The Bad News about Engagement and What You Can Do (to Win)

by Holly G Green

It’s time for my annual update on employee engagement, and once again the news isn’t good. In fact, based on data from Gallup, the trusted public opinion and research firm, the current state of employee engagement in the U.S. could well be described as dismal.

In a recent State of the American Workplace Report, Gallup reported that seven out of 10 employees describe themselves as either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged.” Which means less than a third of American workers feel actively engaged with the organizations they work for. And that’s a slight improvement over the last four years!

So it comes as no surprise that the Gallup report also identifies employee engagement as the most important HR challenge for today’s organizations, with nearly half of the 800+ respondents citing it as their #1 HR concern.

The negative impacts of disengaged employees – higher rates of turnover, absenteeism, quality defects, safety incidents and more – are well documented. Conversely, the higher productivity rates of engaged workers have been documented as well. The latest Gallup research shows that companies in the top quartile of employee engagement achieve 21 percent better productivity and 22 percent higher profitability than companies in the bottom quartile. You would think that business leaders would have caught on by now!

What can companies do to drive higher levels of employee engagement?

In their white paper entitled 5 Ways to Avoid the Engagement Abyss, Globoforce – a developer of custom employee recognition and reward programs – recommends five steps:

  1. Create and communicate a clear set of company values
  2. Intentionally build a company culture that creates employee happiness
  3. Insist on good manager “hygiene” (treat people with respect, provide positive feedback, set people up to succeed)
  4. Provide platforms for positivity (recognition of achievement is an integral part of the culture)
  5. Give employees skin in the game (a financial stake in the outcome)

I agree with all these recommendations, especially when it comes to giving positive feedback and setting people up for success. Engaging people requires establishing a positive, healthy culture where people are treated with respect and given every opportunity to succeed. But treating people well is only half the battle.

To become fully engaged, people need to feel inspired by what they do at work. They want to know that the effort they put in each and every day somehow makes a difference in the world. And that starts with having a clear and compelling vision of winning. Without it, organizations tend to wander, with no clear sense of direction. When people don’t know where the organization is going, they won’t engage at the level you need to win.

So the first step to increasing employee engagement is creating a crystal-clear picture of what winning looks like for your organization. Then continuously communicate it so that people never lose sight of where you’re going and what it takes to get there. Then follow up with all the stuff the Globoforce white paper talks about: respect, opportunity for advancement, positive feedback, rewards and recognition, and so on.

The key is setting up the employee recognition systems and processes so they happen automatically as part of the way you do business. In today’s world, when we’re all running so fast just to keep up, if we have to stop and think about these things, they probably won’t get done on a consistent basis.

Don’t worry about talking too much about winning, because you can’t. As a leader, you live and breathe the strategy, mission and purpose of the company. But for the people slogging it out down in the trenches every day, it can be easy to lose sight of the big picture and get off track. If you feel like you’re talking about winning too much, then you’re probably communicating just the right amount.

Keep in mind that your company doesn’t have to be working on a cure for cancer or wiping out global poverty to inspire people. People want to make a difference in the workplace, and they want to win. If your business helps them do both – whether you make a better pencil eraser or a product that makes cleaning easier – they will buy into and feel good about what they do on the job. And when people feel good about coming to work, they bring more of themselves to helping your organization win.

Call to action: Make a commitment to communicating your vision of winning more often.

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Holly G GreenHolly is the CEO of THE HUMAN FACTOR, Inc. ( and is a highly sought after and acclaimed speaker, business consultant, and author. Her unique approach to creating strategic agility, helping others go slow to go fast, will change your thinking.

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  1. This article covers what it takes to keep employees engaged once you already have them, but I think it is important to look hard at how your company’s hiring and recruiting process either creates or negates engagement of future employees and top talent which you would like to see build careers with your organization. Long, cumbersome ATS- or VMS- driven hiring processes with rude and dismissive HR recruiters automatically downgrades the job opportunities you offer from Career Move to Just For Now. People who are skilled in their fields and can afford to be selective about who they work for will never take you seriously if you don’t treat them like valuable human beings right from the beginning. This is a point which so often gets missed, causing companies to hire disengaged people to begin with. Once a person feels like they had to compromise themselves just to get a job, they will be almost impossible to engage meaningfully later on.

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