Five Barriers to Improving Employee Engagement

by Fraser Marlow

And How Top Workplaces Prevent These Challenges on the Engagement Journey

After much debate about the merits of employee engagement, even the most critical executives will now admit employee engagement is a tremendous asset to an organization – perhaps even a strategic advantage.

And yet, one report after another still names employee engagement and workplace culture at the top of a CEO’s many challenges:

• The Conference Board’s annual CEO survey lists six top challenges for CEOs today, five of them related to engaging and aligning talent.

• Deloitte’s 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report pointed to “The Employee Experience: Culture, Engagement, and Beyond” as a top trend.

• Bersin’s Predictions for 2017 reported, “the topics of culture and engagement will continue to be top priorities, and we can now measure them closely.”

Despite agreement on the business impact, executive teams continue to struggle with building up these critical areas of the organization. The human element of an organization, which is less tangible than other processes and systems, presents a true leadership challenge.

For more than a decade, we’ve studied thousands of organizations with high-engagement cultures. And through that research, we’ve identified the common stumbling blocks and distilled the best practices used to overcome these challenges.

Five barriers to executing a successful employee engagement strategy

Barrier #1: A lack of alignment, insights, and focus at the top

While senior leaders may agree there’s value in workplace culture and employee engagement, many struggle with tying it directly to the business or knowing which levers to pull to make the needle move.

A majority of organizations still don’t administer engagement surveys or other disciplined ways of getting feedback – and this leaves leaders to assume (or guess) what matters most to their people.

The first challenge is the mindset and the priority setting at the senior team level. At the end of the day, everybody is busy, so it’s easier to move on to more tangible issues than sustain a leadership focus on engagement.

Barrier #2: External investors don’t prioritize engagement efforts

Even when the senior executives are aligned and committed to making culture part of their strategy for driving the bottom-line, getting support from other stakeholders – especially investors – can be a hard sell.

In April 2017, American Airlines announced it was proactively increasing the pay for pilots and flight attendants, two years ahead of contract negotiations. The goal was to enable them to better compete for talent and ensure employees were not coming to work feeling undervalued compared to the airline’s market rates.

The reaction from Wall Street was brutal. Several analysts downgraded the company, wiping 5.2% off the share price. While CEO Doug Parker argues it was a simple case of industry parity, the mood was clearly summarized by Citi analyst, Kevin Crissey: “Labor is being paid first again. Shareholders get leftovers.” The stock price has since bounced back, but the initial jolt was telling.

The dilemma American Airlines faced is common. While boards of directors are close to the business and may be more likely to appreciate the need to build an engaged workforce, finding the right balance between investing and short-term returns can be a challenge. Executive teams think twice before taking actions that might shake investor confidence.

Barrier #3: Communication channels are saturated

Any organization that tries to help employees get engaged will quickly run into this challenge. That’s because improving engagement requires high levels of communication. And in our information-saturated world, it’s difficult to cut through the noise.

It can be a challenge trying to get the attention of employees, and soliciting input also creates vast amounts of feedback that can overwhelm the engagement team.

Barrier #4: Engaging leadership behaviors don’t come naturally

Inspirational communication and greater transparency are typically the simplest and most immediate improvements a leader can make towards greater employee engagement. But leaders at all levels also need to actively engage employees both individually and collectively. And this takes some sustained commitment.

Such behaviors often go against the grain of what’s taught in most formal MBA courses and the instinct executives develop as they climb the organizational ladder.

Barrier #5: Bringing the rest of the organization along

Once the leadership team aligns, is walking the talk, and has begun to engage direct reports, how do you extend this growth to the next levels of the organization? In larger organizations, this can take tremendous effort.

Many look to formal training, investing large budgets and hundreds of people-hours into instructor-led classes. Still, formal training is less important than gaining the commitment of managers to adopt a mind shift. Managers will only benefit from formal training if they are first committed to investing time in their people.

Leadership alignment, communication, and manager mindset are key to improving #EmployeeEngagement @TopWorkplaces Click To Tweet

Ways Top Workplaces Prevent These Challenges in the First Place

Solution #1: Align your senior team

It takes effort to align leadership around a unified strategy. The executive team checklist should include the following actions:

  • Do senior leaders see eye-to-eye on the topic of engagement? Discuss it as a team.
  • What do team members want to foster in their department or function?
  • Where do you see current strengths and weaknesses in your culture?
  • Are these efforts and opinions aligned or conflicting?
  • When have you seen values being lived to their fullest? What was the business impact? Identify compelling stories of your culture in action.
  • How will you gather input and track progress? Agree on how to weave culture and engagement into your senior team cadence.
  • Plot an approach that builds on your organization’s mission and purpose, and avoid relying on transactional approaches or perks. Instead, focus on meaningful recognition and appreciation.

Executive teams will have their blind spots and assumptions. Your best guide in this effort will be objective and candid employee data and a reliable benchmark to guide the conversation. External perspective – from board members, for instance – will help.

“The employee engagement survey has been an extremely helpful tool for us. We can have observations, but the survey bears them out. The numbers don’t lie.” – Jeanne Lynch, Vice President, Human Resources, Griffis Residential

Solution #2: Make sure you have a coherent story

Once the senior team is committed to making employees a key to their business success, you must articulate this to stakeholders in a way that is consistent with your mission and values. The board and external investors will want to see the logic of this effort, as they would for any major investment of time and resources.

Your business case should be built around the many connections between higher engagement and business results. Focus on the metrics closest to your strategy or the most salient barriers to your success. Here, the key metrics include:

  • Discretionary effort and commitment (e.g,. increased productivity per employee and reduced quality issues).
  • Improved employee retention, along with the associated costs of rehiring and retraining.
  • Decreased absenteeism. This mirrors “commitment”, but only use this if absenteeism is a known issue.
  • Improved customer service, which translates to customer retention.
  • A stronger employer brand, as measured by the quantity and quality of job applicants for open positions.
  • Other proven correlations, including better safety records and improved employee health.

While metrics are important, remember people resonate more with stories and examples than dry numbers alone. Building on the list above, weave together a narrative that explains why a focus on employee engagement is a win-win. The organization benefits from a more committed and energized workforce, and, in turn employees benefit from purposeful, enjoyable work.

“Turnover is a very, very costly part of any business, and it messes up a bunch of things. We want to avoid turnover and keep people as long as we can. […] If you’re working your employees too hard and you’re not delivering sufficient services to the client, then both are unhappy.” – Marty Kaufman, President, Accent Computer Solutions

Solution #3: Establish trusted two-way communication channels

An organization with an aligned senior team and a clear strategy is ready for the next step. Start with an annual survey to gauge where your organization is on the trust continuum. Do employees trust the organization or are people suspicious of new initiatives?

Trust is not something the senior team can take for granted. Decisions and actions that take employee interests to heart will build a strong foundation.

Naturally, skilled face-to-face communication is best. Top Workplaces hold frequent, candid and transparent meetings where staff can hear directly from top executives and ask questions.

So how can you scale this effort and make it more effective? Regular email no longer cuts through and many employees are still reluctant to speak up. This is where dedicated tools like Workplace Pulse can support your strategy. By providing a dedicated platform for anonymized Q&A, organizations can initiate a dialogue, build trust over time, and get ahead of any underlying issues hindering the organization’s success.

“As employees saw us integrating their co-employees’ ideas, it opened it up for even more employees to come forward and share their thoughts. People have a lot of ideas. You’ve just got to stop and listen.” – Tim Chisholm, Global Director of Human Resources, INCOE

Solution #4: Develop habits at the senior leader level

Leaders at Top Workplaces are far more prone to seeking input from individual rank-and-file employees on topics such as major department decisions, process improvement, or customer service.

For many leaders, getting these inputs can be tough. And sometimes even tougher to hear when the feedback doesn’t match what the leader would like to hear. Asking – and listening – is a must for any organization that wants to move the needle on employee engagement.

Top Workplaces also know to tap into group wisdom. Leaders provide safe, highly productive venues for employees to collectively explore issues, make meaning of the issues, develop solutions, prioritize solutions, and commit to action plans. In the early boom days of Silicon Valley, a placard hung in several highly successful startups: “None of us is as smart as all of us.” Organizations that embrace that philosophy tap into a key source of engagement energy.

“We’ve got people who’ve been with the company a long time, and they do what they do at their station or their desk every day. They have a better idea of how it works than anyone else. We’d be crazy not to listen to them. There is a lot of in-person communication here. It’s part of our culture.” – Rick Van Kirk, CEO, Pro-Dex, Inc.

Solution #5: Bring managers along

While the senior leadership team is key to getting the organization off on the right track, they can only go so far. Support from managers is vital too.

Managers are in a position to bring the skills and focus of team members into alignment with the goals of the organization. They hold a privileged position since they work in close proximity with people on their team, and generally, hold a higher level of trust than the more distant executives.

Many organizations invest in formal manager training. Yet, these skills are rarely the issue. Change – not only in perspective but also in action – is required in a few key factors:

  • How managers view the role of team engagement in achieving business outcomes.
  • How they view their own role and accountabilities in fueling engagement.
  • Recognition of common leadership pitfalls that can undermine their efforts.
  • Modifications they – and their direct reports – are willing to make for the benefit of the team and the organization.

Committed managers are more open to acquiring the skills needed for improvement. So until they see a real need for change, formal training will fall short.

“Leadership and management are focusing on engagement to a greater degree and rightfully so. This is a positive evolution in the skills of leadership and management.” – Tom McGraw, CEO, Marsh & McLennan Agency – Michigan

A proven competitive differentiator is employee engagement. But getting there remains a challenge for many organizations. Top Workplaces – organizations that have committed to and nurtured high-engagement cultures – are successful at eliminating these barriers through alignment and communication.

Learn more about the Engagement Journey, and where your organization currently sits on this maturity curve.

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