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Engagement is now under scrutiny by researchers and others who

find its promises hollow and some of its assumptions just plain wrong.

Employee Engagement: An Epic Failure?


f your company is worried about engaging its employees, its not alone. In
a 2014 Deloitte study, 78 percent of business leaders surveyed rated reten-
tion and engagement as urgent or important. But surprisingly, another study
found that 75 percent of organizations have no engagement strategy.
Despite great sums spent on engagement consultants, software, and surveys,
employee engagement scores have been declining for years. According to a Tow-
ers Watson survey, nearly two-thirds of U.S. employees are not fully engaged in
their work. The same percentage of the workforce was as disengaged in 2000 as
it is today, and that trend has been consistent throughout the past decade. The
cost of disengagement, and the lost productivity it causes, is estimated to be be-
tween $450 billion and $550 billion per year in the United States.


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A 2012 survey of employees in Journalist Lucy Kellaway, writing in They dont have a culture that en-
Great Britain by the University of Bath the Financial Times, argues that increas- courages employees to thrive.
found that only about one-third of ing employee engagement is a waste In addition, there isnt agreement
employees said they are actively en- of time. She cites studies showing that about what influences employees to
gaged at work. That represents some workplace bumblers who do the mini- engage. Is it frequent recognition, clear
20 million people who are not working mum to achieve a desired result are expectations, explicit values about per-
to their full capability or realizing their generally better pleased with their work formance, constant pulse taking, or just
full potential at work. than the maximizers, who strive to do more money? Or none of the above?
things as well as possible and are inevi-
Claims and disagreements tably disappointed with the outcome. So, lets take a survey
More than 30 suppliers serve the $1.5 Poor results from employee en- Your company probably conducts em-
billion employee engagement market gagement efforts should influence the ployee engagement surveys. More than
in the United States, according to the way companies define and manage en- 80 percent of companies do, accord-
Bersin by Deloitte report Employee gagement. Thats not to say that there ing to the Society for Human Resource
Engagement. Many claim that their ap- is a common definition in wide use Management, but many admit that they
proach to engagement will improve by companies or consultants. A quick dont understand how to interpret the
company performance, citing research search for definitions of employee en- results nor what to do to improve sur-
theyve conducted. gagement yielded results as varied as vey scores.
Consultant Robert Bacal sees no simple happiness, satisfaction with an In 2013, Edward Lawler III, distin-
merit in such claims. In his blog on employer, pride in ones work, willing- guished professor of business at the
workplace trends, he writes, There ness to drive business success, and University of Southern Californias
is no evidence that employee engage- commitment to act in the employers Marshall School of Business, wrote an
ment causes better performance. best interests. Gallup defined em- entry for the Forbes blog. Called An Id-
There are only studies that show a ployee engagement almost 10 years ago iots Guide to Employee Engagement,
correlation. It may be that more prof- in First, Break All the Rules as working it lays out some fallacies about em-
itable companies have better engaged with passion and finding a profound ployee attitudes, beliefs, and behavior
staff, because they are profitable, and connection to ones company. that get in the way of interpreting data
do a lot of other things better than Numerous suppliers and academ- collected in engagement surveys.
companies with less-engaged staff. ics have opinions and some evidence According to Lawler, decades of re-
Some research even suggests that as to why employee engagement fails. search reveal two fallacies:
the best performers are actually less Here are a few of their assertions: Fallacy 1: Money does not motivate.
engaged than weak performers. Ac- Companies dont know what em- The fact is that for many people,
cording to Mark Murphy, CEO of ployees really want. money does motivate performance.
Leadership IQ, employees who pro- They dont know how to interpret Study after study has shown that
vide the least value often are more data from employee surveys or when significant amounts of money
engaged than those who provide the how to act on it. are clearly tied to specific behaviors,
most value. His paper, Job Perfor- They do a poor job of setting and those behaviors are more likely to oc-
mance is Not a Predictor of Employee communicating expectations that cur, writes Lawler.
Engagement, identifies research that inspire engagement. Fallacy 2: A happy worker is a pro-
shows that in 42 percent of organiza- They lack values that motivate ductive worker. Not so, according to
tions, low performers are the most employees to perform at their research over several decades show-
engaged. In almost half the compa- best. ing low or no correlation between
nies surveyed, the least-able workers They lack attractive career paths job satisfaction and performance. In
scored much better than their high- for good performers at all levels. some cases, there were low correla-
performing peers on three measures They assume engagement is tions only because performing well
of engagement: the likelihood that driven by managers when in fact made employees more satisfied, not
they would give 100 percent, recom- it may not be. because employees worked harder
mend their company to others, and Theyre stingy with recognition. because they were satisfied.
think their bosses treat them fairly. Their leaders inspire mistrust. Lawler also points out some

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research-based truths about em- Truth 3: Satisfaction leads to mem- people would want to give their all.
ployee motivation. bership, not performance. Satisfied Now, at least, we have the tools for
Truth 1: People differ in what they workers are likely to stay with a com- finding out what really stirs employees
valueand understanding those differ- pany, but not be the most productive. to commit to their jobs and employ-
ences is critical to motivating people. ers even if we dont always understand
Lawler suggests watching the choices Gears engage; the results. If its happiness you think
people make when they can choose a people, not so much theyre after, you might consider the
reward, such as a raise, a promotion, Confronted with the challenges of Niko Niko. Thats a digital chart on
or a day off. He warns that age and understanding employee engage- which employees post smiley faces ev-
gender are relatively poor predictors ment, let alone increasing it, some ery day to indicate how they are feeling.
of what people value. no doubt reflect longingly on the Like clouds on the horizon, frowning
Truth 2: Expectations lead to motiva- Industrial Age when workers were emoticons might be an early warning
tion. People engage in behaviors that sometimes likened to cogs in a ma- system for a breakdown in engagement.
they expect will lead to rewards they chine. In that command-and-control
value. Often, simply setting goals era, engagement was less voluntary. Pat Galagan is editor-at-large for the
for individuals can make a major im- Few leaders thought about creat- Association for Talent Development (ATD);
pact on the motivation. ing organizations as entities to which

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