Employee engagement isn’t working. Now what?

Every company and leader wants the answer to this “Now what?” question. Engaged employees translate into a productive and successful organization, which is the goal of most every leader and organization I know. And, engagement also translates into a great place to work, which is what employees want. If you need to get professional advice on legal workplace matters visit here.

As a Fellow in the National Academy of Human Resources, the highest award that can be given to an HR professional in the US, I’ve been to many HR conventions. At these sessions, incredibly smart, prepared HR professionals declare that to increase employee engagement we need more rewards, recognition, training, and empowerment in organizations, that companies need more and better programs to engage their employees.

And yet, these programs are not working. In the same speeches suggesting more employee engagement programs, HR professionals state that employee engagement is at an all-time low. Something is not working!

Effective motivation entails creating a workplace environment where employees find purpose and fulfillment in their roles. This involves not only offering tangible rewards but also cultivating a sense of belonging and autonomy. Empowering employees to take ownership of their work and providing avenues for growth and development can significantly enhance engagement levels.

By fostering open communication channels and soliciting feedback, organizations can demonstrate to employees that their voices are heard and respected. Consequently, motivating your employees is key; it requires a shift from a one-size-fits-all approach to a more nuanced understanding of what drives individual performance and satisfaction. Ultimately, by prioritizing intrinsic motivations alongside external rewards, organizations can cultivate a workforce that is not only engaged but also inspired to achieve collective success.

Perhaps we can take a lesson from Alan Mulally, former CEO of Ford, on how to address this challenging and significant issue.

A Lesson from Alan Mulally

In 2006, when Alan assumed the role of CEO at the Ford Motor Company, Ford had just posted the largest annual loss in their 103 year history.

As his first official act at Ford, Alan brought his leadership team together and asked them to share their top five priorities for their companies, and assess the progress of each priority using a green-yellow-red scoring system for good-concerned-poor.

At that meeting, the entire team assessed each of their priorities as green (good!). This would be great, but the company was headed towards a record $17 billion loss! (This is similar to HR’s employee engagement issue. If all of the employee engagement programs are working so well, why is employee engagement at an all-time low, unless that is the goal?)

Alan told the team that if a $17 billion loss was their plan, then they were right on target. Recognizing the incongruity between their goals and reality, the team tried again and came back the following week, but still all priorities were green. It took some weeks before Mark Fields finally stood up and said “Red”.

This was a turning point for Ford. Someone had admitted there was a problem! Alan applauded Mark for standing up. He facilitated a team discussion and they worked together towards a solution. It worked! Not only did that red eventually become green, but in the coming weeks, more team members brought their challenges to the group and they all worked together in one of the greatest turnarounds in history.

Back to Employee Engagement

This to me is where we are with employee engagement. We’ve got to be able to admit that something isn’t working with all of our rewards and recognition programs, and work together towards a solution. This means everyone – not just the leaders and companies, but the employees too.

When I listen to the presentations at these HR conventions, everything that these great HR leaders talk about is focused on what the company can do to engage the employees – absolutely nothing that they discuss is focused on what the employees can do to engage themselves. These presentations are incredibly effective at describing half of the equation.

They are very persuasive at explaining how the company can increase the employee’s engagement and they completely ignore how the employees could increase their own engagement.

On American Airlines alone, I have over 11 million frequent flyer miles. Most flight attendants do a great job. On the occasional flight, there are two flight attendants, one is positive motivated upbeat and enthusiastic – while the other is negative, bitter, angry and cynical. I’m sure you have been on this flight before.

What is the difference? According to new reports available from Labor Law Compliance Center, the difference is not what the company is providing. Both flight attendants may be making the same pay, with the same uniform, with the same customers, on the same plane, with the same employee engagement program.

What is the difference? The difference is not what is on the outside. The difference is what is on the inside.

While I respect and appreciate everything I hear from the HR leaders at these conferences, I believe we are missing the most important factor in employee engagement – the person who is doing the work.

I would love to hear your thoughts on how we can engage ourselves at work. If we work together, I know we can come up with solutions to this significant challenge of low employee engagement that address the other half of the equation – you and me!

Find out more about Marshall Goldsmith and his work