By Bob Nelson

The percentage of engaged employees in the workforce has remained roughly constant at about 30 percent for at least the last 20 years, even though an increasing amount of time, energy, focus, and financial investment has been exerted annually to expand that percentage. Why is this?

Assuming that organizations sincerely do care about their employees and not just about business success and profits, four reasons come to mind: 1) measured engagement variables are too intangible and subjective, 2) the focus of corrective actions are misplaced, 3) one size does not fit all, and 4) the management of change is too complex.

Measured variables are too intangible

Assessing engagement often involves measuring intangible variables, such as employee perceptions, and this may explain why engagement has lagged. Measuring individual perceptions is a slippery slope. The scoring is subjective and can vary due to many circumstances, yet the aggregate scores are treated as objective facts.

How do you systematically impact employees’ perceptions of engagement variables like “At work, my opinions seem to count.” A company can do 100 things that it hopes will impact employees’ perceptions with no guarantees that any of those efforts will work. Quite likely, the company would need to do different things for different people to get a more favorable response. One person may just need to have a comment validated by a manager or executive (“Great insight, Gary!”), while another employee may not believe his opinion counts until a manager acts on the input or idea that was provided.

These observations may explain why organizations are moving away from traditional engagement surveys as the primary means of managing engagement strategies. Although surveys are a valuable way to gauge engagement levels, they do not always yield the kind of information that enables organizations to improve their recognition and engagement efforts.

Corrective actions are misplaced

Measuring one set of variables but then focusing elsewhere to try to impact those variables seems like a fool’s errand, yet this is exactly how most engagement strategies are structured. Placing the onus of action on the organization and its management rather than the employees themselves with managerial support is a no-win proposition.

Suppose, for example, that you ask employees, “Are you using your full potential at work?” and they report, “No, I am not.” How can any manager alone fix that situation? Any potential solutions will at best be a guessing game, and it makes it a little too easy for employees to report, “No, you still haven’t got it right — try again” the next time they are surveyed.

Notice how the picture changes if you recast the question to, “Are you taking measures to use your full potential at work?” The focus for change is now on those individuals whose negative perceptions were the driving force behind your decision to take action to begin with.

A better strategy is to focus on the behaviors you want to see more of in employees. You can do that by systematically recognizing and reinforcing behaviors that have the greatest impact on this particular variable.

When writing your engagement survey questions, consider changing the focus of the questions from being passive to being active so that the questions focus more on your employees’ actions. Instead of a statement like, “I’m given adequate information on issues of importance to my job by management,” include this statement: “I seek the information I most need to do my job.” This rewording puts employees front and center in driving those variables you are most trying to impact. Unless you place focus on the actions of those who are reporting the need, you’ll end up chasing potential solutions indefinitely.

One size does not fit all

Another challenge of engagement programs is the tendency to have a one-size-fits-all approach to engagement and, particularly, to recognition. Companies put in cool programs to drive engagement that are created around the things the person or committee planning the programs finds motivating. Yet, research shows that no motivation strategy or incentive tends to appeal to more than 40 percent of a typical company’s employee population. And often, the organization only has the budget to create a recognition program that can appeal to 70 percent of the employee population.

Engagement strategies thus need to be individualized around the personal motivations of each employee, and every manager needs to make the necessary connection with those employees that report to him or her. If you hire a workforce that is universally motivated and engaged by the same approach, that is great, but when does that ever happen in real life? Many companies assume everyone is motivated equally by the same things (such as greater pay), which isn’t the case at all.

Management of change is too complex

As you look at the key factors that impact employee engagement, they are each relatively clear and are elements that you can easily focus on for improvement. Often, however, managers and executives make two key mistakes:

  • Over-complicating these issues, sometimes to the point of measuring one thing but focusing on something completely different as a potential solution.

  • Being too ambitious about what they can really change in any given time period.

The result of these errors? The impact of any actions taken become blurred or diminished, and the degree of complexity explodes. The problem is compounded when you overlay the solution on your organization’s annual planning and budgeting process, and the speed of change grinds to a halt.

To combat these tendencies, select one thing to focus on and do it right. Clearly focus on a critical area for improvement and then strive to make true inroads in changing that dimension. You’ll move much closer to being a culture of engagement if you do a deep dive on just one variable and stick with it over a significant period of time rather than trying to improve a dozen variables across the board. The further your focus drifts from the variables you are specifically measuring, the fuzzier the results you are apt to obtain, and you’ll end up about where you started, with no discernable improvement, year after year.

Much has been made over the years of the service-profit chain model where engaged employees lead to engaged customers. However, what is often overlooked is the reverse of this relationship. One research study showed customer satisfaction impacted employee engagement at a much greater rate than the opposite. If an otherwise engaged, motivated employee is constantly dealing with frustrated customers, the employee’s engagement level drops quickly.

Gallup used to say that if you put a good employee in a bad system, the system wins every time. Employee surveys often ignore these cultural aspects and focus more on the employee’s internal satisfaction. For example, are employees empowered to resolve customer concerns on the first contact? Are employees forced to deal with policies that frustrate customers? Do salespeople promise things they can’t deliver? These, and other cultural factors, can make or break employee engagement.