A recent article in Forbes asserted that the movement for employee engagement was fading away, much like the Total Quality Movement (TQM) of the late 1980s and early 1990s. In my opinion, there are several flaws in what the article suggested.  

First and foremost, there is the big “elephant in the room”—the much touted statistic that approximately 30 percent of the workforce is engaged, with the remainder being either ambivalent or actively disengaged. Do we wave the white flag in defeat and accept this level of engagement for our businesses, industries, and countries? Do we give up this easily? I hope not.  

Literally, all of the best-in-class businesses that I have worked with during my 30-year consulting career eschewed such a defeatist attitude. Instead, they rolled up their sleeves to work harder to become better. (Sounds a little like TQM, huh?) These organizations never lost their undying commitment to the well-defined concept of engagement or its core underpinnings. 

Second, regardless of what “engagement” is called, those people that have it, never lose their passion for what they do or pride in their work or where they work. These two “Ps” of engagement will always yield superior outcomes, such as net-promoter results, customer referrals, customer satisfaction, higher quality and safety scores, and profitability.  Whether we tire of the moniker “employee engagement,” the myriad positive outcomes it creates will never go away.  (Read a comprehensive summary of these business outcomes.) 

Third, if as suggested in the article, engagement has become a “check-the-box” exercise, why do we accept the fact that only 30 percent of employees are engaged? What’s more, why are we not holding the people checking the boxes—managers and employees—more accountable this low figure? Why do we so conveniently blame engagement, or lack thereof, and simply move on to the next box? 

Finally, I’ve seen a much healthier, opportunistic approach to engagement play out in the hundreds of organizations I’ve help shepherd from the nadir of engagement to best-in-class status. In my experience, world-class employers take steps not typically taken by organizations stuck at “average” performance. Best-in-class organizations: 

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  • Never give up, but rather make a long-term commitment to real change and improvement.

  • Have CEOs who eagerly take ownership for leading the effort and expect others to own it with the same level of steadfast dedication.

  • Tailor both their measurement instrument and process to fit the demographic make-up of their workforce, as opposed to using a “one-size-fits-all” survey and solution.

  • The vast majority of companies and the engagement vendors they choose, give and actually guarantee, complete confidentiality for their survey and process. Best-in-class organizations on engagement are no different.

  • Instill complete accountability on their managers for ensuring meaningful action plans are not only implemented, but effectively communicated, such that all employees knew that they were heard and that meaningful changes had been made based on their opinions.  

  • Encourage employees to begin to accept ownership for their own engagement, as opposed to waiting to be engaged by their manager or employer.
      
  • Give their employees a tool through which they could confidentially see how engaged they were in their job, as well as get suggestions on what they could do on their own to be more engaged.  

All of these steps are important, but the final two are critical to long-term improvement. Given that the vast majority of organizations have yet to take these two critical steps, it is certainly no time to throw in the towel and give up on engagement. 

Indeed, the proudest moments of my career as a consultant in this area were standing shoulder-to-shoulder with senior executives who announced double-digit or best-in-class scores on engagement survey results and asked their entire team to stand up and give themselves a thunderously loud standing ovation. Nearly all of the ovations ended with the CEO saying something like, “This is great, but we are not done yet.  Let’s set a goal to be in the top 3 percent next year.” 

Rest assured, William Edwards Deming’s concepts on quality, continuous quality improvement, and the Malcolm Baldrige Award, are all alive and well today. The term TQM may no longer be bandied about, but its foundation pillars still stand as tall as those for employee engagement. 

Read the Forbes article that inspired this post at www.forbes.com/sites/roddwagner/2015/05/11/the-end-of-employee-engagement.