Studies have shown that employee engagement can be directly tied to increased productivity and, ultimately, higher profitability for an organization. While a company may wish and hope that their workforce remain engaged, it takes a concerted effort from all members of leadership to ensure that engagement happens. Simply put, employee engagement should be top of mind for leaders every single day.
What happens when employees begin to disengage? Workers begin to check out, no longer giving the effort they once did. Passing the buck becomes the norm instead of the exception, with workers no longer willing to take ownership of issues that arise. Even worse, apathy begins to set in. Apathy is a business’ number one enemy because it is what powers disengagement. Since an organization’s people are its most important resource, employee disengagement can be a company’s biggest problem.
The scope of the problem
Gallup does an annual poll that measures employees happiness with their jobs. Interestingly, since the poll began in the year 2000, employee engagement is at an all-time high. However, even at an “all-time high,” 53% of workers in the United States remain disengaged. So we are in a prosperous employment period considering the low unemployment rate and a higher level of job satisfaction, yet more than half of people still don’t care for their job. That’s very telling and should be concerning for anyone who owns a business.
Workers become disengaged for a number of different reasons. Some don’t like the work they do. Others don’t like their boss. Yet others don’t feel recognized for work well done. To that point, 69% of workers say they’d work harder if they were recognized for their good work. So much goodwill can be achieved with so little effort by a leader who understands this important fact.
Disengagement, overall, can be attributed to two main culprits. The first is when an organization doesn’t take the time or have the understanding of what is important to the employee. They don’t know (or care) about their personal and/or professional goals. The other reason disengagement happens is when unqualified leaders end up in leadership roles. Working for an incompetent boss inspires absolutely no one.
First person perspective
Maybe some of these things sound familiar and may resonate with you? I know a few of these points hit home for me and I can cite two distinct examples. In my life as an advertising sales rep/manager, I had two bosses that exemplified the problems listed above.
When the dotcom era hit and internet companies were popping up like dandelions, I was responsible for selling ads to internet companies. At a time when the industry was new and there were questions that needed to be answered, I needed a boss who could guide and advise me. While my boss was a very nice man who always had his employee’s backs, he barely knew how to log onto the internet. It’s hard to provide guidance for reaching online companies when you have an inadequate grasp of what the internet is and how to use it. Simply put, the wrong person was in the wrong position.
When I was promoted to manager, my immediate boss was a pro-company “yes woman,” always saying the right things in front of her superiors, but taking an entirely different approach with her subordinates. When in one-on-one conversations with her employees, she was quick to point out faults but held onto compliments like they were coming out of her personal checking account. With regular negative reinforcement unbalanced with very little positive, the work environment soon became toxic and apathy became the norm.
Though I invested half a working career with this one company, I just couldn’t tolerate it any longer. I hit the eject button and the company lost an otherwise dependable, high-performer due to circumstances they could have easily avoided. While I can’t say I would have retired from that company if circumstances were different, I can absolutely, positively cite my disdain for my boss as the reason for leaving this company despite having a career-based position with great pay, benefits and security.
Ways to keep the workforce engaged
If we identify that a disengaged workforce results in lower productivity and profitability, then it seems that keeping workers engaged should not just be a priority, it should be THE priority. What steps can a leader or business owner take to ensure he or she does not lose the focus of the workforce? Here are a few key things that can make all the difference:
- Recognize a job well done. While not every employee enjoys being recognized in a public forum, I’ve never met an employee that doesn’t appreciate being told they did a good job. It does not require any compensatory attachment; simply saying the words “good job” to an employee can have the same impact as receiving a bonus check, and the positive sentiment will undoubtedly last longer.
- Understand what is important to your employees. This sounds so simple but how many companies take the time to truly understand what is important to an individual? Everyone has motivations that drive them and if a company doesn’t know what the employee aspires to achieve, the chances for disengagement increase significantly. The days of the annual employee review are long past where a casual, passing mention of an employee’s future intentions were more about conversation and less about action. Leaders need to work regularly with employees to identify and plan important goals then work all throughout the year to keep the employee on a path to success.
- Lead by example. If you are leader, be prepared to practice what you preach. If you a leader that tells someone how things should be done, but then operate outside of those same constraints, you will immediately and irrevocably lose the respect and trust of your staff.
- Make work meaningful. There will always be aspects of a job that people may not like. And yes, that’s what the money’s for. However, a person should enjoy what they do a majority of the time. If that continuum leans toward the “unhappy with work” side, the quality of the work will be compromised and the employee is likely a short-term solution. If you want people to perform to their capabilities, make sure they enjoy what they are doing, and help them find a way to make that possible.
Employers need to be honest with themselves and realize that their employees work because they need to, not because there’s no place they’d rather be. With that said, they have a great deal of control over whether or not their workforce remains engaged. And it’s easier than you may think.
Many of the difference-making actions that matter most to an employee can be easily accomplished with a little time and attention from the organization’s leadership. Leaders need to recognize a job well done. Great leaders will go out of their way to look for examples where an employee exceeded expectations and recognize it. Making work meaningful is also a very important aspect to most workers. People simply want to feel like they are contributing in a meaningful way.
A worthwhile organization will help employees develop a path toward their goals, both professionally and personally. Employers need to realize there’s a difference between an employee’s work life and personal life and when the two conflict, personal life will take priority. Finding a way to make a person’s work complement instead of conflict with their personal life will make for a happy, engaged employee.