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The world of work is entering unprecedented times. By many measures, unemployment is as low as it has been in a decade. Yet the percentage of employees who are engaged in their work is frighteningly low. In fact, according to Gallup research, more than 65% of U.S. employees are not engaged or actively disengaged. Behind this statistic are real people just trudging through their workday. It seems a lot of workers are uninspired, deflated and not fulfilling their human potential.

The human cost of disengagement should be enough for executives to investigate and take action. We all spend a lot of time at work and with our colleagues. While competitive salary is important, research indicates that it's not enough to get employees engaged. As the Harvard Business Review observed, “The association between salary and job satisfaction is very weak." Yes, inadequate pay can make employees unhappy. But adequate pay doesn't directly correspond with happiness and engagement.

Aside from the human cost, there are real business consequences to a lack of employee engagement. In fact, unhappy employees cost American businesses over $300 billion each year. High attrition, for one, can drain a company's human capital and profits. But there is also a clear connection between employee engagement and customer satisfaction.

In your own life as a consumer, when was the last time you had a good experience with a company that had disengaged employees? When most companies try to solve customer satisfaction issues and low net promoter scores, they first think of customer experience (CX) processes and technology. But the best CX programs in the world are useless without an engaged workforce.

So, what can organizations do to improve employee engagement?

Invest in New Technologies

Of course, technology is important. Employees expect consumer-grade technology in the workplace. Disconnected systems force employees to spend time hunting for answers instead of servicing customers. Enterprise social networks can also help employees connect. Clearly, good technology and data management is a big factor in employee engagement.

Educate Managers on Smart Leadership

But good technology is not enough. The key to employee engagement is leadership. As Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes, “The biggest organizational cause of disengagement is incompetent leadership. Thus, as a manager, it's your personality that will have a significant impact on whether your employees are engaged at work, or not."

Encourage Free-Thinking

To truly increase employee engagement, it is important to inspire free-thinking across your organization. A company culture based on free-thinking allows employees to speak their minds, and it encourages the C-Suite to match individual worker values to organizational goals. Employees in this atmosphere know that their minds are respected. Employees feel heard, needed and appreciated.

A free-thinking culture inspires leaders to practice honesty, transparency and a “no bullsh*t" communication style. Even if employees don't always like what you have to say, they'll trust and respect you for giving it to them straight. I've found that direct reports welcome this approach. However, it's not just on the shoulders of executive management to lead with transparency; to achieve a company culture connected to high performance, all people managers must be on the same page.

Photo: Creative Commons

There is no magic potion to get employees engaged. Building a free-thinking culture arises from every interaction: from interviewing job candidates to counseling employees who are burned out. It is the job of leadership to model this behavior and address situations that damage the culture. So when executives think about employee engagement, the first place they should look is in the mirror.

Photo: Creative Commons