Stop Trying to Fix Employee Engagement

February 8, 2020
February 8, 2020 Jamie Notter

I think a lot of people focus on improving employee engagement because they want to create a strong culture. Think about it: if you’re “average” (according to Gallup research), only 34% of your employees are highly engaged. So around your office, one-third of the folks are giving it their all, and the rest are either doing the minimum or (worse) messing things up, sometimes on purpose. That doesn’t sound like a very strong culture, does it?

So you try to fix things by improving engagement. The standard approach is to run an engagement survey to surface the biggest pain points or areas of frustration, and then develop some kind of interventions to fix those pain points. Hopefully the next year, your scores will go up—higher engagement = stronger culture.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Yes, sometimes your scores will up, but usually only by a couple of points. I keep wondering why nobody does the math and realizes that if you go from 34% engaged to 36% engaged in a year or two, you’ll likely be dead before your organization achieves 100% engagement (and that’s even if it goes up every year, which is not likely).

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Sorry to be so depressing, but I think it’s time we faced the reality. The engagement survey approach doesn’t work, and here’s why: your level of employee engagement is not the cause of a strong culture—it’s the result of one. Engagement is a function of how successful your organization is AND how successful the individual employees are within it (this is the core message of our new book). When you design a culture within which your people can be deeply successful, engagement rises as a result. So your goal here is to shape and craft a culture that generates that deep success—covering not only the bottom line, but success for people in their job roles, and even success for them as individual human beings.

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And here’s the other startling truth: fixing pain points doesn’t generate that deep success. It’s well intended, but also quite random, leading you to sometimes fix things that are not that connected to deep success. You don’t create an exceptional culture by my making things generally (and randomly) better. You need to be strategic. You need to fix the things that are the biggest impediments to deep success.

Jamie Notter

Jamie is a co-founder and culture strategist at PROPEL, where he helps leaders create amazing workplace cultures that drive greater performance and impact. He brings thirty years of experience to his work designing and managing culture, and has specialized along the way in areas like conflict resolution and generations. Jamie is the co-author of four popular business books, including the award-winning Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement, and his fall 2023 release, Culture Change Made Easy. He holds a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in Organization Development from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.