Employee Engagement Poor, But Not in Retreat

By Jon Miller Updated on May 18th, 2017

Gallup engagement poll 2011-2016
Source: Gallup.com

The Gallup organization polls adults working for U.S. employers daily by phone, reporting on levels of employee engagement. Each year they alert the world to the crisis of employees engagement. It is consistently around 70% not engaged or actively disengaged at work.

The good news is that engagement is making and holding small gains. The employee engagement survey returned a near all-time high levels for the past six months. If you are at work, turn to your left, turn to your right. Chances are, only one of you three is engaged.

Like many problems, engagement is not technically a difficult one to solve. It just requires leadership and will. The recipe for increasing engagement is practically written out in the Gallup survey questions. I wrote about this in how to engage people a few years ago. To summarize the prescription for leaders: strive to design work to help people do and be their best every single day.

Extrapolating the rate of improvement over the past five years based on Gallup data, we should achieve 100% engagement sometime around the year 2084. This makes me wonder what we are doing right, what we are doing wrong, and what emerging trends will affect employee engagement in surprising ways.

Why organizations choose not to close this gap more rapidly is an interesting question. Perhaps the jobs of leaders have not yet been designed to enable them to help others do and be their best every day. This gets to be a bit meta, but if we as consumers and shareholders only financially rewarded organizations that put boards and executives in place with expectations and mandates to solve problems by empowering people, the world would change. What we consume today builds the world we live in tomorrow.

Perhaps we are not clear about what problem we are trying to solve with regards to engagement. Is it the roughly $500 million in lost productivity and quality that Gallup estimates is left on the table each year due to lack of engagement? Sure, that’s a big number. Spread across the roughy $18 trillion U.S. economy it is an average loss of 2.8% from every P&L. How many organizations have made this connection? How many have done the math, and decided the cost to engage people, by providing the right tools, training, opportunities and work-life balance opportunities, exceeds the points lost from the bottom line?

The Gallup poll touches people who are employed. It doesn’t address the so-called gig economy, wherein people have multiple part-time sources of income, often as independent contractors, rather than a career. Are these people more engaged, about the same or less? What does this imply for their productivity, service levels, and quality of working life?

What are we telling our children about engagement? If the stark statistical reality is that only 1 in 3 workers will be engaged in their job, should we not be preparing young people to face this with open eyes, rather than become disillusioned and disengaged? If a gray-haired wise person had told me that a few decades ago, “Statistically, you have a one-in-six chance to hate your job and be disengaged from it. You have a fifty-fifty chance of just checking out, being disengaged. If you are in the lucky one-third, you will love your job and be engaged in it almost daily,” that would surely have raised some questions. Why are the odds so bad? What can I do about it?

How do millennials affect the engagement trend, as the new wave of employees? This group apparently changes jobs more frequently, which by definition limits their long-term engagement with an employer. They also seeks out the higher needs of Maslow’s hierarchy from their work, such as connecting their work to a purpose, learning and work-life balance. On the surface these things suggest that employers will need to adapt in ways that will be positive for engagement overall.

We often slip into disengagement without reflection and without question, taking social cues from around us. My hope is that the next generation will demand more from work, remain engaged and help accelerate change in this area.

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