HR Management & Compliance

Why Can’t I Get These Employees Engaged?

Today we’ll look at the Gallup’s take on employee engagement, as discussed in a book by Jim Harter, PhD, titled First, Break All the Rules.

Breaking The Rules for The Best Results: Gallup’s View On Employee Engagement

While global leaders and companies understand in theory the importance of employee engagement, the percentage of engaged employees has barely budged since the beginning of the 2000s. And in the United States, 70% of employees are not engaged in their jobs. With Millennials now comprising the largest proportion of the workforce—a generation for whom engagement in their work and the opportunity to focus on their strengths are extremely important issues—it’s more important now than ever for today’s managers to create a strengths-focused, engaging workplace culture.

Gallup recently released a new, expanded edition of its international bestselling management book First, Break All the Rules. This edition, authored by Gallup Press with a foreword by workplace expert Jim Harter, PhD, maintains the narrative of the original 1999 publication and includes updated research conducted over the past 15 years.  In the below Q&A, Harter answers questions about employee engagement and its importance in making an organization successful.

  1. Why aren’t more employees engaged, and why is this 70% number of disengaged employees not decreasing? How can managers combat this trend?

The roots to low engagement rest in the fundamentals of performance management that have historically not been optimized. But the good news is that there are high performing organizations and managers to study. The foundational elements that engage employees are all, in part, dependent on a manager’s ability to individualize his or her approach to each employee: setting clear expectations, getting the right materials and equipment, positioning the individual to do what he or she does best, providing the right recognition, and caring about and developing them.

Managers, through their own engagement, their ongoing conversations with employees (or the lack thereof), and their natural abilities and talents to manage employees account for more than 70% of the variance in team engagement.  So, at a fundamental level, improving engagement is about leveraging the innate characteristics of managers and their employees, developing people management skills, and selecting the right people to become managers.

The top two reasons people get into the role of manager are tenure within the organization and success in a prior job unrelated to management. In many cases, the top salespeople, accountants, engineers, and other professionals are not equipped to manage people.  This promotion process in most organizations does nothing to guarantee that the best people developers get into people development roles.

The most progressive organizations have reset the expectations of the role of manager to be as much about people development as it is about direction and correction.  And, from the top of the organization, systems are built to continuously link the approach to performance management with the strategy of the organization, clear ongoing communication, accountability, and development programs.

  1. Employee engagement is a hot topic now, especially with the Millennial workforce. Why has it taken this long for engagement to be at the forefront of this workplace/management conversation?

For the past decade, most large organizations have had some type of annual survey called “engagement.”  The trouble is that it has become much like the annual performance review … an event that happens once a year. And for many organizations, these efforts have failed.  During this same time, the most progressive organizations have created an engagement “process” with touchpoints throughout the year that complement performance management.

Unfortunately, these progressive organizations have been more infrequent than common. While in the past, progressive management was deemed as “optional,” the newer Millennial workers are expecting it as a requirement.  They’re a highly connected generation, aware of what is possible from work, and they have grown up highly involved and recognized.

The demands on managers have also increased, with changes in technology, the economy, remote working, matrixed organizations … and a new generation of workers that expect to have high-quality managers who are more akin to “coaches” than “bosses.”

This new breed of workers, who will soon become the majority of the workforce, want ongoing conversations with their supervisors rather than once-per-year performance reviews.  They want to see and feel a purpose in their work rather than only coming to their jobs for a paycheck.  They want to develop and envision their future rather than simply to remain satisfied at their jobs thanks to “perks” and “fun” activities.  They want to develop personally and professionally through focusing on their strengths.  For many, their work is blended into their lives and is more than just a job.

It is interesting that many of the core requirements for great managing are unchanged from years ago—defining clear and organizationally aligned outcomes, individualized strengths-based development, accountability, career growth opportunities, etc.—but some elements need more intentionality than others.

For example, in a highly matrixed environment, people are often more collaborative, although clarification of expectations is less frequent.  In a remote working situation, autonomy is improved, but collaboration needs more intentionality.  With technology comes potential for greater connectedness … a double-edged sword that can both increase flexibility and blend work into nonwork time.

Great managers figure out these subtleties and manage the person and the situation to achieve outcomes.   While the situations for managers are changing, the principles great managers follow are timeless.

  1. Engaged employees produce more and are happier according to Gallup. What kind of managers are developing these engaged employees and offices?

The managers who are doing the best job of engaging employees know their own strengths and leverage them in their own unique management style, are engaged themselves, and continually develop their people management skills.  They select employees for natural capacity to do the required work, define the right outcomes for the work, focus on developing the strengths of each person, and continually fine-tune each job to fit the person and his or her ideal development path.

Contrast this from a traditional approach of selecting based mainly on a résumé of experiences or subjective opinion, setting expectations by legislating each step, motivation through overcoming weaknesses, and development through promotion to the next rung on the ladder.

  1. Having great snack selections, a game room, open office plans, etc., are some ways companies try to engage Millennials. Do those really work, and how can managers keep this generation engaged in their jobs?

While these types of “perks” may create interest in your organization or even satisfy people in the short term, they won’t engage them in their work.  Without the foundation of great managing, these perks are a waste of money.   In looking for an employer, Millennials want opportunities to learn and grow, a quality manager and quality management, interesting work, and opportunities for advancement.

According to Gallup, 59% say opportunities to learn and grow are extremely important to them.  Only 18% say having a “fun” place to work, and only 15% say having an informal work environment, are extremely important to them.  The top four things Millennials want managers to focus on are job clarity and priorities, ongoing feedback and communication, opportunities to learn and grow, and accountability.

Perks may be “nice to have” but are not what Millennials are asking for.  They want meaningful work where they have a chance to develop.  Any organization that leads its offering with “perks” is out of touch with its workforce.

Tomorrow, we’ll hear more from Gallup on what works and what doesn’t when it comes to employee engagement.

2 thoughts on “Why Can’t I Get These Employees Engaged?”

  1. Hello Dr. Bruce,

    About 12 years ago My VP at HQ told me to read the book, First Break All the Rules, what the world’s greatest managers do differently, but I didn’t like the title. When I finally bought and read the book I thought I had written the book since what we do is what the book recommends that we do, hire for talent. Then I realized I didn’t write the book so maybe my company wrote the book but my VP said they didn’t write the book. 

    I was astounded with the insight of First Break All the Rules since we had been using that insight since 1991, years before the book was published, and the method we use dates back to the 1960s.

    All hiring managers hire for knowledge, skills, and abilities only and too few hire for knowledge, skills, abilities and behaviors. The following is from the book “First Break All the Rules, what the world’s greatest managers do differently” by Buckingham and Coffman. The authors’ define a “talent “, (page 71) as “a recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied…The emphasis here is on the word ‘recurring.’ Great managers say ‘Your talents are the behaviors you find yourself doing often.’ ”

    The authors repeat the following four lines several times in the book (pages 57, 67, 79). 

    · People don’t change much. 

    · Don’t waste time trying to put in what was left out. 

    · Try to draw out what was left in. 

    · That is hard enough. 

    When hiring, Conventional Wisdom says (page 66)… 

    1. select a person…based on his experience, intelligence and determination. 

    2. set expectations…by defining the right steps. 

    3. motivate the person…by helping him identify and overcome his weaknesses. 

    4. develop the person…by helping him learn and get promoted.

    When hiring, Great Managers say…
    1. select for talent…not just experience, intelligence or determination.
    2. define the outcomes…not the right steps
    3. focus on strengths…not weaknesses
    4. help find the right fit…not the next promotion

    Conventional Wisdom says… 

    1. Experience makes the difference.
    2. Brainpower makes the difference.
    3. Willpower makes the difference.

    Great managers agree with the three items above but great managers label willpower a talent and it is almost impossible to teach (page 72). Only the presence of talents can explain why, all other factors being equal, some people excel in the role and some struggle (page 73). 

    As manager you need to know exactly which talents you want. (page 101) Great talents need great managers if they are to be turned into performance. (page 102) 

Each employee breathes different psychological oxygen. (page 151) 

    You cannot learn very much about excellence by studying failure…Excellence is not the opposite of failure. (page 157)

    Whereas conventional wisdom views individual specialization as the antithesis of teamwork, great managers see it as the founding principle (page 173). In the minds of great managers, consistent poor performance is not primarily a matter of weakness, stupidity disobedience, or disrespect. It is a matter of miscasting (page 209).

    Talent is defined in the book, see page 71, ‘First, Break All the Rules, what the world’s greatest managers do differently’, by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman of the Gallup Organization, as ‘a recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied … The emphasis here is on the word ‘recurring.’ Great managers say ‘Your talents are the behaviors you find yourself doing often.”

    Hiring for talent is the key to hiring successful employees. Most employers don’t measure talent so they can’t hire for talent even if they do hire the best and the brightest.

  2. If we want an engaged workforce, then we need to hire employees who will be engaged after they are hired, trained and assigned to a job. Of course, we need to hire managers in the same manner.

    Employers often hire the best specialists they can find, i.e., the best and the brightest from the best schools. Then the employers promote the best and the brightest (the ever popular high-potentials) based on their job performance doing the work of the employees they will then manage after the promotion. But which ones get promoted into management? The best talker first, the second best talker next, and then the third best talker.

    The only problem is that the third best talker makes the best manager. Why, because the first and second best talkers talk too much, listen too little, and managers need to listen more than they talk otherwise they never hear what is going right or wrong. The end results is that the best managers never make it into management or if they do they report to senior managers who are not well-suited for management. Then HBR publishes an article bemoaning that specialist cannot function as well as generalists.

    After CEOs and other executives read the article they’ll then hire the best and the brightest generalists from the best schools, does this sound familiar? Then the employers will promote the best and the brightest generalists based on their job performance doing the work of the employees they will then manage after the promotion. But which ones get promoted into management? The best talker first, the second best talker next, and then the third best talker. The only problem is that the third best talker makes the best manager, reread the paragraph above.
    The solution to the problem of specialists not being good generalists is to stop hiring the best and the brightest specialists and start hiring specialists who are well suited to be generalists. It is more about who the people are than their degrees.

    I wish I could take credit for the insight that the best talkers get the first promotion into management but that goes to Dr. Neal Thornberry of Babson College who studied how engineers get promoted into management. I talked with Professor Thornberry after I read his article, “Transforming the Engineer into a Manager: Avoiding the Peter Principle” Civil Engineering Practice, Fall 1989, Neil E. Thornberry asserts that, “young engineers are judged on technical merit and accomplishment and that promotions go to the technically proficient and verbally expressive engineers, while less technically proficient and verbally expressive engineers wait their turn.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *