Low Employee Engagement Isn’t the Problem…

  — Low leadership engagement is.

Not long ago, I received a request for comment about employee engagement being at a record high. That seemed like an odd request, since almost everything I’ve read in recent memory was lamenting dismal engagement survey results.

Employee Engagement graphPoking around some, I found that employee engagement soared to its highest level in five years – a whopping 34.1% in March – only to fall back below 33% in May and June. In other words, it sucks. Thanks, Gallup, for keeping it real.

We spend way too much time and effort trying to measure engagement, not to mention the money we throw at employee engagement programs, apparently without much result. I’m convinced it’s because we’re letting the wrong people lead – and take the blame for – our unsuccessful engagement efforts.

News flash: Low employee engagement is NOT an HR problem. It’s a leadership problem.

I’m not knocking HR–far from it. But much like with leadership development efforts, HR takes its cue from senior leadership. If there’s just lip service and no involvement at the top, employee engagement efforts are doomed.

If your company is hiring consultants to find out why your employees aren’t engaged, you’re wasting your money. I’ll give it to you for free: your employees aren’t engaged because they don’t feel valued doing worthy work, and that’s a leadership issue.

Most employees would love to tell you exactly how they feel about the workplace, but aren’t going to do it if they don’t believe you a) are listening to them, and b) will do anything about it. That’s a leadership issue, too.

How do you know what makes them feel valued? Ask them. And don’t do it with surveys and suggestion boxes. Effective leaders know how to have meaningful, face-to-face conversations with their employees and are okay with getting feedback from the people who work for them. Ask them what makes them feel valued, and listen to what they say.

What about the worthy work part? How do you know what would make them feel like they’re engaged in worthy work… like their efforts are part of something bigger than their paycheck?

Right… ask them. And not just once a year at performance evaluation time. They’ll say anything they think you want to hear to get their evaluation over as quickly as possible.

When we develop leaders, we help them improve communication and feedback effectiveness, empowerment and delegation, conflict management and trust building… all skills that involve engaging the people who work for and with them. In other words, employees who aren’t engaged aren’t being led.

So when it’s time for your company’s next annual employee engagement survey, how about suggesting spending less time measuring employee engagement and more time engaging employees.

It’s up to you, leaders.