2 key factors why employee engagement initiatives fail

Revitalizing your workforce takes more than an annual survey or questionnaire. Instead, focus on selecting the right managers and equipping them to excel.


Until recently, few companies had a keen interest in understanding how their employees felt.

Those that did used surveys with a meandering list of questions covering a multitude of topics. These surveys were too long and addressed many “satisfaction” or contentment issues that weren’t immediately actionable for organizations. The information that was actionable was difficult to find, because it was buried in a large set of survey data.

Advisory firms such as Gallup sought to crack the code of employee performance by studying which workplace elements were most predictive of business outcomes—such as profitability, productivity, employee turnover and customer perceptions of service.

Our research led us to 12 questions that formed an “employee engagement index” and soon became known as the Gallup Q12. This set of 12 survey items proved to be highly predictive of performance.

Workgroups with high Q12 scores outperform those with lower scores on every type of performance metric: revenue, profitability, productivity, customer experience, safety, health care costs, etc. Over time, other advisory firms came up with employee engagement metrics, too, and the “employee engagement movement” gathered strength. Companies of all sizes in almost every major global economy added an employee engagement initiative.

There is still work to be done, however.

The percentage of “engaged” employees among the U.S. working population has remained at around one-third (currently 33 percent) since Gallup began measuring it in 2000. The percentage in the 100+ countries where Gallup measures it has hovered around 15 percent.

Yet behind these averages, when you look at individual organizations, there has been tremendous progress. Many companies that we’ve consulted with now have a workforce made up of at least 75 percent of engaged employees—a few even higher than that. However, beyond these success stories, very little has changed nationally and globally.

Why have some companies massively boosted their percentage of engaged employees and others have not? It comes down to two reasons:

1. An employee engagement program must be a manager education and development initiative, not a measurement initiative—but many are just the latter. An annual survey alone does not help anyone. The survey itself should simply be an audit of whether things are getting better. The program should be all about offering managers learning and tools to increase engagement within their teams—week in, week out—through ongoing conversations between managers and their employees.

Many companies simply conduct an annual survey and essentially tell managers to “get better,” but they don’t sufficiently follow up. This has never worked and never will. It’s not what our most successful clients do.

Any company with an “engagement program” should look at what that program entails. If the program is all about arming managers with learning and tools to better engage their people every day, then it’s on the right track. If it is merely an annual survey and reporting exercise, the organization should shut it down, regroup and start over.

2. Companies are not nearly selective enough about whom they name as their managers, at every level. Most people become managers either because they were top individual performers or because they’ve been around the company a long time. Neither of those two things correlates to being a good manager. In fact, Gallup research has found that only 10 percent of human beings are naturally wired to be great managers—and some others, while not naturally gifted, are teachable. Unfortunately, companies choose candidates with the right talent for the job only 18 percent of the time.

Great manager education and development can help almost anyone be a better manager, but it works a lot better if you invest heavily in people who are already wired to excel in the role. There are scientific ways to accomplish this, including psychological assessments and better interviewing questions by hiring managers. Companies should use this science.

Employee engagement programs have fizzled at many companies because they haven’t been approached correctly or implemented thoroughly. Frankly, this has stalled the engagement movement.

Measurement alone does not make a movement. More carefully choosing managers—and then giving those managers the training and tools to psychologically engage their teams—makes a movement.

It’s never too late to do the right things. Why not start now?

Larry Emond, a managing partner for Gallup, oversees Gallup’s strategy in Asia and the western United States. This article was originally published on Gallup.com and has been reposted with permission.

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