Why Employee Engagement Fails

You’ve read all the stats on why employee engagement is a hot topic. You’ve created your employee engagement program, funded it, and implemented it. And now, you see it isn’t working. This doesn’t mean your staff doesn’t want an employee engagement program, it just means they don’t want that one. Engagement programs fail most commonly for three reasons:


1. Lack of buy-in and clear involvement from senior management.

2. Lack of an effective method to track progress.

3. Lack of understanding as to what the culture wants.


All three of these problems are avoidable, but they require a change in the way we perceive successful employee engagement.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

We’re all familiar with this adage, but that’s because it’s true. A CEO can proclaim in company-wide emails all day long about how he or she supports a new engagement program, but until the workforce sees concrete actions that supports it, it’s just hot air. And employees won’t care about a program if they feel their CEO and other respected leaders don’t care. When senior management really commits to the success of their engagement programs, employees in turn get invested. Forget words; use actions.

– Have the CEO participate in the program themselves. No action shows more concrete support for an engagement program than senior management also trying it out. This assures the workforce that the program is worth their time. If there are any kinks in the program, employees know someone in senior management is equally invested in making the program function as optimally as possible so everyone can get the most out of it.

– Vet the program early on one-on-one with key influencers in senior management. Make the program personal and get input BEFORE the program is finalized. You may not get them to allocate the time to join a taskforce to craft the program, but you can probably get away with asking for a 15 minute conversation to get their thoughts. Show up for that with a handful of thoughtful questions that are clear, direct, and open ended. Be prepared to spend most of the time listening, and be sure to reflect their ideas in the offering. Reporting back to them with how you’ve integrated their input will also lend the offering extra gravitas.

– Have the CEO task senior leaders with socializing the program to their direct reports. When senior management takes the time to discuss with employees why the program matters to organizational performance, the trickle down of validity will be better seeded. And as a follow up, plan ahead a follow up after 6 months for those leaders to gather how they find the program and what they’re getting out of it. By doing this, employees know their input and results are valued. If you’re struggling to think of a way to enforce this, try integrating evaluative, open ended culture questions into the performance review process.

– Consistency. A successful program is a consistent program, and the consistency must come from higher up. If your CEO participates in the program, update the workforce on progress in key markers so employees know their senior management is invested and that engagement is the new normal. Have routine discussions on people’s experiences with the program. Assure your employees that you know the program is for them, and you are motivated to make it work.

Measure Success

Employees have to be able to mark their progress in your engagement program, but progress has to be malleable enough to fit any employee. By clearly outlining the goals of an offering, employees will both be able to self-select for participation, and will know that there is cultural evolution afoot when you report back to them. Across the many types of programs that exist, look at your population and be sure to craft your program as a mix of offerings that will appeal to the various demographic and psychographic clusters that are present.

The company-wide weight loss challenge is an example of a program with easy to mark progress, but a rigid definition that does not work for everyone. Employees succeed when they lose weight; they fail if they don’t. This type of success excludes employees who invest time in eating healthier and exercising frequently, but have unchanged numbers on the scale. By mixing in peer recognition programs, philanthropy based activities, and even showcasing valued behaviors of senior leaders are just a few other types of initiatives that can broaden both what employees can gain from your engagement strategy, and their likelihood to participate.

Know Your Culture

You can create the most incredible employee engagement program in the world, but it will never get off the ground if it isn’t what your employees want. Don’t be afraid to ask your workforce questions so you can get to the core of what they want to experience. Common cultural desires we’ve encountered are:

– Philanthropy. A 17,000-employee client went through a drastic change in management when their founder left to take a different public role. In what is often a chaotic time for a company, this business weathered the transition and soon-to-follow economic plummet without a hiccup. Why? The new management invested time and a small allocation of resources into philanthropy and wellness/community-engagement. The vibe of the company transformed into “my humanity matters here,” which is a strong bond between a corporation and its workforce.

– A carrot, a stick, or neither. Some engagement programs offer benefits for completing certain steps (a carrot) or punishments for failing to comply with program requirements (a stick). These extrinsic motivations can prove wildly successful, or kill your program before it starts. Take the time to find out what it is your employees want, and if they don’t want carrots or sticks, invest those resources in a different facet of the program.

When an engagement program is transactional, it will never be fully trusted. Your engagement program is not the solution; it is the avenue you take alongside other human beings to arrive at the solution. There are a lot of rules and ideas to make an employee engagement program work, but the bottom line is that people aren’t engaged by programs. People are engaged by people.


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