Getting employees emotionally engaged may sound abstract, warm and fuzzy. But the impact of such a void represents a sobering business reality. Disengaged employees end up costing the U.S. between $450 billion to $550 billion each year in lost productivity. These figures make sense when you consider that an estimated 70 percent of American workers are considered "not engaged" or "actively disengaged." Given such insights, it is no wonder that organizations are doubling-down on their investments to build employee engagement. According to a recent Deloitte study, spending in 2015 will grow in excess of $1.5 billion. That is more than double the investment spent in 2014. While the growing awareness and investment in employee engagement is promising, it is their lack of impact that warrants caution and a broader change in perspective. Discussions regarding employee engagement must evolve beyond the narrow focus of how employees need to change. And instead, expand discussion to include greater focus on an organization's commitment (or lack thereof), to facilitate employee engagement opportunity.
The Deloitte study points out that historical efforts to build employee engagement have often been regarded as wasted spending due to lack of impact. And while not all employee engagement-building programs are as successful as others, I believe that the problem lies not with the issue -- but in the nature of the response. That the lack of impact has less to do with the employee and the engagement methods, but more about the context and limitations in which they operate. These limitations are usually related to corporate culture, limited resources, and expectations that undermine engagement growth potential.
Emotional Barriers to Entry
Businesses with engaged employees outperform those without by up to 202 percent -- Gallup's 2013 Study: State of the American Workplace
The upside potential to building employee engagement is huge! There is no doubt as to the benefit to an organization, but what about the employee?
Envision an employee who demonstrates great potential in becoming the next "entrepreneur" within your organization. Imagine they express interest in learning more about a new topic unrelated to their current role (i.e. social networks), and seeks management support in their development of that interest. What typically happens once they obtain management approval is they invest the time to learn via seminar, course, or purchase of training materials. At this point, they are usually feeling relatively positive because of the investment being made towards their development.
But then what? What are they to do with this new knowledge and learning? How do they channel their new knowledge into becoming something of value to their organization? How can they sustain and build upon what they've learned within context of their daily responsibilities?
For most employees, the barriers to engagement have less to do with their ability to learn something new, but rather their ability to overcome what happens thereafter. When management does not enable employees to engage beyond their current roles and responsibilities, by default pursuit of new ideas/opportunities becomes the responsibility of the employee to nurture through to fruition. In other words, it is the employee who must use their personal/free time to explore new interests (so as not to interfere with daily responsibilities). It is the employee who must find and create the opportunities for exploring their new interests within their organization. It is the employee who is forced to choose between a combination of personal and professional fulfillment, versus meeting management expectations for the role they hold today. When there is no incentive for both employee and manager to pursue interests beyond short-term expectations and rewards, it is no wonder that the majority of employees -- even the most passionately engaged -- will accept the latter path as their corporate role and purpose.
Translating interest into an idea and then further as an initiative, cannot be the sole responsibility of an engaged employee -- no matter how emotionally engaging they may be. Managers can be essential in helping an employee navigate the limitations and hurdles within an organization. Employees need the support and guidance of others, especially management within an organization to bring new ideas to life. Moreover, an employee will have greater confidence in pursuing new interests if they know that someone in management is supportive of their efforts. In return, greater incentives must be put in place for managers to mentor employee interest and development. Such a change implies that the role of "manager" evolves as well. Greater rewards should be put in place for those who not only manage employee and team productivity. But are true "leaders" in supporting their development and growth.
Make it Real
Sometimes, even an employee who is emotionally charged and actively engaging in employee building efforts, is not enough to inspire broader engagement. Because unless such passion can be leveraged in a way that produces tangible outcomes (i.e. innovative idea, program or policy) it becomes difficult to not only to see the value of the effort, but also to share and inspire others. Storytelling without a "result" is like a story without an ending. The act of sharing and storytelling of such experiences with others, employees or externally, becomes more difficult to do and less likely to feel "real" especially to those who might otherwise be inspired to also become more engaged.
Make Engagement Matter
Getting employees to become emotionally engaged requires more than just a larger budget and more program options. It requires a company-wide commitment to build employee engagement that goes beyond words and meeting investor expectations. It is about putting into daily practice a more individualized look at how to nurture interest into becoming meaningful outcomes. Rather than doing more of what has been done in the past, organizations should instead alleviate the burden of engagement. This requires greater investment in time from management, and dedicated resources to better understand, and change, that which limits a person's ability to ultimately become a valued and engaged employee.
Special thanks to Chris Devers for use of his photo Cancelled