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The Uncomfortable Truth About Employee Engagement

We’ve all seen it so many times that we’ve come to expect it: Employees show up, go through the motions, perform their job functions, but display little to no enthusiasm for their work. While it isn’t unusual, it’s surprisingly common.

A survey by Gallup found that 35% of employees are engaged in their jobs, while 13% could be described as actively disengaged. The percentage of engaged employees has gone up since Gallup started tracking engagement as a metric in 2000, but many companies and organizations still struggle to meaningfully engage their workforce.

A common first reaction to disengaged employees is to put the blame on them. It’s easy to reflexively respond with grumbling about how hard it is to find “good people.” However, like most conflicts the root cause may not be what appears on the surface.

What if employees’ despondency isn’t about a lack of work ethic or initiative? What if our biggest problem isn’t the lack of “good employees,” but a lack of connection and issues with company culture?

It’s an uncomfortable truth to stomach: Meager employee engagement isn’t the problem itself, but a symptom of the problem. Leaders and employers must accept our share of responsibility this engagement crisis. While issues with individual employees may still arise, a company-wide engagement issue is likely the result of an unhealthy or misaligned company culture.

Culture is one of several unseen forces that drives results. It’s the sum of our character, values, interactions, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. Every organization has a culture, and the stability and health of that culture can make or break an organization.

Many leaders aren’t intentional about building a strong, consistent culture, instead choosing to let it drift to whatever people are feeling on a given day. Intentionality is the cornerstone of a concrete company culture that stands the test of time, and trying to build a culture without it only sets an organization up for failure.

This lack of attention to culture leads to ongoing problems related to recruitment, retention, execution, customer service, profitability, engagement, and much more. If you are experiencing struggles in any of these areas, take an honest look at your culture.

If you’re having a tough time attracting and keeping good employees, what is it about your culture that’s contributing to that issue? If you are constantly struggling with poor execution by your team, what is it about your culture that’s encouraging and permitting this poor execution? And if your employees aren’t engaged in their work, what is it about your culture that’s hindering their engagement?

The key to an engaged workforce is a healthy, positive culture. Much can be said about what this kind of culture looks like, but here’s a start:

  • People are valued and know that they’re valued.
  • Employees are challenged and encouraged to grow.
  • Individuals take ownership of their results, both the successes and failures, growing from each experience with the support of their teams.
  • Everyone is treated with respect and compassion.
  • Employees are viewed as human beings, not tools or a means to an end, and they know this.
  • Everyone’s contributions are appreciated and acknowledged, especially when they helped bring a project to a successful outcome.
  • The people believe they can and do make a difference, that their voices are heard and their opinions matter.

It’s easy enough to print out posters for offices, set up a page on a website or send a mass email with the organization’s values. Putting these ideas down on paper isn’t enough. Values only truly hold power when every executive, leader, manager, and employee buys in and lives them consistently.

Start by deciding the type of culture you want to build. Bring in members of your team from all levels and prepare to hear things you may not be happy with. Take that information, refine it into concrete values, then get to work and build it.

Realign everything you do around that culture. Educate your staff, help them see what it looks like in practical, actionable ways. Use it in your evaluations. Reward employees when you see it in action. Praise it publicly, and never tolerate deviations from your standard.

If you’re struggling with engagement and turnover issues, don’t immediately dismiss it as an “employee issue.” Take a long, honest look at your culture. Be ready for some difficult revelations and then go to work to create the kind of culture that will attract and excite people. It’s hard, never-ending work, but it is worth every bit of time and effort.

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