All Aboard?

All Aboard?tcbrPDF normal

Why companies still don't get employee engagement right.

By Richard H. Axelrod

All Aboard?

Illustration by Phil Bliss

Richard Axelrod is co-founder of The Axelrod Group, a Wilmette, Ill.-based collaborative-change consultancy, and author of, most recently, the second edition of Terms of Engagement: New Ways of Leading and Changing Organizations.

Let's begin with what you already know, at least intuitively: Employee engagement is good for your company.

Now let's turn to what you may not know about employee engagement: everything else.

To some degree, that's forgivable. After all, it used to be that companies expected employees to show up for work, do their work, and then . . . well, then repeat the process the next day, and the day after that, and after that. In return, workers got a salary and maybe some recognition for a job well done. Beyond complying with this social contract, neither side had great expectations.

Today, that contract is being rewritten. What was fifteen years ago a small blip on leaders' radar is now a mainstream concern. Employees want to feel better connected to their jobs, while organizations are discovering that getting their people to work effectively is work in itself. This is especially the case as a sour economy, continued layoffs, and intense competition mean that the benefits of enhanced employee engagement—improved productivity, better customer service, and higher rates of employee retention, to name a few—are more important than before. At the same time, what makes employee engagement more vital nowadays makes achieving it more difficult. Even when organizations try to boost engagement, they often fail. Here's a look at how to avoid the most common pitfalls.

Plug and Play

For starters, stop thinking of employee engagement as a plug-and-play activity. Successful employee-engagement practice is not about plugging in a set of tools and techniques that you just read about in some hotshot guru's latest book—and then expecting engaged employees to magically appear. It's appealing to think that because an initiative worked well at another firm, it will work wonders for you, too. Although it is true that certain methods are generally more effective than others, your company isn't general. You need to implement tactics specific to your situation. To figure out what those techniques are, leaders must first engage with their people. How you engage with employees is as important as the tactics you use.

Unfortunately, there is an increasing sense of unease about the growing distance between managers and those they manage. As executives spend more and more of their days in meetings with other executives, the engagement gap grows between them and their subordinates. Meanwhile, people want leaders who understand them and the work they do. They do not want leaders who are missing in action.

Nothing beats direct interaction between management and workers. It is foolish to expect that sending leaders to employee-engagement training will create an engaged organization overnight. Such training is only the beginning: Following the workshops, there needs to be time and opportunity for leaders to come together and share their learning so they improve over time.

Thermometer Solutions

Of course, you'll want to know if your efforts are working—and what better way than simply to ask your workers? Indeed, engagement surveys are great, providing information about strengths and areas for improvement. (That is, if you ask the right questions.) Over time, you can follow engagement trends as well as benchmark within your organization and against other businesses. Be careful, though, that surveys don't lead to "thermometer solutions"—those based on measurements without understanding underlying causes.

For example, one manufacturer recently pored over its latest engagement-survey results; top managers were distressed to find low scores for employee recognition. The company's response: an employee-recognition program, complete with logo clothing and monetary rewards for high performance. A year later, management anxiously awaited new survey results. To their dismay, nothing had changed—employee recognition was still dismal.aboard3

The organization had created a classic thermometer solution by recognizing the problem, developing a solution, and implementing it without ever talking with those who filled out the survey. Had company leaders engaged in simple conversations with workers, they would have learned that what people wanted most was for leadership to recognize their hard work and understand what they were dealing with daily. Employees had been working seventy-to-eighty-hour weeks to meet project deadlines. They would have appreciated occasional questions from managers such as, "Is there anything I can do to help?" They wanted leaders to stop being indifferent about computers that frequently crashed and programs that didn't work. Plainly put, they wanted simple gratitude for their efforts, as well as help in addressing issues that were making their jobs difficult.

Contrast that with the approach leaders took at a major advertising firm. Low employee engagement was showing up not only in surveys but in a high turnover rate. The agency conducted a series of employee focus groups, sharing with them the survey results and asking them why they responded the way they did. In these discussions, leaders learned that while the work was stimulating, the long hours, frequent travel, endless meetings, and 24/7 e-mails left people emotionally and physically exhausted. Together, management and employees developed a series of changes, including no-meeting days, e-mail-free weekends, and no-travel weeks, a time set aside when no one would be on the road. The result: Not only did employee retention improve—so did client ratings.


The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.