Employee engagement was right up there on the list of top corporate buzz terms for 2016. And company-wide engagement programs are quickly becoming the silver bullets de jour to unlock hidden workforce productivity and satisfaction.
You don’t have to look very hard to see why:
A recent Gallup study shows nearly 70% of employees are not engaged at work.
Of all employee segments, millennials are the least engaged. So things may actually get worse.
Disengaged employees cost companies $450 to $550 Billion per year in the US.
These are pretty compelling numbers.
There’s no question companies need to be focusing more energy on creating workplace environments that foster engagement. It’s also pretty safe to assume that a byproduct of creating a more engaged workforce may well be productivity improvements. Which means there is hope we can take a dent out of that $450 Billion a year cost we’re absorbing at the moment.
I couldn't be more supportive of engagement platforms and programs in principle. In my experience, companies that make building a great place to work for employees the number one priority end up winning more often than not. Employees who are engaged and fulfilled perform better. They work more effectively with customers. They are more creative. Everything starts with the employees. I am "all-in" on programmatic engagement ... but i do have a few concerns.
I am starting to worry that the more programs we are introducing at the company level, the more managers have started to offload the accountability for engagement to the corporation.
Before I explain the source of my concern, it probably makes sense to start by reminding ourselves what really creates engagement at work. The main drivers according to experts like Kenneth Thomas, are fundamental intrinsic motivators like:
- A sense of purpose at work
- An opportunity to pursue that purpose with autonomy
- The chance to learn and progress in your career
- Honest and constructive feedback on your competence
Corporate engagement programs have a major role to play to be sure. But I don’t think programmatic engagement on its own goes far enough. More specifically, my fear is that some managers will use system-wide engagement programs as a reason not to develop within themselves. And, rather than build naturally positive workplace environments based on openness, compassion, autonomy, empathy and trust – we’ll rely too heavily on packaged programs and then wonder later why they didn’t deliver the engagement we were hoping for.
When I reflect on my own experiences as a manager – I can say with confidence (and a measure of shame) that no program or system would have overcome my crappy qualities as a manager earlier in my career. No collection of policies, processes and apps would have created a more engaging workplace for my staff members. Because the real problem was Me.
Unless the leaders of the company - the managers - make fundamental changes in how they view and interact with employees as human beings, engagement programs will not be enough to make the kind of impact we all recognize is needed. Only when the individual manager makes a conscious decision to dedicate him or herself to offering each employee a truly meaningful opportunity, with the autonomy to pursue it, and the chance to learn along the way, will the potential of these engagement programs be fully realized.
I want to be clear, I'm not skeptical of company-wide engagement programs, training, surveys or anything else. We need these things. And its amazing to see so many companies embracing workforce engagement as a top priority. What I am worried about, is that managers are starting to take these programs as permission to offload the responsibility of engagement onto the programs and systems. That can't happen. Engagement, on a team, in my experience, starts with the manager. And that kind of engagement comes from building a human connection with your team. It comes from being empathetic and from getting personally invested in the people you lead.
The message I give to myself and fellow managers is not to pin all our engagement hopes on programs alone, but to pair these amazing innovations with a genuine change in mindset to make the pursuit of purpose, autonomy, learning and progression a fundamental part of the everyday team culture.