One Big Reason Employee Engagement Remains so Low

September 2, 2011 § 2 Comments

The latest survey results from Blessing and White reports a 31% employee engagement level nationwide. A Canadian survey is similar. Why is it so low? The typical answer from consultants, such as me, recommends managers must change their behavior, their policies, and the work environment. I agree. Those are great strategies. However, another big reason is the “learned helplessness” we have taught our children and our employees and they all continue to embrace it. This attitude must change concurrent to changing management behavior. This philosophy is so deep seeded that its resilience can frustrate managers who are making an effort. Employees need help to “unlearn” this attitude.

In my opinion we have been, and are, so immersed in the Frederick Taylor model of Scientific Management (from our schooling to our Federal Government) that we think it is our only option. We think it is our only way of thinking. In fact, we are not thinking about it at all. We are just reacting because that is what we have always done.

To change we need to continuously reinforce an alternative theory of management to employees and not be deterred. This alternative theory will be consistent with our Declaration of Independence and our American Constitution. Employees (and students) have been taught to be dependent on managers for answers and for direction. They have been taught that management is omnipotent and in charge. They are conditioned to know it is easier to just wait for decisions to be made for then. It is scary and challenging to take responsibility and risk being criticized (or worse) for making new decisions.

In order to be engaged employees must be willing to take responsibility for their own engagement and for making decisions they have never made before. This feels risky and they often immediately hesitate. It takes faith, effort, and an investment of time by management to retrain employees to trust their own abilities. Employees have been asked to put their innovative problem solving muscles aside and allow others to make decisions for them. Those muscles have atrophied. They need to be exercised and as we all know, when we exercise muscles for the first time in a long time, it can cause pain.

I often hear managers complain that employees are just not willing to speak up. I hear them complain about the lack of motivation. I hear them say they must tell people what to do or they just do nothing. I agree. That is what we have taught them to do. They need to unlearn and we need to help them to not be helpless. We need to help them to stop being victims and to start being leaders.

Teaching managers how to engage employees is not enough. It is like a short burst of fresh oxygen but then they go back to the work environment where they all have to breathe toxic fumes left over from the Taylor thinking. It takes a while to clear the air. Don’t lose faith. Don’t stop trusting. Give the employees time to come around. They are trained to be helpless and we did it.

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§ 2 Responses to One Big Reason Employee Engagement Remains so Low

  • We totally agree with you on “employees have to take responsibilities for their own engagement and for making decisions they have never made before”. In my opinion, giving employees clear understanding of themselves, roles, and expectations will naturally develop a strong feeling of belonging.

    To improve employee engagement, we think a people management platform, using behavior profiles to tell individuals their strengths, weaknesses, communication styles, motivations, and expectations, would do it. With this tool, not only will employees be more satisfied in their position and be motived to align their personal goals with the organization objectives with a clearer understanding their responsibilities and expectations better, but also managers and executives can manage the teams and the organization more effectively and efficiently by integrating soft metrics of behavior profiles and hard metrics of performance indicators to get a complete strategic picture of talents, skills, and engagement of the workforce.

  • Kevin Kruse says:

    Wally, great post. Not trying to intentionally do a book plug, but the reason I called my book on engagement “We” is exactly to your point, “employees must be willing to take responsibility for their own engagement.” It takes both managers/leaders as well as individuals to commit to engagement. Great post, thanks.

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