Managing

Why employee engagement programs fail

Myriam Robin /

Employee engagement is one of the most over-used phrases in business.

But there’s a good reason for that, according to Scott Ahlstrand, a vice president at global HR and talent management company Right Management.

“It’s the silver bullet of talent management,” he told LeadingCompany on a recent visit to Australia.

“Employee engagement, more than any other talent management initiative, has been shown to drive what CEOs care about – innovation, financial success, client satisfaction.

“If there’s a problem, it’s that organisations aren’t aspirational enough as to what engagement can do for them.”

For Ahlstrand, employee engagement has been his life’s work. When he was working at Gallup, the organisation was conducting the research that went into the seminal book on employee engagement, First Break All the Rules: What the world’s greatest managers do differently.

It’s been one of the best-selling business books of all time, spending 93 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

“It created the industry,” he says. “And because it was widely successfully, it was copied.”

The principles set out by Gallup, in 1999, centred on getting data down to the manager level. It was far more aspirational – trumpeting ‘employee engagement’ over the more sedate term used before, ‘employee satisfaction’ – and stressed the importance of quantifying and measuring engagement outcomes.

Looking back almost 15 years later, Ahlstrand believes the industry has “massively over-corrected”.

While most employers and employees realise the importance of employee engagement, he stresses problems with the dominant approaches taken to it.

For one, there is enormous pressure on individual managers to drive engagement from the bottom-up, as opposed to it being a top-down responsibility. “It forces managers to be something they’re not, which is focus-group specialists,” he says.

Part of the reason employee engagement isn’t seen as the responsibility of senior managers is that it exists in a vacuum, and isn’t seen to give insight or guidance into specific business strategies.

And lastly, employee engagement surveys are annoying at best and useless at worst. They take a census approach – posing the same questions to everyone – and the data takes months to analyse.

Given today’s technology, there’s no reason this has to be the case, Ahlstrand says.

He was in Australia to launch Right Management’s latest employee engagement offerings, which aim to address many of these problems.

They aim to do this by providing real-time results as soon as the data comes in, eliminating the wait (and the disenchantment that comes when employees say something is a problem and wait months for a response).

The surveys are also designed differently. In addition to a few general questions, it asks different questions of different population groups, allowing managers and business leaders to home in on the precise issues that are affecting different types of people within the organisation.

And in the analysis, employers can themselves set up various filters, to see how under 25s working in the accounting department in Sydney are feeling, for example.

“What awes people is the speed of the functionality,” Ahlstrand says. “It’s actually faster than calling me and asking for special cuts of analysis.”

Right Management is also changing how it goes about relating to companies coming to it for employee engagement solutions. “For every item, we narrow with clients four or five best-practice steps they can take to fix the problem.

“So the survey is the equivalent of a medical examination. We still allow them to determine what they want to work on, and then we tell them what the best practice is for doing that.”

This is the way all employee engagement programs should be going, Ahlstrand says.

“We know from various surveys that the past several years have led to decrease in engagement, partly because, after the financial crisis, a lot of people are being asked to do more with less. We know we have disengaged and disgruntled employees. And I think most understand they have a vested interest in employee engagement.

“It’s not that employee engagement is broken. It’s better than it was 20 years ago. But technology should allow us to improve it.”

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Myriam Robin

Myriam Robin is a reporter for SmartCompany and its sister site LeadingCompany. She has degrees in economics, international studies and journalism. She likes writing about businesses taking risks and doing new things.

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