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Press Release
Engagement as Culture—or Bust!
Monday, November 17, 2014
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The United States spends more than $720 million annually on improving employee engagement, according 2012 research from industry analysts Bersin & Associates. The Center for Creative Leadership, PerformancePoint, Kenexa, and Gallop also track engagement figures. Some of the recent stats include: 

  • a majority of employees (58 to 90 percent) do not trust management
  • only 14 to 58 percent of employees believe that management is ethical and honest
  • only 15 to 30 percent of employees are actually engaged.

Think about it: If we spend more than $720 million each year, why is engagement so low? 

We know engagement efforts can work. Study after study demonstrates that engagement improves productivity, reduces absenteeism, improves customer satisfaction, allows organizations to be more innovative, creates a safer work environment, and improves retention.

But why do only 16 percent of companies that use engagement surveys see positive results (Hewitt 2010)?  Why do only 65 percent of employees feel they are thriving at work (PerformancePoint 2012)? 

The answers may surprise you.

Leadership does not recognize engagement as a significant issue. I realize it is taboo to say that. However, if we were looking at a capital expenditure, such as machinery that was functioning at the levels just described, leadership would do something. More important, they would be committed to seeing real results.

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People see engagement efforts as simply administering a survey. Surveys do not solve the problems, they give you information.  Surveys are a view of the past, much like looking in the rearview mirror of your car.  They tell you very little about where you are going, but a great deal about where you have been. Surveys are not bad; however, many organizations misuse them, so they either fail to serve a real purpose or can even hurt the organization.  

We use survey results to fix symptoms and action plans. Action planning lasts for two to three months, and then most managers in organizations return to “business as usual.” There are no long-term substantial changes in the organization. Even when the survey concludes that there are issues, such as work relationships or lack of training and development, organizations respond to what they see in the data, which typically has to do with a specific line item or a question in the survey.

The problem is that the results will identify a specific item, but they fail to explain why that item is causing problems. It is impossible to address the item unless you find out why it became an issue.  To determine the cause, you have to dig—and that’s uncomfortable and challenging.

We spend most of our money measuring, not changing. If we are going to change, we need to look across the organization at what cultural attributes exist that cause us to struggle at gaining engagement.  

  • Do all or most of our employees feel included, respected, and valued consistently, not just some of the time? 
  • Have we given our associates or employees something bigger than themselves to believe in and to fight for? 
  • Have we created mutually beneficial bonds between our employees and the organization so they are getting something out of their work beyond a paycheck? 
  • Have we developed a culture that builds and maintains trust and reduces fear in the workplace? 
  • How have we encouraged employees to take responsibility for their own engagement and thereby creating a culture that drives engagement in their co-workers and teams? 
  • How willing are we as senior leadership to look at the less attractive aspects of our organization’s culture? 

Culture is in the stories that people tell, the symbols that people hold up and see, and the rituals that we follow in our organizations. For instance, there are organizations that have parking places based on seniority. That sort of practice describes a culture where certain people are valued more than others, and that value is not built on their productivity or the work product, but their status. 

For another example, consider organizations that have beautiful and well-maintained corporate headquarters, but their manufacturing plants or local branches need significant repairs or have broken equipment that hinders employees’ performance. This sends a message that corporate is more valued than the people in the field doing the work. 

What messages are you sending to your people through your culture?

About the Author

Brad Federman is the chief operating officer of F&H Solutions Group, which merged in 2013, with Federman’s performance improvement company, Performancepoint, LLC. He also is an author, speaker, and consultant with more than 22 years of corporate experience in various aspects of human resources, including performance management, employee engagement, employee compensation, executive recruiting, change management, and instructional design. His background also includes sales, marketing, product development, and operations. 

Previously, Federman was the executive vice president of Novations Group and has held leadership positions with Accenture and Humana Inc. He is a frequently requested featured speaker at conferences and business meetings worldwide. He is the author of Employee Engagement: A Roadmap for Creating Profits, Optimizing Performance, and Increasing Loyalty and a contributing author to 101 Ways to Enhance Your Career. He also has been interviewed for articles in numerous publications such as Fortune Small Business, Los Angeles Times and HR Magazine

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