.
  3. Encouraging ownership. Employee engagement assessments without actionable solutions cause employees to externalize the need to “fix engagement” squarely 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 right this ship.”

So how does an organization exit this merry-go-round? 

Accountability Drives Greater Employee Engagement

Instead of focusing on fixing engagement rates, it’s time to step back and examine one of the driving forces behind low engagement scores — a need for greater individual accountability at work

According to the New York Times bestselling book The Oz Principle, accountability is a “personal choice to rise above one’s circumstances and demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving desired results.” This point is driven home in Propeller: Accelerating Change by Getting Accountability Right, a new book from Partners In Leadership that tackles the engagement issue head-on. 

Take this all-too-common anecdotal example: a company hires a new employee with high hopes that this individual — whether an entry-level or C-suite hire — will flourish and bring greater success to the organization. But as the honeymoon phase concludes, it becomes apparent that the new hire is falling short on performance expectations. Questions begin to arise within the team about “position fit.” Instead of taking personal accountability for overcoming their circumstances and forming beliefs that promote success, the employee does what feels natural: they externalize their performance shortcomings. They start to think, Management isn’t invested in my professional development, or, If others had put more into training and developing my skills, this would be a different story.

This pattern surfaces in organizations of all sizes across the world, much to the detriment of organizational performance. Leaders put an end to this pattern 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, new data from our Workplace Accountability Index shows that accountability for results always produces higher levels of engagement. 

There are numerous factors that contribute to higher levels of individual accountability within organizations, some of which are addressed in this article. A critical first step in this process is clarity for what matters most in organizations. Leaders who link employees’ daily activities to the organization’s Key Results produce more engaged employees. These employees understand how their own actions impact both team and business outcomes. This understanding fosters a deeper sense of purpose, pride, and workplace satisfaction. And this is a win for organizations: according to the Happiness at Work Survey, when employees are happier at work, 73% collaborate better, 48% care more about their work, and 85% take more initiative.

Think of it this way — an individual employee working at one of 1,000 retail stores could easily feel like “just a number” and have little to no drive to engage meaningfully in their work. However, if they understand and believe that every single sale puts a critical brick in the pillar of results, and that they have the power to build that pillar higher, they are more likely to feel in control of and engaged in their work

How One Hospital Leveraged Accountability to Drive Engagement Scores

When Piedmont Athens Regional Health System found itself plagued by staggeringly low patient satisfaction ratings and hovering in the second percentile of hospital employee engagement — meaning that 98% of American hospitals were ranked higher in engagement — CEO Dr. Peck knew that something had to change. 

The legacy culture at Athens had given way to a company culture in which employees believed they needed to be extremely cautious with whom they spoke and exchanged feedback. Dr. Peck hoped to instead create a company culture in which information could be freely shared in a way that’s honest, direct, and respectful. 

He also wanted his employees to be bold and make informed decisions without fear of failure, to collaborate rather than to operate in siloed teams, and to take accountability for solving problems rather externalizing and blaming others. The ultimate goal? Drive employee engagement and, as a result, patient satisfaction levels. 

Working with Partners In Leadership, Dr. Peck set out to achieve this hospital-wide culture shift. Using numerous methods, including experiential workshops and performance management systems integration (e.g. recognition, performance reviews, hiring processes), all 3,000 employees were introduced to the tenets of the new company culture that centered around collaboration, communication, fearlessness, and accountability. While engagement wasn’t introduced as its own tenet, better engagement is the natural outcome of working in a collaborative, communicative, fearless, and accountable work environment.

Meanwhile, members of the management team were enrolled in a process that equipped them with the tools to create, manage, and sustain this culture shift. For example, they instituted a practice of publicly recognizing employees who sought to improve the patient experience by demonstrating boldness in speaking up to avoid potential problems — such as poor bedside manner. They were trained in how to gain buy in from every employee in order to create alignment around Key Results, highlighting, for instance, how maintenance plays a key role in providing patients with a clean, comforting environment; and how nurses make patients feel heard and cared for. The results exceeded expectations. 

“You just don’t see quick turnarounds like this. Movement like we experienced usually takes a year,” said Pamela Duke, former Director of Patient Experience at Athens. “We saw significant gains within weeks. Patient satisfaction (HCAHPS scores) jumped by 20% on average across 12 reporting units. Five units had at least one of 10 HCAHPS score domains in the top 10% within three months.”

Along with driving topline organizational success, the hospital witnessed the tangible connection between accountability and engagement as they rose from being ranked among the lowest percentiles in terms of employee engagement to the top 75% of healthcare systems. 

Positioning Your Organization for Long-Term Success

Decades of data on employee engagement does tell us that people work hard for money, they work harder for good leaders, but they work hardest for a cause. Leaders break through engagement fatigue and energize employees when they clearly communicate their company’s expected outcomes, connect employees to the mission, and recognize and reward those who take accountability for driving the culture shift. Our Workplace Accountability Index confirms: accountable employees are engaged employees and, as a result, are more likely to take effective action, facilitating higher levels of achievement toward organizational goals. 

In the case of Piedmont Athens Regional Health System, a holistic change process that addressed leadership behaviors as business processes (i.e. better aligning policy, procedures, and HR practices with the desired culture) drove engagement scores in dramatic fashion. 

While some may argue that the difference between accountability and engagement is nuanced, it’s evident that the two partake in a causal relationship. What’s critical is to promote a culture of accountability in order to achieve sustained employee engagement. 

Organizations that assess and invest in driving positive accountability foster an environment in which the answer to most performance problems falls between greater individual accountability and leaders who model and promote a culture of accountability.  When this happens, what was once a black and white world of “us vs. them” becomes a place full of color, where frontline employees and leaders alike can flourish. 

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