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How to Recover From a Decade of Lost Employee Engagement

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How to Recover From a Decade of Lost Employee Engagement

Steven M. Dolan
Principal Consultant, 2020 Talent Management

JULY 14, 2021

Despite years of effort by HR professionals, Gallup’s latest findings indicate that 70 percent of the U.S. and 87 percent of the global workforce are disengaged or emotionally disconnected from their work, costing businesses billions of dollars each year. Little progress has been made on the state of employee engagement since 1999, when the Gallup Organization’s groundbreaking work First Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently took the industry (and New York Times bestseller list) by storm.

How is this possible?

Interestingly, a 2014 survey of HR leaders found the top three methods currently used to promote engagement are recognition, work-life balance and wellness. In the survey, retention was the most frequently used metric to gauge the effectiveness of engagement programs. Recently, I was pleased to see a Forbes post recognizing that corporate leaders are concerned that engagement has not been improving, then surprised to find its recommended solution: hosting "fizzy Fridays," a random day for pizzas, or mid-day ice cream deliveries at the office.

Though building a positive workplace is a worthy goal, employee satisfaction is not enough. We must be careful not to confuse workplace fun and contentment with engagement. Likewise, let’s not assume that improving retention increases engagement. Statistically, we are more likely retaining disengaged employees. (Blessing White would refer to them as "free loaders," those who are content and deriving maximum satisfaction from the job but contributing little to the organization).

So what are we missing? Gallup, CEB and White all point to the critical role of the immediate manager. Eleven of Gallup’s 12 engagement indicators are under the direct control or influence of the manager. CEB identified the "Top 50 Levers of Engagement," 43 of which are controlled or influenced by the manager.

Great. So let’s make sure all of our managers are engaged in engaging their employees, right?

But that brings us to the root cause of the problem. CEB found that 57 percent of managers would have opted for non-management roles if there was an option. Even more alarming, 65 percent of managers would "opt-out" of a management role if given a chance to take another equally attractive role. A CEB study of 9000 managers concluded that only 19 percent were both committed and effective at managing. Given the current state of management, we shouldn't be surprised that employee engagement levels remain stagnant. We have been solving the wrong problems!

In Gallup’s 2013 State of the American Workforce report, CEO Jim Clifton states, "The single biggest decision you can make in your job — bigger than all of the rest — is who you name manager." I couldn't agree more. Organizations must develop what I call "manager effectiveness systems" that include programs and processes for selecting, assimilating, developing, assessing, recognizing, rewarding and promoting managers to the next level. The role and expectations of a manager must be clearly defined. Those organizations who dedicate the necessary effort to manager effectiveness will reap the rewards of a more engaged workforce, an improved leadership pipeline and sustained competitive advantage.

Then they can start talking about massages and taco trucks.

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