Ok, fine, I admit it – Employee Engagement has become the next HR fad, the next flavour of the month. Generally speaking, it’s already going away. However, it’s not leaving for entirely good reasons.
The Employee Engagement journey started out as “Employee Happiness”. Some realists figured out that many employees were all too “happy” flying under the radar doing as little as possible. Next came “Employee Satisfaction” that then faded into “Employee Engagement”. By the way, the next new HR buzzwords or crazes that will likely also prove to be HR fads are “Employee Experience” and “Culture”.
Employee Engagement really seemed to gain some steam and was largely legitimized by the work of Gallup. Gallup said they could not only measure employee engagement, but also showed that a highly engaged workforce outperforms an average engaged workforce. This out-performance involves some key metrics, like revenue and profitability, that C-Suite folks actually care about. The Holy Grail was found! Employee Engagement wasn’t a fad after all!
Then, over the next 19 years (and counting), nothing happened. Some companies embraced employee engagement and measured it every year or two, did it again and largely earned the same results. A few intentional organizations made some great action plans and moved the needle, at least temporarily. Most companies languished in mediocrity.
Gallup’s engagement stats are rather frightening when you look at them. In 2001 (USA data) only 30% of employees were considered actively engaged, 54% in the middle were somewhat engaged or not really engaged and the bottom 16% of employees were actively disengaged. Nearly 1 out of every 6 employees are actively disengaged (and potentially destructive and toxic to your organization). This is a waste of so many different things, not the least of which is meaningful purpose in work!
Here we are two decades later and the stats have moved a little bit but are pretty much the same – 33% engaged / 51% not engaged / 16% actively disengaged in 2016.
What really matters? What is the substance behind the fad of employee engagement?
Here is the problem – when we measure employee engagement, we are actually measuring the outcome, the end result. We’re asking employees how they currently feel but we’re not digging deeply into WHY they feel that way.
Measuring Employee Engagement is sort of like measuring Sales Numbers. You typically know who your top sales people are by how much they sold in a given period of time, or how many of their clients return for repeat business. What you don’t know from these high-level sales numbers is WHY some sales people are more successful than others.
So, what are the inputs if employee engagement is the result or the output? What is the biggest factor that influences and impacts how employees feel? The answer is intuitive and simple but doesn’t take away from its importance – LEADERSHIP. Gallup themselves have acknowledged that about 70% of engagement is tied up into leadership and most notably, the leadership of the direct supervisor. Dale Carnegie conducted another study that demonstrated that about 84% of how a person FEELS about an organization is directly associated with their direct leader.
Why is Employee Engagement a fad?
Well, Employee Engagement has become a fad mostly because selecting the right leaders is really tough to do. Moving poor leaders out of leadership positions is difficult and painful (but also the right thing to do). Providing your leaders with time to lead their people instead of just being more advanced doers is not a popular concept, especially in practice. Giving your people leaders specific communication and leadership expectations for how you want your organization to lead people isn’t easy. It’s even harder to hold those leaders accountable to those expectations. Building a great company is hard, else all great companies would still be average…
Jim Collins still has it right (read about the bus in “Good to Great”). Get great leaders on the leadership bus -it is crucial. Get weak leaders off the leadership bus – this is equally important. Develop your leaders and give clear expectations of the importance of their role to lead others. This is simply not optional in building employee engagement.
Employee Engagement is a fad because so few of us are prepared to hire, strengthen and develop leaders who will lead and communicate in a way that builds employee engagement. This is hard, but it can be done. It must be done to build employee engagement and a great organization.
Employee Engagement is a fad because it has nothing to do with the easy stuff. Employee Engagement has nothing to do with giving your employees a free lunch. It has nothing to do with the social committee, the annual holiday party or the foosball table. Employee Engagement can be enhanced by these superficial tactics, but only if built on the strategic foundation of strong, intentional and positive people leadership.
As “Employee Experience” and “Culture” also start to fade away with Employee Engagement, my sincere hope is that the focus on building great People Leaders doesn’t ever go away, there is too much at stake.
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