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Matt Tenney, Contributor

As you are probably aware, employee engagement has been formally measured by the Gallup organization for about 20 years now.

You may also be aware that when Gallup first started measuring employee engagement, the numbers were terrible.

In 2001, in the US, roughly one out of three employees were engaged at work.

The vast majority of employees were either not engaged, which means they were just showing up for the paycheck, and doing the bare minimum that’s needed to keep their jobs, or they were actively disengaged, which means that they were actually undermining the performance of the rest of their teams and organizations.

The numbers outside the US were even worse.

The good news is that we have an abundance of research conducted over the last 50 years or so that has provided very clear evidence for exactly what drives employee engagement in the workplace.  

This research is available to everyone.  

And, over the last 20 years, US companies alone have spent hundreds of millions of dollars per year trying to improve employee engagement in the workplace.

And what type of results have we seen with this combination of knowing exactly what drives employee engagement and enormous resources being applied to solving the problem?

Almost none.

As of this writing in 2022, in the US, we’re still hovering around 32% of employees being engaged at work.   

And the numbers are still worse outside the US.

Of course, this begs the question, “Why haven’t we been able to improve employee engagement to any significant degree?”

In this article, you’ll discover a clear answer to this question.

Here’s what you’re going to learn from the six steps outlined in this article:

  • How to avoid wasting dozens or hundreds of hours on an employee engagement initiative that either fails or makes only a minor impact
  • How to see improvements in engagement and retention in a matter of days or weeks (instead of months or years) with much less effort by focusing on the most important drivers of employee engagement
  • Why employee engagement surveys are almost always used in a way that can actually lower engagement, and what to do differently
  • How to significantly increase employee engagement just by using surveys in a creative new way

1. Cultivate the Right Mindset for Leaders

The Status Quo

Let’s start with why employee engagement hasn’t improved to any significant degree over the last 20 years.

To set the stage, let’s consider how most organizations approach the issue of employee engagement.

Oftentimes, the leadership team learns about the incredible importance of having an engaged workforce.

They hear things like the following:

Gallup research routinely finds that companies in the top 25% of employee engagement see the following results compared to the bottom 25%:

  • About 40% lower absenteeism
  • About 50% better employee retention
  • 10-20% better customer ratings
  • About 20% better sales and profit

And a broad meta-analysis Gallup conducted of studies on employee engagement found that companies with highly-engaged workforces outperform their less-engaged peers by an incredible 147% in earnings per share.

When the leadership team finds out about all of these incredible benefits, they get really excited about the idea of improving employee engagement.

They’re motivated, perhaps for the wrong reasons, to fix all the issues that are keeping employees from being engaged at work.

The first step they often take is to conduct a large, employee engagement survey to uncover the issues they need to address.

Unfortunately, this approach of trying to identify and fix all at once all of the issues that are negatively affecting employee engagement almost never works.

In fact, it often does more harm than good.

There are several reasons for this.

First, the leadership team usually ends up with a large number of issues they need to fix to improve employee engagement and retention.

Often, the leadership team is so overwhelmed with the work they need to do to fix the issues that they do nothing at all.

Of course, if the organization does nothing at all, they would have been better off not even doing a survey.

Failing to act on surveys often further reduces employee engagement.

Employees feel like it was a waste of their time to take the survey, they feel like no one in management really listens to them, and they trust management even less than they did before the survey.

Other organizations, feeling so overwhelmed, just delegate the task to HR.

They ask HR to create some extra perks, and they hope that will improve employee engagement.

While perks like a foosball table or ice cream socials can improve employee satisfaction, they tend to have little or no lasting effect on engagement.

A large number of employees may be very satisfied with their workplace, thanks to all the nice perks, but they’re not engaged.  

They’re not going to go above and beyond, not giving discretionary effort.  

They’re going to do what’s required to keep their jobs.

Focusing on perks is an expensive, ineffective way to try to improve employee engagement.

In the best case scenario, action is taken, but it is a long, laborious process.

First, the HR team spends weeks organizing the survey and getting employees excited about taking the survey.

Then, the surveys are open for at least a month or more, and the HR team sends out a lot of reminders to help improve response rates.

Then it takes at least a couple of months for HR and the senior leadership team to come up with plans for how they’re going to address the issues.

Often, the team ends up only being able to adequately address a few of the issues, and they’re almost never the issues that make the most impact on employee engagement.

This ineffective process can take dozens, or even hundreds of hours.

And, during this long, ineffective process, employees lose trust because they feel their time was wasted doing a survey that resulted in no action for months, and then seeing only a few issues being resolved, and not the ones that matter the most.

The Mindset Shift for High Levels of Engagement

The first step to quickly and dramatically improve employee engagement is to shift our mindset away from seeing employee engagement as an “initiative” or “project.”

Employee engagement must be seen as the top priority for the organization, tied with effective strategy.

For an organization to succeed, two elements are necessary.  

First, the organization must have a winning strategy for accomplishing its mission.

Second, the organization must be able to effectively execute on the strategy.

Employee engagement is the best predictor of whether or not an organization will effectively execute the strategy.

This is one of the reasons why organizations with high levels of employee engagement are roughly 20% more productive and 20% more profitable than organizations with low levels of employee engagement.

When we realize that employee engagement should be the top priority for an organization—tied with a winning strategy—it becomes obvious that this is not something that should be delegated to a department as some type of “initiative” or “project.”

Employee engagement is something that everyone should be thinking about, all the time.

In other words, to succeed, organizations must have an “always on” approach to employee engagement.

We need to create and sustain an environment in which obstacles to employee engagement are continuously identified and removed.

We need to create and sustain an environment that helps employees thrive, both professionally and personally.

2. Identify the Universal Core Needs People Have for Thriving at Work

The first step to creating and sustaining an environment that helps employees to thrive both professionally and personally is to identify the core needs that people require for thriving.

There’s some really good news on this front!

We have identified 14 core needs for thriving that are very strongly correlated with employee engagement and retention, supported by decades of research.

And these needs are essentially universal: Almost everyone shares these needs for thriving at work and being engaged.

Below is the list of the 14 universal core needs that research has shown are very strongly correlated with employee engagement and retention (for more details on these core needs, please see this article on employee engagement strategies):

Clarity of Expectations

A lack of clarity is a significant source of anxiety and frustration.

Having the Tools Required to Do One’s Job

Lacking the tools to do one’s job is a significant source of anxiety and frustration.

Doing Work That Leverages Strengths / That One Enjoys

The more time people spend doing work they enjoy and are good at, the more likely they are to be engaged.

Appreciation / Recognition

People need to feel recognized and/or appreciated for their contributions.

Growth

People need to be continuously growing.

Feeling Like Opinion Matters / Is Heard

People need to feel like they’re making a contribution with ideas that are at least considered.

Meaningful Work

The average person would give up roughly 23% of their income to do consistently meaningful work.

Excellence

People inherently want to do a great job.

Belonging

Having a good friend at work is one of the strongest predictors of retention.

Feedback

People need regular, helpful feedback to grow.

Autonomy

People need to feel that they have as much control as possible over their lives.

Trust

People need to trust their coworkers, most importantly their leaders.

Well Being

Negatively impacting well being is strongly negatively correlated with engagement and retention.

Feeling Cared for by Supervisor

Perhaps the most powerful driver of engagement and the foundation for meeting all other needs.

In addition to the 14 universal core needs above, each individual has needs for thriving that are unique to them.

These needs are often best identified by employees’ direct supervisors through meaningful, 1-1 conversations.

3. Get Regular Feedback on How Well Managers Are Meeting the Universal Core Needs of Direct Reports

Once you’ve identified the universal core needs of employees, managers need to get regular feedback from their direct reports on how well they’re meeting those core needs.

Although large, broad surveys do have their place later on, they are generally a terrible way to start your efforts to consistently drive high levels of employee engagement.

Leadership is the cornerstone of engagement because of the central role leaders play in shaping organizational culture, which, in turn, shapes employee experience. 

To successfully help employees to thrive and thereby drive high levels of engagement, you should start with one, small survey, with just one or two questions, focused on meeting just one element of the 14 universal core needs people have for thriving at work.

And, to make the most impact the fastest, you should spend the first six months to a year only asking how well supervisors are meeting the needs of their direct reports.

There are two reasons for this:

First, research suggests that at least 70% of employee engagement and retention is driven by employees’ direct supervisors.

So, by focusing there, you can make the greatest impact.

Second, it’s much easier to help supervisors better meet the needs of employees than it is to make organization-wide cultural changes from the top down.

This allows employees to see action being taken on their feedback within days of completing the survey.

I cannot stress enough how important this is.

Research from Gallup, published in the book It’s The Manager, found that employee engagement is almost three times higher when employees strongly agree with the statement:

“My organization acts upon the results of surveys I complete.”

Surveys should only be open for two to three days.

You may not get responses from every employee on every survey, but the speed with which you take action on the feedback is much more important.

4. Help Managers Better Meet the Universal Core Needs of Employees

Perhaps the most important secret to quickly and consistently improving employee engagement is to ensure that employees see meaningful action being taken on their feedback, as fast as possible, to better meet one of the core needs that is directly correlated with employee engagement and retention.

Ideally, direct supervisors should take at least some action for improving their ability to meet the need addressed within three to five business days of the survey closing.

Although this may sound impossible, there’s a simple hack that will allow you to easily accomplish this.

Instead of getting feedback from employees and then taking time to come up with a plan for addressing deficiencies after the feedback comes in, you need to have a brief video training ready to go that helps managers to more consistently meet the needs of their employees before a survey even goes out.

For instance, if you know you’re going to send out a survey on appreciation, you should have a brief video training already created, focused on a simple habit for better showing appreciation, so that managers can watch and take action on the training as soon as they get the feedback from their direct reports.

This approach is extremely important for several reasons.

More Open to Learning

First, one explanation for why most leadership training fails is that people aren’t as open to learning something new if they don’t think they’re deficient in the area being taught.

But when managers get feedback from team members letting them know that they have at least some room to grow in a given area, they are much more likely to want to improve in that area, and more likely to be open to the training.

Ease of Taking Action

The second reason you should have training ready before the survey goes out, and have it focused on meeting just one need, is that instead of being overwhelmed with lots of different things to work on, managers have just one area to work on.

If the training provides just a couple of simple, actionable ideas for improving in that one area, it’s much more likely that the managers will take some action.

And, because the managers are only working on one new leadership behavior at a time, they are much more likely to make that new behavior a habit that sticks.

This is the key to helping people create lasting transformation.

People very rarely change much as a result of learning something new, however exciting the new learning is.

Lasting transformation occurs gradually over time when we develop simple habits that are easy to stick with.

Almost No Interruption

The third reason this approach of timely, focused, short training is so effective is that the managers’ work wasn’t interrupted for a half day or full day of training.

So, when they go back to their workflow, they are much less likely to feel overwhelmed with things they fell behind on.

With this approach, the manager likely only missed 10 minutes or so, including the time to read the feedback, watch the training, and take the first steps to creating a new habit for improving.

By taking less time out of a manager’s workflow, they’re more likely to take action on and stick with what they learned in the training.

Employees See Action Immediately

Finally, and perhaps most important, this approach of having quick, focused training ready to go before surveys go out also helps ensure that employees see action being taken on their feedback in a matter of days.

With this approach, you can build a virtuous cycle of employees sharing feedback, feeling heard, and quickly seeing action taken on their feedback.

With each cycle of this simple yet powerful process, employees have more confidence and trust in their managers and in the leadership team.

As mentioned earlier, building trust alone can dramatically improve engagement and retention.

This is why research from Gallup suggests that engagement is nearly three times higher when employees strongly agree with the statement:

“My organization acts upon the results of surveys I complete.”

At this point, you might be thinking, “This sounds awesome, but how can we create training in advance if we don’t know what the feedback is going to be?”

This is a great question.

The answer is that we already know what the 14 universal core needs are for employees to thrive at work.

These needs are well documented, with decades of research linking them directly to employee engagement and retention.

We know what questions we should be asking on the surveys, and we also know that no manager is perfect at meeting the needs we’re getting feedback on.

So, we can easily create training in advance that helps managers improve their abilities to more effectively meet the needs that we know are very strongly correlated to employee engagement and retention.

The feedback from team members is used to let managers know how much room for growth they have in a given area, to improve their self-awareness, and to help them determine if they’re improving over time.

At this point, you’re probably thinking, “This approach sounds awesome, but it sounds like a lot of work.  It doesn’t sound like a quick fix.”

There’s great news on this front.  My team and I have created a system that automates the entire process outlined in this article.

And, we’ll be happy to give it to you, for free, along with a free strategy session to help you get started as fast as possible.

If you’d like to learn more about this, please click here – https://businessleadershiptoday.com/free-help-with-employee-engagement/

5. Identify Universal Core Needs That Can Be Met by the Organization

As mentioned above, it’s best to start working on improving employee engagement by focusing on how well direct supervisors are meeting the universal core needs of team members because that’s where you can make the biggest impact, the fastest.

However, once you have a system in place for getting regular feedback on how well supervisors are meeting the universal core needs of their direct reports, and ensuring they are responding to and taking action on that feedback within a few days of the surveys closing, you can then start creating a system for how to improve the effectiveness of the senior leadership team regarding meeting the universal core needs of all team members in the organization.

Following are ways senior leadership can meet some of the universal core needs people have for thriving at work.

Clarity of Expectations

There are several ways the senior leadership team can meet this need.

First, senior leaders should ensure that everyone understands the organization’s high-level strategy and goals and that the strategy includes useful measures of effectiveness.

Also, the organization should have clearly written core values, with measurable behaviors associated with them, that guide how people should be behaving while executing on the strategic plan.

Even more important, senior leaders should be living examples of the core values.

Having the Tools Required To Do One’s Job

Senior leaders should help ensure that team members have what they need to do their jobs and help remove obstacles, like excess bureaucracy and ineffective processes, that stifle productivity and innovation.

Appreciation / Recognition

Senior leaders should be showing appreciation for team members on a daily basis. 

Feeling Like Opinion Matters / Is Heard

Senior leaders should make it easy for team members at any level to share ideas for improving the organization and create systems for ensuring that team members feel heard, even if their ideas aren’t acted on.

Meaningful Work

Senior leaders should ensure the organization has a clearly-written and compelling mission statement (the impact you’re trying to make on the lives of your customers) and vision statement (how the world will be better as a result of you achieving your mission).

Autonomy

Senior leaders should empower direct supervisors to allow team members to have as much flexibility as possible regarding where, when, and how people work to achieve goals.

Trust

Senior leaders should extend trust and be as transparent as possible with information.

Well Being

Senior leaders should make the well being of employees a top priority, and avoid sacrificing well being for short-term gain to the greatest extent possible.

6. Get Regular Feedback on How Well the Organization Is Meeting the Universal Core Needs of Direct Reports

As mentioned above, I recommend waiting at least six months before sending out any surveys regarding how well the organization as a whole is meeting universal needs.

After six months, team members will have much more confidence and trust in the fact that action will be taken on the feedback they provide.

Thus, when you let them know that it will take longer to act on organization-wide issues, they’ll trust you more.

Thus, the inevitable delay in action won’t have much, or any, negative impact on engagement.

And, just as with the approach for getting feedback on how well their supervisors are meeting the universal core needs of their direct reports, the surveys you use for getting feedback regarding the organization as a whole should be focused on just one element of one core need.

However, although the surveys for supervisors can go out as frequently as every two weeks—because supervisors can immediately take action on the feedback by implementing what they learn in the training that accompanies the feedback—the surveys on how well the organization as a whole is meeting needs should be less frequent.

I recommend not sending out a subsequent survey until meaningful, impactful action has been taken on the feedback from the current survey.

Before any survey goes out, I also recommend that senior leaders do a time audit and make sure that they’ll have time to quickly acknowledge and take action on the feedback they receive.

Although you’ll have earned some leniency thanks to the frequent surveys for direct supervisors, you should still act on feedback as quickly as possible.

A Powerful Approach To Improve and Sustaining High Levels of Employee Engagement

You now have at your disposal an incredibly powerful strategy and system for quickly and dramatically improving employee engagement and retention and sustaining high levels of engagement and performance.

By launching your efforts with a focus on how well direct supervisors are meeting the universal core needs most strongly correlated with employee engagement, focusing each survey on one element of one core need, and ensuring supervisors receive simple, actionable training along with the results of their surveys, you can make an impact within days of implementing this system.

We have seen teams realize tangible improvements in engagement and productivity within days of the first survey/training cycle being implemented.

At this point, you may once again be thinking, “This approach sounds sounds incredible, but it also sounds like a lot of work.  It doesn’t sound like a quick fix.”

There’s great news on this front.  My team and I have created a system that automates the entire process outlined in this article.

And, we’ll be happy to give it to you, for free, along with a free strategy session to help you get started as fast as possible.

If you’d like to learn more about this, please click here – https://businessleadershiptoday.com/free-help-with-employee-engagement/


Matt Tenney is an active CEO who aspires to create the best workplace culture in the world.  Matt is also the author of Serve To Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom, and The Mindfulness Edge: How to Rewire Your Brain for Leadership and Personal Excellence.  Matt is frequently invited to present keynote speeches at leadership conferences and meetings.  His TEDx Talk has been viewed over 1,000,000 times since January, 2020.

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