Many Senior Executives Not Engaged with Their Organizations

By Kathy Gurchiek Apr 23, 2008
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Four years after an initial report on employee engagement, North American organizations still struggle to create a workforce of engaged employees—workers who contribute to the organization’s success and take personal satisfaction in the role they play, according to a new report from BlessingWhite.

Not much has changed since the 2003 report, when the company found that a majority of employees liked their work and planned to stay with their employer but were not especially focused on what mattered most to their employers.

The good news for 2008, though, is North American employees are among the most engaged globally, just behind India, according to The State of Employee Engagement 2008.

Also, HR and sales departments have the most engaged employees (36 percent each); HR consulting/training was the industry with the largest proportion of engaged workers (46 percent), according to the report.

The bad news: More than 50 percent of senior executives have “less than ideal emotional connection and alignment” to their organization, BlessingWhite found.

Employee engagement has financial consequences, according to Stephen Parker, who presented BlessingWhite’s findings during an April 15, 2008, presentation in Washington, D.C.

He pointed to a growing body of research showing a link between high employee engagement and superior business performance.

Towers Perrin, for example, found that high-engagement organizations have a 28 percent earnings-per-share (EPS) growth rate; low-engagement organizations have shown an 11.2 percent EPS decline, Parker said. A report from the Society for Human Resource Managementfound that strengthening employee engagement saved one company $1.7 million in one year.

BlessingWhite’s 2008 report was based on findings from 7,508 respondents—49 percent of whom were supervisors or above—from a cross-section of job titles, functions and industries in North America, Europe, India, China and Australia/Southeast Asia that were followed by 40 backup interviews with HR and line leaders.

Parker’s presentation focused on the North American results; the bulk of respondents (44 percent) live in North America.

Levels of Engagement

BlessingWhite categorized engagement into the following five levels, although Parker noted that where a person falls “is very fluid, even on a daily basis”:

  • Top engaged; 29 percent of North Americans surveyed fell into this group. They are top-level performers and their job/employer satisfaction level is high. If not kept engaged they can slide into one of the other groups.
  • Almost engaged, 27 percent. They contribute fully, find great satisfaction in their work but may not consistently have great days at work. They can be lured away if not cultivated.
  • Honeymooners and hamsters, 12 percent. Honeymooners are new, so their contribution is not high, but they are happy to be with the organization. Hamsters may work hard but “spin their wheels” on nonessential tasks or are “retired in place.”
  • Crash and burners, 13 percent. Talented former maximum contributors. They are stressed from their job and their contribution level has dropped. Left alone they can become disengaged and pull others down.
  • Disengaged, 19 percent. They are at the opposite end of the top engaged and often feel disconnected from organizational priorities, underutilized, and don’t get what they need from work. If not coached to higher levels, their exit is a good thing.

Engagement levels for supervisors, managers and directors are “just a step ahead of the core workforce,” according to the 2008 report.

“The situation seems to be strikingly better at the top, where 47 percent of vice presidents or above are engaged. Yet that leaves more than 50 percent of senior executives—the people counted on for shaping savvy business strategies and inspiring the workforce—with less than ideal emotional connection and alignment,” the report noted.

Industries with the largest numbers of engaged workers: HR consulting/training, followed by energy/utilities (40 percent), legal and business services (34 percent) and associations/not-for-profit (34 percent).

Increasing Engagement

Respondents want more resources, greater clarity about what the organization needs from them and why, and regular specific feedback on what they are doing, Parker said.

Other steps employers can take to increase engagement, he said, are:

  • Survey less, act more. Take the pulse of employees, but don’t stop there. Use the data to spot trends and actionable insights; tailor programmatic strategies and equip and hold leaders responsible.
  • Align, align, align. Do this by constantly communicating your strategy, translating that strategy into day-to-day actions, and using technology to carry out that strategy.

Redefine what ‘career’ means at your organization; 57 percent of North American employees don’t know what they want to do next. Make development a priority and re-think how you communicate promotions.

  • Leverage managers. Find if they’re engaged; coach them for career and performance; hold them accountable for organizational values and team development; and remove bad managers.
  • Pay attention to your culture by investing in your managers and making sure senior leaders set the tone in the way they communicate strategy, clarify values and standards of behavior.

“It’s hard to have high engagement in a culture that doesn’t reinforce it,” Parker pointed out. Consider whether there can be candid discussions with employees about the five engagement levels and where they think they fall.

The key, he said, is one-on-one manager-employee relationships.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at

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