Employee engagement

3 Surprising Reasons an Employee Engagement Strategy Can Fail

George Dickson
June 8, 2016
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Employee engagement is one of the most crucial factors for an organization's success, but it isn't a simple thing to get right. There are many ways an engagement strategy can fail, some of which you might not expect.

Here are three surprising ways an employee engagement strategy can fail, and some easy ways to turn it around.

1. Top-down design

You may have heard the phrase "Employee engagement starts at the top." This is true: for any engagement strategy to be successful, it must be embraced by leadership.

Many people mistake this advice to mean that employee engagement must also be designed at the top though. That's usually going to be a path to failure.

Don't develop your engagement strategy from an ivory tower.

Strategic planning traditionally happens from the top-down, but for an initiative like this one, it's absolutely vital that it grows from the bottom up.

Why is that so important?

Kevin Kruze covers this point expertly in his Forbes article "The Best Employee Engagement Strategy Is From The Bottom Up."

Because the front line workers are the ones who completed the survey, they are the only ones who can tell you what needs to change. The answers can’t come from above...Company leaders should never assume they have all the answers.
-Kevin Kruze

Simply stated, the information you need to develop a successful strategy is not at the top; it's at the bottom. You can spend hours in a conference room brainstorming about what it might take to improve engagement across your organization, but in all likelihood, you're wasting your time until you ask the whole team.

There are a lot of ways to collect perspective from your team on how you can improve engagement. You can use a purpose-built survey tool like TINYpulse, an anonymous Google form, or a shoe box if you have to. Just do it, and ensure it's in a format that encourages employees to provide candid feedback.

And the best part?

They want to give you that information. Really. Your team will want to share their insights because it's likely going to account for a dramatic improvement in their experience at work. Most employees will jump at the chance to participate in a project designed to advance their ability to move themselves, their team, and the organization forward. 

Even though you may find out you're not doing as well as you thought or hoped in some areas, this process will give you the insights you need to enact positive change that is truly aligned with the team.

Now this is important:

Once you have the info, follow through, and make your steps toward progress visible. Now that you know (and the team knows you know) what it's going to take to start improving engagement in your organization, don't sit on that knowledge. You may not be able to solve every issue that is raised, but you can make forward progress.

Communicate as you go. If there's a legitimate reason you don't believe you have the necessary tools to solve a specific problem at the moment, or if you'd like to tackle one first, communicate that to the team.

You can't over-communicate. This is one of the reasons SHRM lists communication first in its Five Components of an Effective Engagement Strategy

2. Not enough buy-in


For an engagement strategy to work, you need buy in at all levels of the organization—from the very top, all the way down to the local level.

Engagement can be a very personal thing, and it's important to understand that as you're developing an engagement strategy. What works for one employee might not work for others, and part of developing an effective strategy that achieves buy-in is understanding the team's motivations.

But how do you do that?

Most of the work you'll need to do toward inspiring that buy-in is already done if you're regularly taking feedback into consideration as the strategy takes form. It's much easier to achieve buy-in from the team on an initiative they helped to shape than it is to achieve buy-in on a draconian policy only a select handful had a say in designing.

That's not quite all, though.

Robyn Reilly explains in her post in Gallup's Business Journal, "Five Ways to Improve Employee Engagement Now":

Managers and employees must feel empowered to make a significant difference in their immediate environment. Leaders and managers should work with employees to identify barriers to engagement and opportunities to effect positive change.
-Robyn Reilly

It's not enough to welcome feedback during the initial development phases. For a strategy to be sustainable, it must present everyone with a sense that their input matters throughout the evolutionary process.

It's also crucial for the strategy to be reinforced regularly. You could have a truly magnificent strategy built out, but without effectively communicating it to the team, it's not likely to go anywhere. Don't just roll it out and walk away. Without regular reinforcement, an engagement strategy will have no staying power.

For this to happen, credibility with middle management is a must.

3. No tracking


You can't say your engagement strategy is working unless you can measure its effectiveness. In order to improve engagement, you need to establish a few things:

A format

How are you planning on quantifying the level of engagement in your organization.

It's not enough to say "yeah, we get a sense that people are happy (or not)." Happiness and engagement aren't one in the same. It's important to know what it is you plan to measure, and how you're going to measure it.

A baseline

In other words, where are you currently at?

Once you've determined how you're going to measure engagement, you need to know where you currently stand. Whether you consider that stance to be good, bad, or middling isn't the most important thing — you'll get to that later in the process. 

A benchmark

What level of engagement are other organizations seeing, and how does your level of engagement match up?

It's more useful to work to improve engagement on your own terms than it is to qualify success against that of other organizations. That being said, having a basic ballpark understanding of what's possible to aim for can help with realistic goal setting.

A goal

Where do you want this initiative to take you and your team?

Now that you know how you're going to measure engagement, where you currently stand, and where a few similar organizations are, it's time to make a determination about where you want to be, and by when.

David Zinger published a great collection of top 10 employee engagement imperatives from experts in the field that includes a great quote:

Just 'improving engagement' will not be enough to connect with local business leaders and managers who drive the bottom-up work that must happen to be successful and sustainable.
-David Zinger

Make sure you're setting a realistic goal. It's okay (even great) to be ambitious, but make sure you're not crossing the line between ambitious but achievable, and unrealistic.

Setting a goal you can't hope to reach won't help push the initiative forward. Just like the old cliche states, it's a marathon, not a sprint.

In conclusion

It might seem like building a successful employee engagement strategy is an overwhelming task with more ways to fail than succeed. Keep a few things in mind as you go, you'll see much better, more repeatable, and more sustainable results.

If you want to learn more about employee engagement and the many factors that can influence it, check out this resource: 

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