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Why is Employee Engagement so Low?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert Lavigna
August 5, 2016


Along with many others, I’ve spoken and written about the need to measure and improve employee engagement. Research shows that improving engagement delivers results that matter – in financial performance, productivity, achievement of strategic goals, customer satisfaction and retention – in both the public and private sectors.

Despite this research, the level of engagement in the U.S., including in government, is low. Surveys show that the proportion of engaged public sector employees is as low as 29 percent.

The low level of engagement may seem puzzling since we’ve been talking about employee engagement for more than 20 years.

So why is engagement low? I think there are several reasons. This month, I discuss them. Next month, I will focus on how to overcome these obstacles.

We still don’t have a common understanding of just what employee engagement is. While writing my book, Engaging Government Employees, I came across a LinkedIn discussion asking members to define employee engagement. The day I checked, there were 124 answers that included “work gratification,” “camaraderie,” “feedback” and “love” (platonic, I assume).

As one commenter observed, “Clearly there is no consensus … Every possible positive quality is seen to be a driver. No wonder many people working in this field don’t know where to start and how.”

If we want to improve engagement, we need to understand what it is. One definition I think is particularly useful (and was developed by government, for government) is from the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board:

Engaged employees have a heightened connection to work, the organization, the mission or coworkers. Engaged employees find personal meaning and pride in their work. They believe that their organizations value them; in return, engaged employees are more likely to go above the minimum and expend “discretionary effort” to deliver superior performance.

Leaders don’t see the connection between engagement and performance. Some managers think employee engagement means making their employees happy. And that’s not their job – it’s their job to deliver performance and results.

But engagement isn’t really making employees happy – it’s about performance. In fact, employees in many high-engagement organizations have jobs that are tough and stressful. Take the military, a group of highly engaged “employees.” Soldiers have tough, dangerous jobs, yet no one doubts their commitment and engagement.

We don’t know what our current level of engagement is. “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” We can’t simply assume that engagement is high. One county human resources (HR) director estimated her jurisdiction’s engagement at about 85 percent – because she sees happy faces as she walks the halls. Not good enough, especially since an 85 percent engagement level would be much higher than anything I’ve seen or read about.

We want to improve engagement, but don’t know how. I have a book that promises 180 ways to improve employee engagement. I’m sure there at least 180 ways, but good luck figuring out which of these will work in your agency or jurisdiction. I don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all way to improve engagement, especially across the 90,000 or so government jurisdictions and agencies in the U.S.

Engagement is viewed as an HR project. Successful efforts to improve engagement result from strong leadership and are imbedded in the organization’s core strategy. If engagement efforts are perceived as, or actually are, another HR-driven initiative, they are unlikely to succeed. Instead, they will be viewed as just another thing that HR is making us do. And, if we hunker down, maybe this too will go away.

Of course, HR has a key role – champion, facilitator, role model and catalyst for cultural change. But engagement can’t be driven solely by HR.

Engagement survey results aren’t acted on. When an organization conducts an engagement survey, it asks its employees to share how they feel about the organization and its mission, their supervisors and colleagues, and their jobs. This raises expectations that leaders will use the results. If this doesn’t happen, employees will be disappointed or worse – and engagement will actually decrease.

The real work, and payoff, is not in conducting the survey but in using the results. One organization focused on achieving a high survey response rate. When this was achieved, some units declared victory and didn’t focus on taking action. A big mistake.

Surveys aren’t conducted regularly. It’s not good enough to conduct one employee survey without establishing a regular cycle of surveying. Otherwise, it’s impossible to determine if the needle of engagement is moving in the right direction.

Improving engagement is not seen as a shared responsibility. Even organizations that “get it” about engagement often focus exclusively on what leaders can do to improve engagement. While leadership is critical, individual employees also have a responsibility to understand what their level of engagement is and what they can do, in cooperation with their leaders, to boost engagement.

Improving employee engagement can be a powerful tool to improve individual and organizational performance – if done strategically and authentically. As one public sector official put it, “If you don’t start with the workforce, how can you reach the public? 18,000 ambassadors are better than 18,000 assassins.”

Author: Bob Lavigna is director of the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, a unit of CPS HR Consulting, an independent government agency. Previously, he was assistant vice chancellor and director of human resources for the University of Wisconsin and vice president of research at the Partnership for Public Service. Email: [email protected].

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4 Responses to Why is Employee Engagement so Low?

  1. TPL Reply

    June 29, 2017 at 6:41 pm

    Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that many businesses and corporations view employees as a liability to be discarded whenever convenient?

    It really doesn’t matter if you work your rear off, give your extra time, and do a superior job. You’ll still be laid off when the CEO wants to enrich the shareholders, make EPS targets, or if he can replace you with H1Bs.

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