Falling Short: Employee Engagement in America

Falling Short: Employee Engagement in America

Engaged employees are awesome. They work hard, have a good attitude, and generally make your organization a better place. Having an engaged workforce is a strong contributor to success. It is so powerful that, for years, organizations have been measuring the level of engagement in their teams.

But here are two stunning facts about employee engagement:

  1. Employee Engagement across the entire country is a scant 32%.
  2. This number has remained virtually unchanged for 16 years.

If engagement is known to be important and is widely measured, why is it not improving? Why isn’t the needle moving?

A Model for Understanding Employee Engagement

First, let’s quickly define engagement. There are various ways to describe what engagement is, but the most powerful definition focuses on discretionary effort, which is a level of effort that goes beyond what is required to meet minimum expectations. Other indicators of engagement include dedication and attitude, but discretionary effort stands apart as having the most tangible impact on performance.

Where does Engagement come from?

Next, let’s think about where engagement comes from. Here is a simple model that depicts how engagement is either cultivated or destroyed. There are countless scenarios that directly impact engagement, and the purpose of this model is to provide a lens through which to view these situations.

EFFORT – What they do.

The effort one puts forth could be:

  • Below / Meeting / Exceeding expectations
  • Goal-oriented / Aimless
  • Comfortable / Risky

FEEDBACK – What they get.

The response generated by their effort. “Feedback” has acquired an extremely limited popular definition, often associated with being critical and unsolicited. For the purpose of this model, it is important to maintain a broad view of feedback as any response to an action.

Feedback can be:

  • Verbal / Non-verbal
  • Intentional / Unintentional
  • Formal / Informal
  • Actively sought / Unsolicited
  • Positive / Negative
  • Relational / Metric-based
  • Internal / External
  • Vague / Specific and clear

FEELINGS – How they respond.

Feedback will generate an internal response, or a feeling. Feelings are complicated, and determined by a lifetime of personal experience. Two people in the same situation could get the same feedback and have two very different reactions. How one internalizes feedback will determine the level of effort they choose to exert next time.

Keep in mind:

  • You can not control someone’s feelings.
  • You can choose to accept whatever feeling someone has.
  • Engagement is associated with a cycle of high effort.

In the most basic of situations: an employee gives extra effort, gets good feedback, feels great, and chooses to give extra effort in the future. On the other hand, if an employee has a negative feeling associated with the response to their effort, they can slip into a cycle of disengagement and give progressively less effort. If these feelings are not addressed, they can quickly infect the dedication and attitude of those around them.

Key Takeaways 

  1. You are giving feedback all the time, to everyone. The human mind is a problem solving machine that never stops seeking patterns and identifying cause/effect relationships. If you are having a bad day it can seep into your interactions, and some may take it personally.
  2. This cycle can be completely self-contained within an individual. We tend to think of engagement as a relational outcome, but some individuals may get a lot of value out of internal, metric-based feedback.
  3. This model helps explain how an individual can have a natural tendency toward a cycle of engagement or disengagement. Some factors that might influence this include one’s default reaction to feedback or their ability to actively seek actionable feedback from valuable sources. However, such factors do not necessarily maintain engagement, or limit the potential for engagement.

Improving Employee Engagement

To start improving employee engagement you need to address each of the three elements. Each step is progressively more difficult, but will build a stronger climate of engagement.

Step 1: Set the stage for their efforts and emphasize the purpose behind the task.

Step 2: Gain awareness of how you present yourself and what feedback you deliver.

Step 3: Create an environment of openness where it is safe to acknowledge, share, and explore feelings.


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