Sick of All the Employee Engagement Talk? It’s Far From Over

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Some people have gotten fed up with the hoopla surrounding employee engagement, as evidenced by these articles from Fistful of Talent, HR Magazine and ERE Media. It’s not hard to understand their feelings.

After all, we’ve spent millions of dollars and countless hours on the engagement crisis over the past few years, yet we’ve hardly put a dent in it. According to Gallup research, employee engagement levels have barely budged in the last 10 to 15 years—either nationally or worldwide. That’s maddening. But it doesn’t mean we should abandon our efforts.

There are good reasons why many of our engagement initiatives aren’t paying off. Some of these reasons stem from our broken talent sourcing, evaluation and hiring processes … others relate to our failure to provide adequate education, training and development to our people … and still others are due to the ways we manage and mismanage our talent on both a daily and a long-term basis. Compensation, benefits and rewards also play their parts in stagnant engagement levels, as do our corporate cultures and work environments.

This incredibly complex web of factors makes engagement an especially tough nut to crack. And it doesn’t make things any easier that how we define engagement, attack it and measure results are all up for grabs.

But one thing is clear: our engagement crisis persists.

How Bad Is the Problem?

As Gallup’s most recent State of the American Workplace report reveals, only 41% of the nation’s employees know what their company stands for and what makes their brands different from competitors’ brands. Forty-one percent. This is particularly alarming because it has nothing to do with the more subjective aspects of engagement—e.g., whether workers like their jobs or how well they get along with their managers. This is about whether workers understand concepts as basic as their company’s purpose, and not even half say they do.

This signals a failure on a number of levels and from many different parts of the organization. Internal communications, HR, hiring managers, leaders from the front lines to the c-suite, and employees themselves are all complicit in this situation. And it’s going to take real commitment from all of them to fix the problem.

However, I came across a Forbes article written by Karl Moore and Vincenzo Ciampi, who make a compelling case that the engagement crisis is NOT a group problem, at least not at its core. In “Leadership Engagement Always Trumps Employee Engagement,” Moore and Ciampi argue that “engagement is a leadership issue that the CEO must address, period.”

Companies with superior engagement have one thing in common, Moore and Ciampi write: “They have highly engaged leadership at all levels of the organization.” The authors insist that great employee engagement begins with great engagement among a company’s top leadership levels—and primarily the CEO.

Engagement’s Top-Down Domino Effect

I’m not an engagement expert by any means, and I have no empirical evidence or special knowledge to prove Moore and Ciampi correct. I’m only saying that I find their argument compelling, especially when they write, “One of the most common errors CEOs make is delegating the responsibility of creating and sustaining employee engagement to Human Resources, as if it were just another talent management or recruitment challenge.”

The authors recommend we “take a giant step back” and evaluate the engagement of our various leadership levels, from the CEO on down. And the CEO must “ensure that the leaders at the highest levels of the organization are in fact the best performers in their respective roles and are fully committed to the long-term success of the company.” It’s like a domino effect that eventually impacts employees.

One thing we can all agree on, which Moore and Ciampi also point out, is that pursuing employee engagement as an end goal is a strategic error. As plenty of research has shown, employee engagement is a means to a host of benefits that include greater innovation, collaboration and success—benefits that extend beyond our organizations to our customers, our shareholders and our communities.

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