Why is Employee Engagement Stagnant?

Idleness, indifference, and irresponsibility are healthy responses to absurd work—Fred Herzberg.    
Employee engagement concerns the relationship between employers and employees. Highly engaged employees are enthusiastic about their jobs and committed to performing assigned tasks at a high level; disengaged employees work to earn a living and could care less about their jobs.

Organizational research shows there are positive relationships between employee engagement and organizational revenues, productivity, profitability, and customer satisfaction, although the causal nature of this relationship may be in question. (Does organizational performance drive employee engagement or vice-versa?) Because of the relationships between employee engagement and important financial outcomes, engagement has become an area of focus for many organizations. Companies now spend millions on annual engagement surveys and related consulting engagements. There is evidence showing that in some cases these efforts do result in improved engagement and organizational performance, yet overall employee engagement has remained stagnant across the United States for the past five years. Approximately 70 percent of the workforce remains disengaged and there are five reasons why it will likely remain this way in the future.

The Nature of the Job/Work Performed. A long-time friend recently retired after working 40 years as a car man for a large railroad. Car men are responsible for hooking train cars and engines together and ensuring brakes and other control systems are in good working order. The job stayed virtually the same for 40 years and had few cognitive, emotional, or behavioral demands. Randy hated his job and couldn’t wait to retire. Sometimes the nature of work limits employee engagement and no amount of corporate cheerleading are going to make things better. Work redesign might help, but at the end of the day the phones still need to be answered and the trash hauled out.  

Some People Will Never be Happy. Tom worked in quality control his entire career and is one of the biggest complainers I know. Tom scores highly on the negative affectivity scale, which means he and others like him tend to view the glass as half empty. Because those with higher negative affectivity scores will never be happy, organizations can improve their average engagement scores by simply finding these individuals someplace else to work.

• I Wish I Was Special. Some feel their privileged upbringing and special qualities entitle them to be engaged and consulting firms have been more than happy to indulge these fantasies. Consultants have made considerable sums convincing organizations that there are real Gen X, Y and Millennial differences in employee engagement, but as Peter Cappelli said in his HBR article a few months back these differences are more hype than substance. Making a big deal out of these make believe differences may only exacerbate the engagement problem, as organizations will never meet the unrealistic demands of these employees. Like the previous point, it may be easier to raise organizational employee engagement scores by having these “Here we are now, entertain us” types find employment elsewhere.

• Powerlessness. Sometimes jobs have considerable potential for engagement but employees become demoralized because of they way they are managed. Steve had a PhD and was working in an interesting and impactful job for a large health care organization. His boss, Linda, was an ambitious, politically savvy leader keenly interested in moving up. Laurie was so concerned about her reputation and not making any mistakes that all of Steve’s correspondence and presentations had to be approved by her before being seen by anyone else. After a year of being micromanaged Steve left the organization, and Linda made sure to put a positive spin on his departure so as not to lose any points with the powers to be. And she needed to do a lot of spinning, as the rest of her staff completely turned over the following year. Not that Linda was held accountable for any of this, which leads to the last point…

• The Gap Between Ideal and Real Leadership. Leadership authors, speakers, and consulting firms all preach that those in positions of power need to be humble, authentic, truthful, and put their staffs first. Yet as pointed out by Jeffrey Pfeffer in Leadership b.s., self-centered braggarts who tell people what they want to hear and look out for themselves are more likely to get promoted. Many organizations reward those who can tell great stories and “put on a show” and conveniently overlook those leaders who misrepresent reality, break commitments, take care of themselves first, or lie. Leaders rarely pay any price for their bad strategies (or are given large severance packages if they do get fired) while their bad decisions cause employees to get restructured out of their jobs. Employee cynicism increases as the gap between what organizations say they want their leaders to do versus what actually gets rewarded becomes more apparent. This gap between what should be and actually happens may be the biggest reason why employee engagement has been stagnant and will likely remain so in the future, and it is the one thing most organizations and consulting firms are loathe to admit.