7 minute read – Posted by – March 23, 2018

Employee engagement depends on your company culture

Only 13% of the workforce is engaged, what can we do better?

I once heard an HR professional describe employee engagement as a “novel concept” in our workforce. And he would be right. While we have measures for employee engagement and even more reports telling us about the state of employee engagement, we’re still drawing the same conclusion that the majority of employees are disengaged.

Perhaps the most widely cited are Gallup’s reports indicating only 13% of over 31 million respondents are truly engaged at work. So we know employees are disengaged, but what does it really mean and how do we fix it?

If low employee engagement is only an indicator of a deeper problem, perhaps we’re overlooking the root cause for our disengaged workforce.

In fact, most companies with low employee engagement might be addressing the wrong issue entirely.

Not addressing the problem

According to Harvard Business Review, “companies spend over $720 million each year on employee engagement, and that’s projected to rise to over $1.5 billion”.  But if companies haven’t been addressing the employee engagement issue with these investments, what have they been addressing?

“Most employee engagement models are centered around the work experience and not on the employees.”

Susan LaMotte, CEO of exaqueo

Susan LaMotte’s experience as a former HR leader of a Fortune 500 company tells us that, “most employee engagement models are centered around the work experience and not on the employees”. That means spending money on better office equipment, benefits, perhaps free meals and snacks. All of which makes for better work experiences but fails to engage employees in their work.

So you see, when it comes to addressing the problem of employee disengagement, it comes down to addressing the right problem. Employee engagement is not the same as providing a great work experience, and when resources are focused on the wrong initiatives, your desired results won’t be achieved.

Over time, the behaviors and values employees display are cultivated by what they’re being exposed to at work. For instance, if your team promotes individual work time, it’s safe to assume employees will not be quick to engage in your next big collaborative activity. Similarly, a team of collaboration might leave employees feeling unsupported when left to tackle projects alone.

If the behaviors and values displayed by engaged employees can only be cultivated over time, what does that leave us with? What is the problem we need to address?

The root cause of declining employee engagement

When we look back upon reports that tell us employees are disengaged, we’re being painted a picture of their state of engagement over the course of a long period, likely a year. Unfortunately, it doesn’t indicate to us whether there were behavioral trends correlated to the ups, downs or gradual declines of employee engagement in the workplace.

Luckily, taking a step back will give us a clearer idea of what’s causing employees to become disengaged in the workplace.

Think about your company culture for a moment and how much that impacts the behaviors of employees. A culture that values employee participation and recognizes these behaviors will be able to encourage higher engagement. When your company culture doesn’t reflect the values you want to see employees living by, it becomes impossible to drive employee engagement.

There’s no doubt that when the root cause of your problem is the company culture, it’s going to take strong leadership and time to fix. It’s a long game strategy that not only helps to better engage current employees but future recruits as well.

“Understanding employee engagement isn’t just about current employees, however. In one case, a Fortune 500 technology company was losing recruits to newer companies like Google, Facebook, and SAS.”

—Harvard Business Review (Source)

No matter what type of behaviors and activities you’d like more employee engagement in over time, it’s key to ensure your company culture and values is an accurate reflection of this.

What you can start doing to build a culture that reflects your values

No new employee engagement report could tell you concisely how to engage your employees. Understanding the employee behaviors that reflect engagement with your company values will make it easier to address the disengaged workforce problem. Investing more to improve work experience or launching new team building exercises simply isn’t going to make employee engagement stick.

It’s common to believe improving employee engagement initiatives are expensive but they don’t have to be. Here are two ways HR leaders recommend adopting within your own company to boost engagement:

  1. Discover new employee behavior trends and insights based on data you can collect. Did your team indicate in a recent survey that long weekly meetings aren’t effective and create significant disengagement? Don’t be hesitant to try 10 minute morning stand-ups.
  2. Try asking employees different questions. Employee engagement surveys may seem standard and routine, but it’s actually much more complex than what meets the eye. Without the proper guidance of prompting questions, it can become difficult to uncover the needs of your disengaged employees. Consider revamping your next employee engagement survey questions to discover more.

The root cause of employee disengagement is clear: it’s a product of a company culture that doesn’t reflect the behaviors they want to see their employees exhibit. Just as the manufacturing process doesn’t start when the product is complete at the end of the assembly line, employee engagement doesn’t start with employees disengaging at work. The latest reports are a great starting place, but HR leaders need to start digging deeper for insights internally in order to engage the needs of their specific teams.


Also published on Medium.

May Chau

May is a Content Strategist contributing to the improvement of modern performance management at 7Geese. Connect with her via may@7geese.com