Why Employee Engagement Initiatives Fail


Billions of dollars have been spent over the past two decades as companies seek to increase employee engagement. The measure of employee engagement became popular in the 1990’s as an onslaught of research showed the link between the measure of employee engagement, an increase in employee performance output, and overall organizational performance.


Adding to the engagement focus, Fortune Magazine’s partnered with the Great Places to Work Institute to create an annual published list of the top 100 best places to work in America. In the publication, Fortune documented the special benefits and perks provided to employees of the top companies on the list.


This began a good trend among companies. Business leaders who wanted to attract and retain the best talent implemented better benefit plans, incentives, and special perks for employees. All with an intent to increase employee engagement scores.


Companies have also spent billions to upgrade management and leadership capabilities that involve the development of interpersonal and emotional skills that are believed to lead to better work environments, culture, and therefore employee engagement. Lectures, classes, books, and ecourses have been used to teach skill in listening, coaching, collaboration, development, and recognition among other “soft skills.”


After all this, recent studies by organizations such as Aon Hewitt and Modern Survey show a decrease in overall engagement scores in North America. The focus on benefits and leadership initiatives have failed to live up to their expectations.


Granted, some companies have been able to increase engagement scores, but as a whole companies seem to be losing an uphill battle for the hearts of their employees.


While I’m a big proponent of providing the best benefits, incentives, leadership development and perks possible, I also believe a new perspective on driving employee engagement is needed.


Rather than pushing engagement, companies and business leaders need to think about the true foundation of engagement. Rather than thinking of engagement as a feeling or emotion that can be easily manipulated, we need to think of engagement as being a result of an employee being allowed to do work that appeals to his/her unique motivational drivers. These drivers are the things that truly impassion a person to take value-based action that results in focus, determination, quality, and also meets the individual’s psychological needs.


Companies and leaders don’t engage employees, employees engage themselves when they have the desire and energy that is derived from internal motivation.


Great benefits and improving interpersonal skill among leaders can stack the deck in increasing engagement, but I suggest that companies begin focusing on two foundational activities.


1. Train managers to identify the unique motivational drivers of each employee and manage accordingly. Recent research has derived 16 basic drivers of motivation. These drivers are intrinsic, reflect our core values, and reveal where we get our sense of meaning. See my post on The 16 Drivers of Meaning and Motivation to learn more.


It’s evident that highly engaged employees are in roles that support their unique motivational drivers. So companies that want to increase engagement levels must get managers equipped to place employees in roles that allow them to continually pursue the fulfillment of their basic motivational driver. For example, if a person has a basic motivational desire for power and influence, managers can help the person become more motivated and engaged ¬†by giving the person leadership responsibilities.


Another example would be an employee who has a high motivational desire for learning with engage herself at a higher level when she is given a role that both requires and values learning.


2. Train both managers and employees to identify their own unique motivational drivers that drive work and life satisfaction. It’s not enough for managers to know what uniquely drives each employee, the employee must also know what factors drives her/himself. When employees and managers are able to better understand what drives them, they can take action to improve their quality of life in both work and life.


The foundation for employee engagement is internal. Engagement happens when people are pursuing their unique and natural motivational drives that are aligned with values and what gives them true meaning. Companies can’t expect to do this by providing blanket, one-size-fits-all pay, benefits, rewards systems, and generic manager or leadership development. Instead, companies should help all employees, managers, and leaders understand their own motivational drivers and those of the people they lead. Then utilize this knowledge to place people in the best role possible t0 support the fulfillment of these drivers. In doing so, company leaders can better unleash employee talent, potential, and willingness to engage.