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12 Reasons for the Elusiveness of Employee Engagement

In 2015, and I don’t think 2017 is much different, a HCI Survey examined the top five priorities for HR groups, the results were as follows:

     1.  Employee Engagement

     2. Succession Planning

     3. Managers as a coach, Coaching Culture

     4. Performance Management

     5. Workforce Planning

There is really no question that engagement will remain a #1 concern. Recent studies have indicated that 87% of companies consider “culture and engagement” top priorities. This focus is very unlikely to change, given that most everyone recognizes that engaged, committed employees are the primary core of today’s workplace success.

12 Reasons for the Elusiveness of Employee Engagement

Leaders need to understand that they have a lot of work to accomplish, given the vast numbers of employees that remain disengaged, roughly 70%, according to numerous national surveys. However, there are other issues that will come to play in 2016 and beyond.

New to the equation will be the effect of mid-level attrition. With the current job market recovery taking place we will see a relatively new retention risk: some term it the ‘middle of the pack’ syndrome which focuses on those who are neither strongly engaged nor terribly disengaged.

The marginal commitment level of these workers was not a major factor when it was the employers’ market and alternate options were tight. Common sense tells us that as more opportunities open up, they will begin to drift away. In the vernacular of HR, these are the “B” & “C” players who in reality are the ones who keep your company functioning and profitable.

Anyone who says that Employee Engagement is a simple process is right in the sense that there are some very simple human interaction ideas that can help in the growth of engagement but they involve a number of very complex emotions, politics and human touch components.

Brief History of Employee Engagement

What is particularly interesting is that the term Employee Engagement only came into the business vernacular in 1990’s. Prior to that HR was talking about employee satisfaction but never linked it to company performance or isolation of the employee relationship as an asset.

We have all heard the phrase that “Employees are our most important asset “in management classes and leadership training seminars for decades. The reality is that often employees are seen more as a liability than an asset. Many times the discussion provides a public relations front to avoid the negative impact that could occur. All this being said, what are some of the real reasons that Employee Engagement is so elusive to leadership today?

This article is not to be a blanket condemnation but rather an exploration of areas that may be blind spots in some enterprises and limiting the growth of engagement. So much has been written about ways to address the issue but very little has been written about the possible causes so I decided to look at a few. You may agree or disagree but the hope is that the dialog allows us to accomplish significant improvements in employee engagement in 2016.

Leaders in the field such as Gallup, Tower-Watson, NBRI, Kenexa and others, have been sounding the alarm about these factors since early 2000 yet here in 2016 we see the numbers have not changed significantly. A large amount of attention, money, staff, time and energy on the concept of engagement has failed to make a huge difference. The numbers remain relatively flat and generally negative. Why?

Possible Reasons for the Elusiveness of Employee Engagement

Below are 12 possible reasons that I believe are limiting the success of companies in dealing with this very critical task today. Disclaimer: I don’t claim these are all the factors involved nor to I feel they are all present in every company struggling with trying to raise their engagement scores. These are some characteristics, behaviors or cultural issues that may need to be objectively examined and then solutions developed to address the particular cases.

  1. Metrics are vague and subjective

Many companies I know seem to feel that the measurement of engagement is a science but in reality it is a subjective measure of the attitude of the people at the time of filling in the questionnaire. The fact there is some consistency over the years does add some credibility to the numbers.

Some of the elements measured are the usually tied to how well people use what some call discretionary time with managers, clients and peers but the source of data is usually from the person themselves or the representatives they are involved with on a regular basis. Very subjective at best.

Vague and subjective numbers open the door to doubt, concern and a lack of trust. Many figure that the data is flawed, especially as it applies to themselves. Leaders want to trust the data then force a program to meet the needs prescribed by the assessment company. They look for best practice solutions which may or may not work in their culture.

More tools are being created daily but they are only as good as the commitments made & kept in the process.

  1. Lack of TRUST between all levels in an organization

Today many organizations are struggling with trust issues between leaders, managers, contractors, customers and employees. The last two decades have seen outsourcing, mergers & acquisitions and bankruptcies that have resulted in massive change, layoffs and confusion in terms of work roles and responsibilities. Most of it was done with little to no involvement of the rank & file employees who were affected most.

Trust is built on solid communications, meeting of commitments and ensuring that people feel valued, without these it becomes very fragile and in some cases non-existent.

Trust is a huge factor in this equation. Too many times we assume that we are trusted but we seldom ask or seek input to verify. It always pays to know.

  1. Fear of Loss of Power within leadership

This is a very real issue. Many senior leaders fear the loss of hierarchy, structure and power as a result of changing to a flattened organization. They fear that no one will need them to help resolve issues or answer questions however the role of a real leader is to build more leaders which means the load will decrease over time, if you are doing it right.

Power is, in most organizations, the ability to get things done, sometimes in spite of the resistance of others. There are a number of sources for power, including assigned or legitimate power, referent or power earned through trust and respect, expert power earned through knowledge, reward power earned through successful experience, coercive power or power taken, demanded or unearned, and informational power based on who owns the necessary data.

As we progress through a bureaucratic structure we believe that the power derived by our climb up the ladder is a perk that we possess but in reality it is something that must be earned every day. One can feel entitled if the role is isolated which makes change even more difficult personally.

  1. Attitude of indifference, entitlement or fear amongst employees

Many employees today have become so distrustful that they are indifferent, feeling entitled or frozen with fear over what is going to happen next.

I know of one company where the employees were offered new revised benefits or a physical restructuring that would have resulted in layoffs. Close to a majority were opting for the new benefits with less expansion while another group didn’t want to accept the new benefits but they also didn’t want the reorganization. This resulted in a frozen staff that were significantly less productive than they should have been. The entire organization suffered because one group wanted everything to go their way without compromise.

In short, for employee engagement to work, people must want to be engaged. If they are like the group above, only concerned about getting what they want, there will never be full engagement.

  1. Short-term mentality within leadership and shareholders

Too many company’s leaders and shareholders are focused only on short term financial gain with a dictated ROI target. Anything less is considered a failure and subject to harsh modifications to the organizational structure and massive cost cutting.

When a company’s only focus is on short term growth, vision, mission and purpose are often lost in the shuffle. Since these are necessary for highly engaged employees their removal or dilution will only result in reduced engagement. It also results in a less sustainable business plan in terms of future delivery or customer satisfaction.

  1. Poor change management processes

A well-known estimate reported by a number of authorities, such as IBM, Forrester, McKinsey, Harvard Business Review, etc., reflects that 70% of all change initiatives fail. The reality is there are many reasons for this statistic but most of them boil down to a poor change management process.

At the core of this are some of the following failure points:

  • Poor communications
  • Top Down Dictation without Employee Participation
  • Underestimating Resources and Support
  • Unclear Objectives and Goals
  • Lack of Agreed to Performance Measurements
  • Underestimation of emotional and political Impact

Being proactive, concerned and empowering are critical to change management success.

  1. Lack of recognition that some jobs may not fit the engagement model

Not every position will fit the model for building engagement within an organization. High danger, high stress, demeaning positions are all unlikely to gain a high engagement scores, especially where the tasks are dictated by a superior position.

Entry level positions can be added to this list if the employee does not see any growth or opportunity for recognition within the role. There are ways to mitigate this but it takes a lot of planning and conscious effort to make it work.

It is a well-documented fact that managers are usually the most engaged individuals and they are critical to engaging others but they must be empowered with the tools to make that happen.

  1. Categorization, simplification of roles, people and processes

By nature, and training, most managers are very logical and orderly in terms of developing processes for their roles. Leaders can be more flexible if they choose but can also fall into the same habits. This means that we love to lump people into categories such as “A”, “B”, “C” and “D” players or “Hard-Chargers”, “Subject Matter Experts” etc.

When we look at talent planning this becomes even more profound. Often value judgements are made as to the possible or actual contribution the groups make to a company operation based on perception. By definition some become high value and others dispensable and this usually has Pareto’s Law embedded in it somewhere for simplification.

This totally bypasses the individual’s contribution & uniqueness entirely. Employees often perceive that groups identity may make some targets for termination without anyone even knowing how they work or what their attitude toward the company may be.

Leaders and managers will say they don’t have the time to really understand everyone who works for them. There may be some merit to this statement but making it work will pay big benefits to the employee engagement tasks within a company.

  1. Culture is not evolving or is locked in mediocrity

People want to feel they belong to a community that shares their values and values them as people. When the values of the organization and the employee align, and when employees see organizational behaviors that reflect those values, they are quite simply engaged.

For example, there is a direct correlation between corporate responsibility and employee engagement. The engagement level is twice as high (54% vs 25%) among those who say they are proud of contributions their organization has made to the community. Senior leaders can further generate engagement by empowering & valuing the contributions of the individuals within and external of the company.

Many company cultures are being drowned out in favor of policies and procedures. The latter become the framework that supposedly holds up the organization and provides the basis for employee engagement. In my experience the more policies and procedures you have the more distanced people become from leaders.

The more distanced the leaders, the less “leading by example” becomes part of the daily activity. People will only know the company by those who they have direct contact with and that may or may not be an accurate representation of the desired culture.

  1. Failure to recognize the need for workplace environment evolution

Employee engagement occurs when the goals of the business are aligned with the employee’s goals and how the employee spends his or her time. The glue that holds the strategic objectives of the employee and the business together is frequent, effective communication that reaches and informs the employee at the level and practice of his or her job. Well designed and executed workplaces can ensure that effective communications.

Engaged employees have the information that they need to understand exactly and precisely how what they do at work every day affects the company’s business goals and priorities. This means providing a strategic, innovative workplace where people feel they have the tools and facilities they need to be successful for the company.

Your company may be more successful with a hybrid office/work from home collaboration model but you need to remember that communications and accountability must become even more resilient and empowering.

  1. Few opportunities for advancement within the organization

One of the more important factors of looking at employee engagement is an employee’s perception of internal growth and development opportunities. Data seems to support that employee perception of internal opportunities is the lowest it has ever been.

Career advancement and promotions are what employees see as giving them growth and development opportunities within an organization. Training and skill development alone appear to be ineffective for increasing perceived opportunities for growth and development because many times the training is never utilized in the current job.

However, for many organizations, advancements and promotions can be unlikely because of struggling business operations, small size of organization, no career planning or miss-aligned values. Employees notice the lack of succession planning or very little rotation between departments—hence the drop in scores. Can you fix that? Can you increase employee engagement when there are less opportunities for career advancement?

Yes. It’s possible. For employees to sense opportunities for growth and development, keep talking about growth plans and succession planning. Constantly communicate about opportunities within the organization. I suggest holding personal development meetings where the following questions are asked, “Where do you see yourself in this company five years from now?” and “How can we help you get there?” Don’t ask if you are not going to listen and act sometime in the future.

Small organizations may feel trapped. When you find someone who is doing a great job, you want to ignore them because you don’t want them to go somewhere else but that never works. Take a proactive stance and encourage them to train their replacements and let them move on to other position or companies.

  1. Too much time being spent in the past or clambering for the future instead of being present, accountable, authentic, visionary and proactive.

As I often say, if you are depressed you are living in the past, if you are anxious you are too focused on the future but if you are present, accountable, authentic, visionary and proactive you are at peace.

If the general answer to everything is “We don’t do it that way” or “We’ve never needed to change this process” then I suggest the organization is living in the past and as a company, people will be depressed and ineffective in many areas.

On the other hand, if general answer to everything is “Wait until the next model comes out, we will see recovery” or “We need to change everything because nothing is working”, then I suggest your company is going to be anxious because everything depends on the future and that is uncertain.

Companies are no different. If leaders and employees are fully engaged they will BE the company and represent it well to the customers. This means more profit, sustainability and growth as well as excellent customer satisfaction.


The goal of this article was to prime the discussion pump and stimulate the investigation of why this thing called “Employee Engagement” seems so elusive. I believe that too many companies focused on trying to find and apply cookie cutter solutions which will only provide marginal success, in my opinion. There are so many distractions that even the most motivated leaders can become bogged down in minutia and tedious details and lose sight of their vision and mission. Time to break this current entanglement and make some major proactive and positive changes in employee engagement.

There is no single solution to the issues of engagement only opportunities to engage, collaborate and learn from each other. I suggest using a framework to review, record, evaluate, empower and build your organization and I would love to help you find the right one for your enterprise. Check out our website at: Transformative Leadership Group or call me at 630-454-4821.