Why are we still not getting it right with employee engagement?

According to Gallups latest State of the Global Workplace 2023, only 23% of the world’s employees reported themselves as engaged at work.

Wait a minute. It’s worse than that. The report finds that 59% are ‘quietly quitting’ and another 18% are doing this loudly. Which I guess means they are at best actively looking for another job or, at worse, intentionally underperforming and opposing leaders.

What on earth is going on?

Gallup go on to estimate that low engagement is costing the global economy $8.8 trillion. Well I can’t get my head around these figures. Even though organisations across industries and sectors realise the crucial role engaged employees play in fostering a productive, innovative, and profitable workplaces and despite countless initiatives and investments, the needle on employee engagement hasn’t moved as significantly as desired over the past few decades.

Why are we still grappling with this challenge, and what practical steps can we take to improve it? This was the theme of my recent podcast episode of Gobo with my colleagues Rengin Onay Girav and Alim Erginoglu.

If the vast majority of the workforce is not fully committed, enthusiastic, or emotionally invested in their work, these statistics are alarming, considering the substantial investment organisations have made over recent decades in engagement surveys, tools, programmes and other initiatives. The landscape of employee engagement has also seen numerous shifts over the years. From focusing on employee satisfaction to employee engagement and, more recently, employee experience. While the terminology may have evolved, the underlying goal remains the same: creating an environment where employees are motivated, productive, and fulfilled in their roles.

So, what are the key challenges preventing us from achieving the desired levels of employee engagement, and how can we address them? One significant challenge in today’s workplace is the presence of different generations working side by side bringing disparate perspectives and expectations to the table. It’s significant because in many instances we can see a disconnect between what employees want and what businesses expect; particularly in younger generations being led by older ones. 

Many organisations espouse impressive mission statements and company values, but these often don’t fully translate into workplace culture. This disconnect between what is preached and what is practiced can erode trust and engagement among employees. Company values should be a visceral, lived and breathed throughout the organisation and leaders can role model these, embodying the values and behaviours they’d like to see from their employees.  Afterall, everyone is looking upwards in an organisation for examples of the organisational culture and values.

Often too, organisations view employee engagement as a project led by HR, rather than being deeply embedded in the company’s DNA and in every aspect of the employees experience.  This can tend to have unintended consequences.  On the one hand leaders at all levels in an organisation can feel that their role might be peripheral to employee engagement, dependent on HR strategy and policy that they just have to follow.  Secondly, the perception that engagement  is “being done to” employees takes away personal agency and responsibility for engagement.

Engagement goes beyond rational factors like salary and benefits, the pool table in the restroom and free drinks in meeting rooms. It’s deeply rooted in emotions. Employees need to feel emotionally connected to their work, colleagues, and the organisation. This emotional bond is not, in my opinion, sufficiently nurtured.  The reason for that is we don’t have a vocabulary to express emotional expectations and very often exploring emotions at work is seen as thin ice.

My own research suggests that part of the reason for higher employee engagement remaining elusive is down to insufficient consideration of four critical pillars.

A bedrock is trust. Trust is the foundation of any successful relationship. Employees need to trust both their immediate leaders and colleagues and believe that their contributions matter and are valued. Trust isn’t just interpersonal, one to one.  It’s also environmental in a group and there has been a lot now written about psychological safety.  (More on that in a separate podcast).

Team climate plays a crucial role in engagement. It encompasses the atmosphere, relationships, and dynamics within the team. A positive team climate fosters collaboration, communication, inclusion and a sense of belonging.  A team leader can do a lot to nurture the team’s emotional climate; what it feels like to be a member of the team.

Emotional connection is important because as humans we have a drive towards feeling part of a tribe. Emotional connections drive pride in the work and the organisation.  It also drives motivation, commitment and fulfilment. Emotions are drivers of behaviour and the ‘feel’ of the place can be contagious – either positively or negatively.

Possibly the most difficult, and I would argue the most important, pillar of employee engagement is ownership. This, I think, is the ultimate goal of any employee engagement initiative; employees taking responsibility for their own level of engagement. When employees actively choose to engage and contribute, it becomes a sustainable force that doesn’t rely on top-down initiatives. Here the team leader plays a major role.

It must be recognised, too that organisations need to focus in on the reality of workloads and work-life balance. It seems clear that many organisations are expecting increasing levels of productivity with lower levels of resources. An unhealthy work-life balance, coupled with high levels of stress, can lead to burnout and disengagement among employees. This, I think, was brought to the foreground during the recent pandemic and is probably influencing many employees decisions about ‘quietly’ or ‘loudly’ quitting.

Much of the practical solutions to increasing employee engagement and nurturing a positive employee experience lies in the hands of the immediate manager.  Gallup’s view is we need to change the way we manage people. Rather than over relying on the employee satisfaction or engagement survey, team leaders can focus on cultivating a workplace where their needs are met, and they feel appreciated. Self-determination theory of motivation suggests that as humans we crave the ability to have autonomy and choice. We also want to feel that we are building our competence – definitely a feature of Gen Z’s needs and expectations of work. We also need to feel connected.

Empathetic, compassionate leaders that empower their team members in decision-making processes; who provide development opportunities, pay attention to their work-life balance and wellbeing, recognise and reward contributions and fostering a sense of pride and ownership in their work are likely to influence greater levels of engagement in their team.  For me, one of the greatest challenges for leaders at any level regarding employee engagement is that they themselves are so maxed out with the demands of their roles that they forget – as Professor John Adair would have said – that as they climb the organisational structure two-thirds of their focus and effort goes on people.

Poor management may lead poor operational performance, lost customers and lost profits, but it also leads to miserable lives. Gallup’s research into wellbeing at work finds that having a job you hate is worse than being unemployed — and those negative emotions end up at home, impacting relationships with family. If you’re not thriving at work, you’re unlikely to be thriving at life. In today’s competitive business environment, nurturing an engaged workforce isn’t just a desirable goal—it’s a strategic imperative. Organisations that invest in employee engagement reap the benefits of a more committed, motivated, and high-performing workforce, ultimately driving success in the long run.

To find out more about what we do in the field of organisational culture, leadership and team effectiveness and employee engagement head over to our services page here:

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