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Why Your Employee Engagement Programs Aren’t Working

By Laura Juarez

As a business owner and leader, I chased the nirvanic state of high employee engagement for years. Well-intentioned, I researched, rolled out programs, created engagement teams, surveyed my people, hosted cookouts, paid for baseball tickets — you get the picture.

You’ve probably tried these incentives, too. You can’t open LinkedIn without seeing at least one expert post about boosting engagement. There is a reason for concern in a world where finding and keeping great people is more challenging than ever. According to data from the Gallup Institute, less than a third of U.S. workers report being moderately to well engaged, and 56% are actively looking for another job.

Almost every leader I talk to wants to create a great place to work. And yet, something is broken and giving everyone a $50 Amazon gift card for a great month isn’t going to fix it.

But before we dive in, let’s revisit what Maslow taught us about the path of impact.

Maslow’s work is intuitive. If our foundational needs are unmet (safety, financial stability, etc.), no amount of motivational incentives, training or one-on-one conversation is going to fix it. At work, foundational needs are psychological safety, financial stability (compensation and benefits), a dependable work schedule, and a healthy, safe working environment.

The number one reason our engagement efforts fail is because our foundation is cracked. If you aren’t paying a living wage, it doesn’t matter how effectively you communicate. It’s like playing beautiful music for someone wearing earplugs. We cannot be our best when our physical, mental and emotional stability is threatened.

There’s also the insidious reality that people feel insulted or misunderstood when we fail to address basic needs but we’re more than happy to bring in pizza once a month or give away the “Employee of the Month” parking space.

So before you do anything, do an honest assessment of your foundation based on research and direct feedback from your people. Here’s a starting point:

  • Based on the true cost of living in your region, are you paying a total compensation package that creates financial stability?
  • Do you offer a financially reasonable solution for people to access physical and mental health services?
  • Is your work environment psychologically safe? Do people feel like they can be authentic, learn from mistakes, use their voice and trust the people around them without fear of retribution?
  • Do your expectations of working hours and personal boundaries allow people to live a well-balanced life?
  • Is the physical environment itself healthy? (noise, odor, lighting, safety, etc.)

Let’s assume you’re in good shape on the foundational basic needs. Maslow next teaches us that people deeply desire to feel like they belong and are loved.

Thriving cultures understand that meaningful relationships matter. Leaders who create thriving cultures understand that performance discussions, feedback processes, meeting calendars, and training plans are the primary vehicles for trust and connection. Trust and connection aren’t the byproduct of effective communication; they are the reason for effective communication. And without it, relationships fail.

It would take more space than we have here to talk about how to design systems and processes that embed trust and connection into our culture, but don’t skip it or give it lip service. A few tips that work well in most environments:

  • Coach your people leaders to be authentic, vulnerable and present. Practice this with each other until it becomes the water you swim in.
  • Liberate information and data to create access and transparency. People are inspired when they understand how they uniquely contribute to the big picture and they’re given access to the resources they need to be great. The days of “need to know” and “stay in your lane” are over.
  • Schedule a weekly one-on-one for every team member to talk about their personal purpose, how it’s going, what support they need, and what’s on the horizon. Fifteen to 20 minutes is all it takes. 
  • Don’t implement it if you can’t follow through with it. When we tell people we’re going to do something for their benefit and then we stop doing it, even if for good reason, we’re telling them they don’t matter. Regression is one of business’s highest soft costs. Have integrity with your commitments.
  • Leaders often talk at people too much because they’re in a hurry or think they need to have all the answers. Coach your people leaders to ask thoughtful questions, speak humbly and from a place of curiosity, and listen well.

Maslow next talks about self-actualization. Self-actualization is about purpose and meaning. It is about living a life where we are empowered to animate the intersection of our passion and genius. If you as a leader can create that opportunity at work, you will have a highly dedicated and committed team who jumps out of bed every day inspired to do exceptional work.

When I work with clients, we begin with WHY. Why does our business matter in the world? How do we make the lives of our stakeholders better? What would be missing if we went away tomorrow? This is our higher purpose and everything else — vision, strategy, operations, processes, goals — wrap around our higher purpose.

Adjacently, each of us as humans has a higher purpose. While most of us haven’t invested the time in articulating it, it is what inspires us and gives us meaning and alignment with what matters in life. 

Thus, the most important work we do as a leader is to focus time and attention on our own higher purpose, consciously choosing how that informs the decisions we make, words we speak and actions we take. For others, we become the container for them to do the same. We create the invitation and framework for people to use their own higher purpose as the lens through which they choose how they want to show up in the moment.

This is the leadership conversation that matters most. It isn’t about our goals, our hobbies or our opinion on how to make a better widget; it is using those conversations as the vehicle through which we all develop higher purpose and self-optimization fluency. And what we discover is that when we create space for the people we lead to focus on higher purpose and self-optimization, they make a better widget. In fact, not only does their productivity increase but so does their willingness to take risks, innovate, change and stick to it when the going gets rough.

This work doesn’t get done in a two-hour performance conversation twice a year and thriving cultures aren’t crafted in a weekend retreat. This is the long game. One that requires us to reframe how we think about productivity and engagement and design for achievement and progress. But it’s worth it because at the end of the day, no one stays inspired long term about the widget and the bottom line. Sustainable inspiration and dedication happens when people feel like their work matters, that they’re celebrated for who they are, and that they believe fiercely in the purpose and vision of the business.  

About the Author

Laura Juarez was the CEO of the L.E. Smith Company for over 20 years before beginning her next chapter as co-founder of 10X Leadership Lab, a coaching and consulting company. They help leaders achieve 10X impact by aligning with their north star of higher purpose, cultivating a thriving culture and actualizing meaningful strategy. Learn more at www.10xleadershiplab.com. You can reach Laura at Laura@10xleadershiplab.com.

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