You’ve seen the dismal reports on employee engagement. Gallup recently released a report that showed that, on a global basis, 85 percent of employees are not engaged or are actively disengaged at work. We do a little better here in the U.S., but we still only have about a third of our employees engaged, on average.
Gallup blames the lack of engagement on broad mismanagement. But if it were as easy as training leaders better, you’d think organizations would have already jumped on that.
In my experience, it’s more complicated than problems at the top. In fact, when we attribute engagement issues primarily to leadership failures, we subtly accept an important misconception about engagement: that it needs to be energized primarily as a top-down initiative. In fact, what we’ve learned over years of research, consulting, and training is that the real heart of engagement lies within the employees themselves.
Getting to the heart of engagement
When you think of typical approaches to engagement, what do you think of? Most strategies presented to me consist of external inducements: things like cash bonuses, reward and recognition systems, and one-off manager trainings that have been around for decades. Organizations have simply spent too much time thinking of ways to externally influence employees into doing what they desire and too little time tapping into the natural drivers of engagement. We need to let go of our transactional approach to engagement and instead focus on a more authentic, employee-centered approach.
Not convinced? This might help: Not only do external inducements fail to produce lasting engagement, behavioral science has shown that such approaches can actually harm the very engagement companies seek. For example, studies of wellness programs where participants were given financial rewards for losing weight have found that once the participants had fully reached their rewards, they gained all of the weight back — and more. It’s an engagement program that left employees worse off than before. That’s not what anybody wants.
There are higher-quality forms of motivation that are far more sustainable, and an organization’s ability to tap into them is the key to unlocking engagement.
How do we unlock high-quality motivation? Well, it gets back to training.
How employees can get involved in their own engagement
Gallup isn’t entirely wrong about mismanagement leading to poor engagement. But in many organizations, there’s a lack of understanding about the type of training to provide. Equipping managers with guidance is often the right approach. But even the best training available is broad in nature, with little to no attention given to individual strengths and weaknesses that each person brings to the table. The other caution is that some training is done using theories and techniques that are either outdated or were never proved to be effective in the first place.
Here’s the thing: It’s not just managers that need training. If we are going to unlock high-quality motivation, we need to train our employees, too. It’s getting employees involved in making work a better place that will really make a difference. Here are three things that any organization can do to get their employees engaged “from the heart.”
Ask employees for their input
The best place to start is with simple questions. What’s the easiest way to start a conversation about what gets them excited (and, just as important, not so excited) about the work they do? Mostly, you want to understand their personal level of mastery, autonomy, and relatedness at work and help employees think actively about their motivation as well. Are there environmental and individual factors that affect their experience and motivation that managers can change to make work better for them?
Tailor your approach to each employee
Everyone’s experiences are unique. So your response to employees can’t be general. In fact, as you’re talking to employees, it can be helpful to take note of specific areas and experiences needing attention for each one, and then implement or recommend the specific actions needed to improve those areas. Again, listen for how well basic psychological needs for mastery (efficacy and growth), autonomy (personal value), and relatedness (respectful relationships) are being supported or thwarted. These are the main channels to engagement. You can’t do everything. Taking an individualized approach focusing first on core needs allows you to prioritize the most meaningful changes and start there. Consistency and continued input from employees is more important than large, sweeping changes.
Measure true progress
Your focus on measurement should be on the parts of the employee experience that matter for your employees. How are your initiatives and actions impacting their own basic needs — mastery, autonomy, and relatedness — and is it impacting their engagement at work? You also need to tie it back to the macro picture of the organization. Are there common struggles among employees? Where are you excelling? Feeding that information back into your coaching and communication cadence can make sure you’re acting on it in the right way.
Scaling personalized training is key
Once you understand the emphasis on employees’ basic psychological needs and motivational drivers of engagement — and that this approach is backed by decades of research — it all comes together for your organization and your employees.
Training managers and employees about applying motivational theory to their work is an incredibly useful part of your strategy. Unfortunately, it can also be labor intensive, difficult to scale, and expensive. This puts it out of reach of many organizations that want to solve engagement the right way. Fortunately, the quantifiable, scientific nature of the approach means there are solutions emerging that can help organizations scale training to be personalized and affordable.
Employee engagement is a challenge worth solving, but only with programs and trainings that actually get people engaged the right way. Look for trainings that integrate the very best behavioral science approaches. Given the depth of research validating its strong impact on engagement, we recommend Self-Determination Theory as a starting point. It focuses our hunt for engagement where it should be: within each of us.