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2 Reasons Why Employee Engagement Programs Fall Short

2 Reasons Why Employee Engagement Programs Fall Short

by Larry Emond

When I joined Gallup 25 years ago, very few companies had any interest in understanding how their employees felt.

Those that did used surveys with a meandering list of questions on all possible topics. These surveys were too long and addressed many "satisfaction" or contentment issues that weren't immediately actionable for organizations. The information that was actionable was difficult to find because it was buried in a large set of survey data.

Advisory firms such as Gallup went on a quest to crack the code of employee performance by studying which workplace elements were most predictive of business outcomes such as profitability, productivity, employee turnover and customer perceptions of service. Our research led us to 12 questions that formed an "employee engagement index" and soon became known as the Gallup Q12. This set of 12 survey items proved to be highly predictive of performance.

Workgroups with high Q12 scores outperform those with lower scores on every type of performance metric: revenue, profitability, productivity, customer experience, safety, healthcare costs, etc. Over time, other advisory firms came up with employee engagement metrics too, and the "employee engagement movement" gathered strength. Companies of all sizes in almost every major global economy added an employee engagement initiative.

There is still work to be done.

The percentage "engaged" among the U.S. working population has remained at around one-third (currently 33%) since Gallup began measuring it in 2000. And the percentage engaged globally in the 100+ countries where Gallup measures it has hovered around 15%.

Yet behind these averages, when you look at individual organizations, there has been tremendous progress. Gallup has helped numerous companies move their percentage of engaged employees from far below average to far above. Many companies that we've consulted with now have a workforce made up of at least 75% of engaged employees -- a few even higher than that. But beyond these success stories, very little has changed nationally and globally.

Why have some companies massively boosted their number of engaged employees, while others have not? It comes down to two reasons.

  1. An employee engagement program needs to be a manager education and development initiative, not a measurement initiative -- but many are really just the latter. An annual survey by itself does not help anyone. The survey should be just an audit of whether things are getting better. But the program should be all about providing managers with learning and tools to increase engagement within their teams, week in and week out -- through ongoing conversations between managers and their employees.

    Many companies simply conduct an annual survey and more or less tell managers to "get better," but they don't sufficiently follow up. This has never worked and will never work. It's not what our most successful clients do.

    Any company with an "engagement program" should step back and look at what that program actually entails. If the program is all about arming managers with learning and tools to better engage their people every day, then it's on the right track. If it is merely an annual survey and reporting exercise, the organization should close it down, regroup and start over.

  2. Companies are not nearly selective enough about whom they name as their managers, at every level. Most people become managers either because they were top individual performers or because they've been around the company a long time. Neither of those two things has ever shown a strong relationship to being a good manager. In fact, Gallup research has found that only 10% of human beings are naturally wired to be great managers -- and some others, while not naturally gifted, are teachable. But companies choose candidates with the right talent for the job only 18% of the time.

While great manager education and development can help almost anyone be a better manager, it works a lot better if you invest heavily in people who are already wired to be great in the role. There are scientific ways to accomplish this: psychological assessments, better interviewing questions by hiring managers, etc. Companies need to use this science.

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Employee engagement programs haven't worked at many companies because they haven't been done right or implemented thoroughly. And frankly, this has stalled the engagement movement.

Measurement alone does not make a movement. More carefully choosing managers, and then providing those managers with the learning and tools to psychologically engage their teams, makes a movement. It is never too late to do the right things. Start now.

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