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Your Employee Engagement Program Isn't Working -- Now What?

Your Employee Engagement Program Isn't Working -- Now What?

by Shannon Mullen O'Keefe

Story Highlights

  • Leaders want fast results when it comes to employee engagement
  • Engagement requires time and a strategic approach
  • Improve your human capital strategy with immediate and long-term actions

In today's "just in time" world, we expect immediacy with pretty much everything.

But when leaders want to build a workplace culture of engagement, they're in for the long haul -- because employee engagement is not a static thing.

While leaders are naturally fixated on scores (they know that employee engagement affects key business outcomes including 21% higher profitability), it is important to remember the employee experiences that underpin those scores.

Engagement is a series of everyday actions and interactions. As a result of each interaction within the ecosystem of the company, engagement ticks a little up, or sideways or down.

And all of these interactions, big and small, add up to huge cultural impact.

It can mean the difference between two coworkers complaining about a project during an IM chat or two coworkers problem-solving the issue as best friends at work. The environment for the latter is fueled by serious leadership action that sets the stage for a culture of engagement.

So, when reviewing employee engagement strategies, leaders must consider both short- and long-term needs in order to make a difference.

Employee Engagement Strategies You Can Use Right Now


At the core of a company culture of engagement are leaders who listen. As the Alfred Brendel quote reminds us, "The word 'listen' contains the same letters as the word 'silent.'" Silence may not come easy to leaders and managers who are also required to be key influencers and decision-makers.

This may seem obvious, but it isn't always.

Work is busy, and it is easy for leaders to function in what coaches who practice a variety of listening levels would call "level one." Most of us operate here. We're often listening to respond. At this level, we're ready for the buzzword that will trigger us to suggest what to do (or what not to do.) It is easy to focus on reacting and trying to problem-solve and move on to the next thing. But this is not where we will find how best to move the needle on engagement.

To listen like the very best do, leaders must start with listening in order to understand the core barriers and obstacles that get in the way for employees. This is critical for building engagement.

So, as the best coaches do, leaders need to elevate their listening to "level two" and ask powerful questions to unearth important insights about their people and their work circumstances. Using open-ended questions can open the door to information that helps to uncover barriers that need to be addressed. Questions like, "What is getting in the way of our progress?" and, "What can we do to raise the bar?" and, "What will help us take things to the next level?"

In addition to asking questions, the best leaders extend their listening to include surveying their surroundings. They hear things beyond what people are saying. Are people showing up for team meetings? When they do are they chiming in with ideas? What is the mood of the place? This may mean driving conflict to find clarity sometimes, by lifting logs to find out what is underneath so that you can deal with underlying barriers to progress. This means really being present for your teams so that you can uncover points of pain and resolve them together.

Leaders who are willing to invest in this way can make better-informed decisions. When they take time to assess their surroundings and hear what managers and employees are really saying, it enables everyone to have an open dialogue and to provide honest feedback. This includes lending support to what is possible to change and directly addressing the unfeasible.


So, while silence is necessary to really hear, remaining silent after hearing the needs of the team is a bust for engagement.

Managers must hear needs, get to the bottom of why they matter (by comprehending what motivates the concerns among employees), and then they can make a difference when they work with the team to problem-solve.

Maybe the solution is to make the issue, whatever it is, a team effort to resolve together -- everyone takes turns helping. Or, maybe the issue requires something larger -- action by the manager. Perhaps the team is stretched thin -- and the solution will require additional staffing. Or, maybe the outcome is just to have a heart-to-heart -- a hard conversation discussing how the team needs to live with the status quo for the time being.

Regardless of what the action is, acting on the issue demonstrates to employees that what they said was heard and it matters.

Foundational (Long-Term) Employee Engagement Strategies

Even though we live in a "just in time" world, let's keep it honest here. Leaders need to invest in a plan to execute their strategy effectively for the long run. An implementation approach is needed.

Leaders need to honor the reality that making a difference in the long run means investing in your employee engagement strategy as a core aspect of your human capital strategy. This means investing in a plan to implement the strategy. Ron Carucci pointed out in an HBR article that "67% of well-formulated strategies failed due to poor execution."

And, those who are familiar with Kurt Lewin's change model know that change can be a several step process, from "unfreezing" mindsets to "refreezing" new ways of thinking. Leadership support is needed throughout any culture change journey and this includes implementing a long-term engagement strategy.

To do this takes effort. This means leaders must be ready to support their teams with the key resources needed to establish and implement a plan and to make necessary changes, large and small, along the way. There should also be milestones that will function as checkpoints to measure progress. Without viewing engagement as an ongoing, evolving journey, it will not have staying power in the long run.

Manager development and selection.

A key part of this plan needs to be an investment in ongoing manager development. This is critical to ensure that each of your current managers, has an opportunity to reach their full potential. They need the opportunity to learn how to listen and coach.

Next, leaders need to think long term. Organizational leaders set the stage for their managers to achieve successful engagement outcomes by selecting managers who have a natural knack for leading people.

Gallup research shows that managers account for 70% of the variance in team engagement. They model the organization's purpose and are everyday ambassadors for the organization's values to their teams. They live and breathe getting the work done with their teams where they bring the organization's culture to life. In many ways, they are the face of the organization to your teams.

Manager selection needs to be a part of an overall human capital strategy for the duration. This starts by revisiting how managers are selected to increase the odds that leaders select managers with the potential to raise the bar for their teams.

A culture of purpose.

Even when managers are set up for success, great workplaces take hard work. This means leaders need to own building a human capital strategy that includes supporting an engagement-focused culture. At a bare minimum, leaders need to ask, "Is their 'why' clear enough?" Is engaging and developing people a part of the "why?"

The best workplace leaders build their "how things get done around here" with a keen eye for employee engagement and employee development that is predicated on a strong foundation of purpose.

"Now What?"

In sum, if your employee engagement program is not working, start with an immediate plan to listen and act. And then buckle up for the ride -- as it's a journey.

When you invest in your engagement strategy and continue to focus on the immediate and long-term actions, you will start reaping the benefits of an enduring culture of engagement.

Learn more about Gallup's recommendations for building an engaged workplace:

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