Employee Engagement (EE) has become a certifiably Big Thing over the past 10-15 years, or roughly since the turn of the millennium.

For people to be truly engaged, there needs to be a good match between their work experience and their answers to questions like these:  “What matters most to you on the job?  What moves you to give it your all?  What represents true meaning to you in your work life?”

EE rates are low, and even more significantly, they’re not improving at a very robust clip.  A recent article published by Gallup—“Employee Engagement Stagnant in U.S. in 2015”—reported that last year just 32% of Americans considered themselves to be engaged on the job, up just a fraction of a percentage point from 2014.  

But the picture becomes even more bleak when we go a bit farther back in time.  Here are the (rounded) results from Gallup’s survey of American workers from the years 2001 to 2015, respectively:  30%; 30%; 28%; 29%; 26%; 30%; 30%; 29%; 28%; 28%; 29%; 30%; 30%; 32%; 32%.  That’s a CAGR of just 0.43%, which is considerably less than you can get as a return on the homely savings account in most commercial banks these days.

So despite all the person-hours and dollars and corporate pronunciamentos offered up to the EE cause, for roughly 70% of the American workforce over the past 15 years, the gap between “What I do” and “What matters/moves/means-much” has been a substantial one.

The obvious question becomes:  Why?

A clue to the answer might be found in another insight from Gallup: The higher up in the organizational hierarchy you poll, the higher the levels of EE you will find.

Now, those sitting at the top of the corporate pyramid are not a random cross section of people.  Rather, they have certain defining characteristics:

·      They want to advance up the pyramid.

·      They know that to do so, they need to demonstrate having had a direct, measurable, and visible impact on the success of the enterprise.

·      They also know that in this context “measurable” has to do with relatively straightforward and generally accepted business metrics: profitability, growth rates, market share, market capitalization, etc.

·      So their answers to the “matters/moves/meaning” EE questions align nicely with those metrics.

This is who they are.  It’s how they’re wired.  It’s how they view the world.  That’s not an indictment, it’s just a description.

But most people in organizations—and, by extension, most people surveyed by Gallup—are not at the top of the hierarchical pyramid.  (Things get pretty narrow up there.)  If we were to run a series of focus groups representing those at lower levels in the hierarchy, we’d likely hear things like this:

   "What matters most to me while I’m performing my duties? This might sound simplistic, but I mostly care about doing good work.   Having a chance to ply my trade.   Being able to exercise the work-related muscles I’ve developed over the years.  Sorry if this makes me sound arrogant, but I think I’m pretty good at what I do, and I just want to have the chance to do it.”

   “What motivates me to give it my all is being appreciated for what I do.  And I’m not talking about plaques to hang on the wall, or lucite tchotchkes to clutter up my desk, or semi-sincere public attaboys at the annual all-hands meeting.  I just mean knowing that I am respected for what I bring to the table and having a reasonable degree of autonomy to do so.”

   “As for what brings real meaning to my work day...first of all, there’s some baseline stuff.  I need a steady income to pay my kids’ tuition and my mortgage and fund my 401K so that I can have a reasonably comfortable retirement some day.  That's comfortable, not lavish.  But I also really value the camaraderie...the sense of community...the joking around at the lunch table in the cafeteria...being part of a group of people who are doing something worthwhile.”

And we might also hear this:

   “Look, I know—at a rational level—that we need to be profitable and we need to grow and we need to provide a good return to our shareholders.  I get that.  But I can’t help it—it’s not what gets me jazzed on a day-in day-out basis.  How can I explain this?  It's something like this:  I know that I should like going to the symphony or to the art museum or to the ballet.  But, sorry, I gotta be honest.  I’d rather spend the night at Fenway watching the Sox.  Does this make me a bad person?  I don’t think so, but...?”

Similarly, at a rational level executives grasp that what jazzes them differs from what jazzes those below them in the hierarchy, i.e., the vast majority of their employees.  Again, that’s a description and not an indictment of the guys and gals at the top of the heap.

So maybe there’s a another gap we need to mind.  Maybe it’s not only the one between “what I do” and “matters/moves/meaning” for each employee.  Maybe the one we also need to pay attention is the (structurally inherent) gap between the matters/moves/means answers given by those at the top of the pyramid and those given by the vast majority of the employee roster.

And since it’s those at the top who are ultimately accountable for that 0.43% CAGR for Employee Engagement, maybe Step 1 to real improvement is for them to be a bit more—dare I say it?—humble.  Maybe they need to say to themselves:  “Because of what it took for me to get to where I’ve gotten...because I’m wired the way I’m wired...because I’m responsive to the stimuli that I’m responsive to...I am innately poorly suited to being able to truly understand—to truly feel—much of what’s required to achieve real employee engagement.”

Such an awakening of self-awareness might be key to breaking through the stagnation and achieving some real EE progress at last.



With the February 15th deadline fast looking, there are now just 7 days left for you to cast your vote for my book, Otherwise Engaged, as 2015’s “Leadership Book of the Year.”   All you have to do is click here then scroll down and click on the VOTE NOW button.  That will bring you to a page listing all of the nominees.  Scroll down a bit more until you see the thumbnail of the cover of Otherwise Engaged, click on the radio button, and your vote will have been cast.

You will also have the experience for voting for something that, in all likelihood, you don’t really know all that much about.  You know, kind of like voting for president.