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5 Barriers to Employee Engagement

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There are five possible barriers to employee engagement, including unclear understanding among workers or managers about what engagement is, management or employee cynicism about engagement, bureaucratic work rules, lack of work-life balance, and capricious management practices. 

#1: Lack of Clarity 

The first barrier is a lack of clarity about what engagement is. Some associate engagement with employee job satisfaction, morale, or even mere happiness. But it means much more than that. Engaged workers are satisfied with their jobs, motivated to do their best, satisfied with the work they do and the organization in which they do it, loyal to their organization, willing to say good things to others about their jobs and their organization, and proud of what they do and the organization in which they work. 

#2: Cynicism 

When management and employees are cynical about engagement, it can also be a barrier. Cynicism is pervasive in modern life. A cynical view is generally negative, espousing a view that individuals are always selfishly motivated and act in line with self-interested motives. Those who question engagement on these grounds may regard it as a management fad that seeks to get people to work harder for less money, security, and praise—generally less of everything. In short, a true cynic will not see engagement as a genuine effort, but rather as the latest management trick to get workers to work harder for no reason. 

#3: Bureaucracy 

Bureaucracy has the potential to be another barrier to engagement because in bureaucratic organizations, rules and procedures must be followed regardless of how appropriate they may be to a situation. Control, not results, is prized above all. In these settings, workers may lose hope and grow alienated because they have to work hard to have their ideas heard or get approval to make common sense changes. 

#4: Lack of Work-Life Balance 

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A fourth barrier to engagement is lack of work-life balance. Some organizational leaders expect their workers to put their lives on hold, placing the organization first on all occasions. When economic conditions are poor, some managers—and other workers—feel obligated to work as many hours as possible to appear productive to their employers. 

Their greatest fear is that if they don’t work extra hard, they may be the next victims of a downsizing. Under these conditions, it is impossible to be fully engaged because workers feel coerced, however subtly, to be on the job. But time on the job does not always correlate to productivity (or job security), because the value of time spent at work hinges on how it is spent. 

#5: Poor Management Decisions 

Capricious managers, who make decisions based on who asks rather than on facts, are the fifth barrier to engagement. They make decisions, but then change their minds quickly, and not always for obvious reasons. Workers faced with such managers feel disengaged because they do not feel heard—and do not believe their opinions are valued or supported. 

What can be done to overcome these five barriers to employee engagement? 

  1. To overcome uncertainty among workers and managers about engagement, educate them. Give them whitepapers to describe what engagement is—and explain the solid business reasons for using it. You could also include discussions about engagement in meetings or in training programs and talk to managers and workers one-on-one about it.  

  2. To overcome management or employee cynicism about engagement, demonstrate why engagement is more than a management fad. Describe the successes and benefits of placing a consistent emphasis on building and sustaining engagement and present it as an essential element in good management practice. But, make sure to point out that anything can be a fad if nobody remains committed to it.  

  3. To overcome bureaucracy, find a workaround solution. Do not let an adherence to unthinking rules wear you out. Fight a guerilla war if need be—undermine the bureaucracy by pointing out every occasion when the rules do not make sense. Refuse to let it get you (or others) down.  

  4. To overcome the lack of work-life balance, point out that people cannot work until they drop. Bring workers, and decision-makers, back to reality by pointing out that there is more to life than work.  

  5. To overcome capricious management practice, confront managers who change their minds and refuse to let them off the hook until they explain their rationale. In short, don’t let them get away with it. Pointedly ask if decisions are swayed by who asked, rather than the merits of the situation or decision. Doing so once or twice will put otherwise capricious managers on notice that they will be confronted when they engage in biased decision-making. 

Editor’s Note: This article is excerpted from Creating Engaged Employees (ATD Press, 2014).

About the Author
William J. Rothwell, PhD, SPHR, is the president of Rothwell & Associates (www.rothwellandassociates.com) and professor in the Workforce Education and Development Program at the University Park campus of Penn State University. As a researcher he has been involved with the last five competency studies conducted by Association for Talent Development (ATD, formerly ASTD). In 2012 he won the association's prestigious Distinguished Contribution Award. He is author of 81 books and 250 articles in the field and had 20 years of experience in government and the private sector before becoming a college professor in 1993.
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