Let’s smash 5 pervasive employee engagement myths

The statistics aren’t as grim as we’ve been led to believe, but leaders must do more to create an environment that fosters worker enthusiasm and productivity.


Seven out of eight employees are disengaged—or so “they” say.

One can’t help but feel discouraged by such oft-cited numbers. If 87 percent of my staffers are disengaged and not doing me any good, why not fire those slugs and keep the superstar?

It’s not so simple. When it comes to employee engagement, and employee engagement statistics, it’s often difficult to sort fact from fiction.

With that in mind, let’s re-examine some pervasive workforce engagement myths:

Myth 1: Most of your workforce is disengaged.

As we completed the research for The Employee Experience, we reviewed results from more than 24 million survey responses. We learned that the “fully disengaged” figure across the world is actually less than 5 percent—a far cry from the staggering numbers reported in publications today.

So, why does this myth have such widespread distribution? Well, there is some truth to it, but this grim notion is more myth.

Most are your employees are probably not fully disengaged. Our research found that 32 percent of employees around the world are “fully engaged,” 48 percent are “key contributors,” and 16 percent are in the “opportunity group”—either “fence sitters” or “waiting to engage.”

Don’t let scary figures deflate your enthusiasm. Engagement should be an ongoing concern for any organization. It’s not a “set it and forget it” proposition. Prioritize measurement and track specific metrics so you can gauge progress.

Myth 2: We can perk our way to engagement.

Work perks go only so far.

Research shows that when someone jumps to a higher level of income or a new standard of living, they quickly adapt and become dissatisfied again. If you try to buy employee satisfaction by upgrading perks and trinkets, the price always goes up.

Give employees a bonus, and that becomes part of next year’s expectation. Taco Tuesdays are great, but did you see that the company down the street also gets Fajita Fridays?

That’s not greed; it’s human nature.

Employee engagement requires more than just perks and benefits. It’s about employees putting their hearts, hands, minds and spirits into the work they perform. It’s about inspiring people to work together, improve and drive positive results.

Myth 3: An employee engagement survey creates engagement.

Measuring engagement is like measuring your blood pressure. It helps you understand your overall health, but it doesn’t create health.

Imagine discovering you have high blood pressure. Each year you return to the doctor, only to be told, once again, that you have high blood pressure.

You have several choices:

  • You can go to another doctor, hoping he has a blood pressure cuff that will give you better news.
  • You could say, “Having my blood pressure checked isn’t giving me the results I need, so I’m not going to have it checked anymore.”
  • Finally, you could work with your doctor to address those areas that will improve your blood pressure and your overall health. Perhaps it means more exercise. Maybe it’s a low-sodium diet. Relaxation or meditation may be on the list. It could call for medication.

Regardless, it takes specific interventions and actions to improve health. The same goes for any organization. Measurement alone doesn’t improve anything.

An engagement survey is an important first step in improving engagement, but until you start acting on the findings by creating action plans for change, your situation won’t improve.

Myth 4: Employee engagement, workplace happiness and employee satisfaction are synonymous.

Many confuse employee engagement with employee satisfaction, but satisfaction is more transactional and contractual.

In return for work, the organization promises to provide compensation, tools and resources, and physical and emotional safety, to name a few. This is the “transactional contract.” Both the organization and the employee must continually make deposits into the relationship “bank account,” and both sides vigilantly monitor their account activity.

For every withdrawal on either side, a deposit must be made. When there’s an imbalance on either side, a deposit must be made.

Unlike employee satisfaction, engagement is not transactional. Employee engagement is an emotional state in which people feel passionate, energetic and committed to work. Engagement happens when we fully invest our best selves—our hearts, spirits, minds and hands—in the work we do.

Notice that “hearts” and “spirits” involve emotion or feeling. This is where happiness comes in. Researcher Shawn Achor defines happiness as “the joy you feel moving toward your potential.”

Happiness is a feeling. However, it leaves out the last two components of the engagement equation: “minds” and “hands.” These two facets pertain to action. Engagement hinges on stoking and satisfying a worker’s emotional and action-based needs.

MYTH 5: Your company is responsible for worker engagement.

Some managers are stellar at creating situations in which people choose to be motivated. However, the key here is choice. Like motivation, engagement involves choice.

Although a manager’s role is to create an environment where employees are encouraged to engage, ultimately, it is the employee’s responsibility to choose to engage.

Engagement is a 50/50 proposition. The organization owns 50 percent of the responsibility (to create the environment), and the employee owns 50 percent (to choose to engage). A small percentage of workers will choose to engage in nearly any environment. Conversely, a small percentage will rarely engage in most environments.

Most of us, however, are somewhere in the middle. We tend to engage in environments where we are inspired and motivated to get involved. Unfortunately, that winning environment is not the same for every individual, and, of course, engagement always comes down to choice.

Find the ‘MAGIC’

True engagement can create wonderful results for your company. Our research revealed that employees who found workplace MAGIC—meaning, autonomy, growth, impact, connection—tend to engage.

Perks, surveys and even happy employees don’t always lead to engagement. It takes a more robust, well-rounded MAGIC approach to create an environment that fosters engagement.

Tracy Maylett is the CEO of DecisionWise. A version of this post first appeared on the DecisionWise blog.

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