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Fixing Poor Engagement Starts with Understanding Its Cause

A group of business people talking at a meeting.


​When Jessica Cancel, SHRM-SCP, joined the Pace Center for Girls in 2011 as director of HR and administration, the Florida nonprofit's Jacksonville headquarters was suffering from a 60 percent turnover rate.

The reasons were quick to identify: Even basic back-office processes ran erratically. Payroll errors were common. Managers, most of whom had been promoted from within, had experience working with the organization's clients but not in managing teams. Their struggles to organize, communicate and lead made the center an often-unhappy place to work, even for people who were dedicated to its mission.

The situation faced by Cancel—who's now the Pace Center's chief operating officer—isn't unique. Although HR practitioners and experts talk almost nonstop about how to build and maintain engagement, the hard truth is your workforce probably isn't feeling the love.

According to Gallup, just 33 percent of American workers are engaged by their jobs. Fifty-two percent say they're "just showing up," and 17 percent describe themselves as "actively disengaged." Such numbers have real consequences for your business, observed Michelle M. Smith, a member of the Total Rewards Expert Council at Scottsdale, Ariz.-based WorldatWork. Gallup's research has also shown that engaged workers contribute measurably to the organization: They're 18 percent more productive, for example, 37 percent less prone to absenteeism, and generate earnings that are 18 percent higher.

If you discover that engagement is low, you need to develop a plan for building it back up. But before you start, there's a lot of prep work to do. After all, engagement is about how people feel, so understanding the workforce's mindset is critical.

Understand What's Happening and Why

At the Pace Center, CEO Mary Marx had already recognized that the organization's headquarters was struggling in operations and morale. Her solution was to hire a new executive team, many of whom, like Cancel, had for-profit experience, as well as an understanding of the center's mission. When the team first sat down, its initial question was, "Where do we start?"

The first step is to learn why employees feel disengaged. The most effective way to do that, Smith said, is to ask in direct conversations with a wide range of employees. In these conversations, be empathetic and resist the temptation to defend or explain problems that come up, she said. "Your role is to nondefensively and respectfully receive the input that will ultimately form the basis of your solution."

Also, conduct an anonymous survey that gives the entire workforce an opportunity to chime in. Mila Singh, a culture strategist for CultureIQ in New York City, recommends focusing your questions on the organization's leadership, career development opportunities, company pride and how everyone views their working relationships. Focus groups and town hall meetings can help clarify issues the survey may uncover.

Finally, get a handle on more objective issues by tracking workforce-related key performance indicators, Cancel said. When she began working at Pace, "no one knew the turnover rate, the cost of turnover or had conducted any benchmarking against other employers in the area," she said.

Diving deep—by both listening and studying data—is key to addressing engagement issues.

That's because you can't solve problems unless you really understand them, said Prem Kumar, product manager of the feedback-software provider TINYpulse in Seattle. When faced with engagement troubles, many companies jump straight into searching for a single root cause. They might ask, "Was it because of our recent organizational change? Is it because our CEO has been traveling a lot lately?"

"Stop that line of thinking and get out there and listen before you diagnose," Kumar said.

Keep Your Promises

As you gather feedback, make sure HR and the organization's leadership are on the same page about what you're going to do with it. "Don't even bother to ask employees what's preventing them from feeling more engaged ... if you don't intend to publicly do something with what you learn," Smith warned. "You'll do more harm to your company culture and employees' engagement levels if your inquiries don't result in visible changes in the workplace."

If topics come up that are impossible to act on, Smith suggests clearly and honestly explaining why HR can't take action. This is particularly important because practitioners are often criticized for being reactive rather than proactive.

Sylvia Alcozer, director of HR for PetroChoice, a lubricants distributor based in Fort Washington, Pa., recalled when layoffs at a previous employer led to "a breakdown in communication and trust." HR began keeping more flexible hours so workers from all three shifts could review their concerns on a one-on-one basis and learn about training and other opportunities. "Yes, there were many changes, yet the process did open up and clarify the issues to bring resolutions to all levels of the organization and employees," Alcozer said. Adding a suggestion box, a dedicated e-mail address and brown-bag meetings during lunches and breaks also helped the organization and employees connect.

At the Pace Center, Cancel transitioned her department from being human resources and administration to organizational development (OD). One reason was her belief in the OD process: assess, get feedback, diagnose issues, prescribe solutions, then do it all again. She was quick to address basic operational flaws. By reviewing and revising a number of organizational policies—some of which were 27 years old—she was able to improve areas like payroll so that errors became rare. She looked for "quick wins for middle management" by providing training on topics such as the Family and Medical Leave Act and how to conduct effective one-on-one meetings.

The emphasis on action is a good step to take. Once leaders get feedback data, "they sometimes go into 'analysis paralysis' and can't decide on a focus area, which results in spinning wheels," Singh observed. "The best thing to do is select one or two areas you think will have the biggest impact on engagement" and act on them.

Communicate at All Levels

"Transparency is at the heart of any plan to attack disengagement," Kumar said. It shows the workforce respect, whether you're honestly explaining why a decision was made or demonstrating that executives and HR hold themselves and others accountable. "This is key to a great culture. Culture is really a living, breathing organism, and if you cut off certain parts from others—well, you know what will happen next." 

While experts agree that engagement begins at the top, Smith believes "very strongly that middle managers and supervisors are the most-impactful factor in determining engagement levels in an organization." The quality of employees' relationships with their immediate supervisors "overwhelmingly determines the level of engagement and can account for as much as 70 percent of our engagement score."

Gallup's research, however, shows that managers don't spend enough time communicating with their direct reports. For example, 53 percent of employees don't have a clear understanding of how their role contributes to their company's objectives, and 54 percent believe their colleagues appreciate them more than their supervisors or company executives do. That lack of communication weakens the relationship. At the Pace Center, Cancel directed much of her energy to building stronger ties between managers and staff. As communication improved, more workers came to understand the growth opportunities available to them.

Have a Plan and Track Your Progress

When it comes to increasing engagement, exactly what HR does and how it does it will vary from company to company and, if you decide to bring one in, from consultant to consultant. However, engagement professionals have some tips to consider as you develop your plan:

  • Culture is driven from the top down, so senior leaders must be involved in any plan's implementation by directing initiatives and making sure to communicate about them, Singh said. The leadership team should also meet regularly to review the plan's progress.
  • Set specific goals and assign responsibility for each one. Determine ahead of time how progress will be measured, then track results on an ongoing basis.
  • Rewards are an important part of most engagement programs, so develop an approach that aligns with the interests of your workforce and recognizes the effort employees need to put in at each step.
  • You need a budget. Ask yourself what's possible with the money you have and what you want to achieve. Plan for how your expenses will change based on positive or negative outcomes.
  • This never ends. "Everyone has to accept this is iterative," said Marta Moakley, a legal editor at Brightmine™ HR & Compliance Centre. "What employees value one year may not be true the next year, and you have to keep up with the workforce's concerns."

To Cancel, improving engagement was about fixing processes and building relationships among both staff and managers across the organization. With the back office functioning smoothly, middle managers communicating effectively, and a program in place to teach employees how other functions operate, the team is more cohesive, and engagement vastly improved. By 2017, the turnover rate at Pace Center's headquarters had dropped from 60 to 28 percent. Cancel's goal is to cut that by half within five years.

Mark Feffer is a freelance business writer based in Philadelphia.

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