Stop Trying to Fix Employee Engagement


For the past thirty years or so, we have seen a lot of human capital industry buzz around employee engagement. It’s hard to find any issue of a people-related industry publication that doesn’t include one or more articles on employee engagement and how to fix it.

There are many success stories, but they are exceptions. We don’t see overall improvement. Employee engagement measures appear to rise and wane with the scarcity of labor. As the labor supply rises, leaders pay less attention to trying to retain employees, and on the reverse swing they work harder to keep them.

Wasted Effort on Quick Fixes

Organizations spend a fortune on surveys and consultants to pinpoint the issues. Many companies have tried multiple programs and initiatives to try to influence employee attitudes, but we don’t see overall improvements that can’t be explained by external factors.

Deloitte University Press recently gave us a comprehensive look at employee engagement with a list of recommendations beginning withmake work irresistible.” It’s a good rehash of the best of recommendations we saw over the past few years, but in its essence it aims at culture as the controlling factor. That discussion starts us in the right direction.

The Long March

As Paul Hebert explains inThe Long March of Employee Engagement,” culture is the problem and the cure. The problem, he explains, is that leaders try to fit employee engagement into the same time frame as other company processes (yearly, quarterly) and expect quick results. It doesn’t work that way. A culture is years in the making, and a cultural turnaround can take as long as a decade or more.

We see the same short-term thinking in the engagement consulting world. A company cries for help, so a consultant swoops in, does a survey, makes a few recommendations, then moves on to the next case. In our opinion, employee engagement consulting is often like pop psychology. The number of employee engagement issues appear to be directly proportional to the number of consultants with solutions.

Culture is as Leadership Does

An organization’s leaders create its culture by the behavior they model. We spent quite a bit of time with an executive of a small firm that has pioneered several advances in its industry. (we are vague here to protect his anonymity.) It is not unusual for him to get phone calls at odd hours of the night complete with screamed obscenities and threats. When I casually asked about employee engagement at the company, our friend said there was no problem – they are engaged, or they are gone. It reminds us of the research that shows us the quality of customer service correlates to how a company treats its customer service agents.

We have seen many examples of dominant company cultures that produced astounding results – Google, Publix, Southwest and many others. They built their cultures from the ground up based on the principle of valuing people. For these companies, it’s not about short-term solutions. It is a fundamental way of life driven by principled leadership.

Stop trying to fix employee engagement. It’s not going to work. Instead, take the next few years to build an organization with a strong purpose, sound principles, and a culture that values people. Engagement will fix itself.

The Employee Engagement Disconnect

The Employee Engagement Disconnect_IA

After years of studies, surveys, and billions of dollars spent on employee engagement, Gallup’s headline in 2015 was “Employee Engagement in U.S. Stagnant in 2015. We see a slight uptrend, and when we add in the 7-day moving average of November 28, 2016, a chart shows a 5% increase over five years.

If employee engagement is the holy grail of employee statistics, is 1% per year improvement a trend worthy The Employee Engagement Disconnect_IB_Gallup Survey_IB.jpgof notice? Impossible to know without knowing the details. If the benchmark surveys we see are a sign, a few companies are making good progress but the rest are not.

Employee engagement has always seemed “fuzzy” to us. In our corner of the human capital management world, we work on solutions to business problems defined at the outset of a project, measured by impact on our partners’ KPIs.

Pausing now to think and write about engagement, we believe perhaps the fuzziness is caused by ambiguous definitions and a misguided approach. What the term means seems to depend on who you ask.

  • Bersin defines employee engagement as an employee’s job satisfaction, loyalty, and inclination to expend discretionary effort toward organizational goals. We trust Bersin, but those perceptions depend on the relationship with the employer. It’s as though we measuring the employee’s head to see if the employer is doing the right things.
  • Gallup says workers are engaged when they have “an opportunity to do what they do best each day, having someone at work who encourages their development and believing their opinions count at work.” Once again, these are not employee issues—they are management problems.
  • CustomInsight’s definition is “the extent to which employees feel passionate about their jobs, are committed to the organization, and put discretionary effort into their work.”[2] Comparing that to Bersin and Gallup, we get commitment and discretionary effort, but passion? Is that really the right word? When you look it up in a dictionary, it seems a bit out of bounds.

Only when we go back to the origin of the term do we find an explanation for the disconnect. William A. Kahn, writing in the Academy of Management Journal, first described engagement in 1990:

“People can use varying degrees of their selves: physically, cognitively, and emotionally, in the roles they perform, even as they maintain the integrity of the boundaries between who they are and the roles they occupy. Presumably, the more people draw on their selves to perform their roles within those boundaries, the more stirring are their performances and the more content they are with the fit of the costumes.”[3]

The disconnect for us is that too often the concept of employee engagement attempts to reduce employee sentiment to single cipher. Every human being is a complex individual who “engages” or “disengages” in varying degrees throughout the work day, depending on the role and the people with whom they interact.

What started us on this line of thinking was studying Douglas W. Hubbard’s universal approach to measurement, described in How to Measure Anything (Wiley 2010).

  1. Define a decision problem and the relevant uncertainties. The first question is not how to measure, but “what is your dilemma?”
  2. Determine what you know now. Quantify the uncertainty about the decision you need to make in terms of ranges and probabilities.
  3. Compute the value of additional information to identify what to measure and inform us on how to measure it. (If no information values exist that justify the cost of measurement, skip to step 5.)
  4. Apply the relevant measurement instruments to high-value measures: random sampling, controlled experiments, and other methods we can use to reduce uncertainty.
  5. Make a decision and act on it.[4]

In Hubbard’s approach, measurement starts with defining a decision, but what the decision should be is often not obvious. Hubbard likens it to measuring project performance to track project progress. It’s a circular statement. The right question is what would we change if we knew more about the project’s progress.

Skipping this step is like conducting an employee survey without knowing what information we want or how we are going to use it. When we go inside engagement surveys and examine the questions, we get information, but do we know what we are going to do with it?


We understand from benchmark surveys that companies with high engagement enjoy better productivity and profitability. If we define the objectives as productivity and profitability, what decisions are we trying to make? We are not asking the right question.

We know a lot about human behavior and what motivates people. If we are aware employees are more engaged in their work when they believe their opinions matter, what action would we take if certain employees did not believe that?

That is the place to start. It’s a specific business problem, and we can use it to gather data to form hypotheses for decisions we need to make. And that is right in the middle of our comfort zone.


1. “Employee Engagement in U.S. Stagnant in 2015.” Gallup. January 13, 2016. 

2. Retrieved November 28, 2016. 

3. Kahn, William A. "Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work." Academy of Management Journal; December 1990, Vol. 33, No.4, 692-724.

4. Hubbard, Douglas W. How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of “INTANGIBLES” in Business. John Wiley & Sons. Hoboken, New Jersey, 2010. pp 73-74.

Why Social Recognition Can Be Your Most Powerful Employee Engagement Tool

Why Social Recognition Can Be Your Most Powerful Employee Engagement Tool_IA

If you have social collaboration and networking platforms in your organization, you already have what you need to launch the best-performing engagement program possible. If you have a recognition and rewards platform with social tools, all the better.

Of all recognition program, social can give you the best results at the lowest cost. Let’s take a look at the impact a good program can have on your organization.

  • Recognition is the most important driver of great work (O. C. Tanner). Why Social Recognition Can Be Your Most Powerful Employee Engagement Tool_IB_Cicero Group_IB.jpg
  • 91% of employees recognized reported they felt “highly motivated to contribute to the success of their organization," (O. C. Tanner).
  • A commitment to valuing employees is the top factor in removing their uncertainty about company leadership. Confidence in leadership is the #1 influence in employee engagement, and commitment to valuing employees is #2 (Cicero Group).
  • Social recognition is the most powerful recognition program (Aberdeen Group).
  • Organizations with online social recognition tools have a 36% year-over-year improvement in revenue per FTE (Aberdeen Group).

We know rewards based on performance have a proven impact on performance and productivity, and no limit to the number of possible recognition programs. Anything that shows appreciation to another person will bolster their commitment and sense of belonging.

Formal loyalty awards such as those based on length of service have their impact, too. It affects not only the recipient but other employees who see that your organization rewards loyalty.

Formal recognition programs will help you keep and engage employees, and over time will enhance your company brand. But formal recognition programs can have “shelf life.” If they are not well-managed and rejuvenated from time to time, they can become Just another administrative exercise. If your top leadership, HR, and at least most of your managers are not strong supporters, a program can lose its effect.

In most organizations, responsibility for recognition falls on managers, and if you don’t have a strong, engaged cadre of leaders, you risk failure. So, we conclude that in rewards and recognition programs, we need to pay most of our attention to those who are at the touch point of appreciation.

Social recognition introduces a different dynamic into the mix. We learned this from several years inside an organization where, because of budgetary restraints, recognition and rewards programs were sparse and not well-funded. The HR group took that on by creating a culture of peer recognition.

There was no structured program, no charter, and no management. If you had spoken the term “social recognition” HR wouldn’t have known what you were saying. But it worked. Instead of creating a new program, they built informal and peer recognition into the supervisor training curriculum. They did not teach what to do, but how to frame appreciation so it was sincere and specific.

We say there was no management, but there was leadership. Chad, the HR Director, started every meeting with an appreciation for someone’s good work, whether they were at the meeting or not. You can believe the word got back to the subject of the praise quickly.

Chad modeled what he wanted people to do, in his own group and in executive meetings. Over time, such recognition became the norm throughout the organization. The recognition took many forms, from an email communication to someone’s boss to a piece of candy left on a chair.

Imagine what you could do with that leadership and the communication tools we have today. You can create a Why Social Recognition Can Be Your Most Powerful Employee Engagement Tool_IC_Aberdeen Group_IC.jpgculture of recognition with little more than a good example. Here are a few things we suggest to make it work better.

  • You may prefer to have a structured program, but take care not to make it mandatory for anyone. If you have been running recognition programs for any length of time, you know what we mean.
  • Let anyone recognize anyone, and allow them to make the recognition public. If you do that, it will spread like wildfire.
  • Make it easy. Don’t force people to stop what they are doing and launch a software program or create a memo. Get as much out of the way between the thought and action as you can.
  • Spread the practice of personal appreciation. Have managers start their meetings by prompting their people to speak up about people who did something special.
  • Create the expectation among business leaders that they should model the right behaviors and expect it of their people.

Imagine how employee Brenda will feel when she logs into her workstation in the morning and sees a message that begins with “Brenda helped us out of a jam yesterday…”

Let no good deed go unpraised.

Improve Employee Engagement and Retention with Virtual Onboarding


The rise of onboarding technology and improved practices over the past two decades transformed the new employee experience. What was once days of paperwork, boring orientation lectures, and tedious training has disappeared in most companies. In high-performing organizations onboarding has become a holistic approach to assimilation into the workforce. It begins long before the first day of work and continues for the entire employee life cycle, with renewed emphasis whenever an employee promotes or transfers.

Why Virtual Onboarding Benefits Your Business

Effective onboarding programs begin at the moment a candidate accepts an offer of employment. The time between the offer and the first day of work can be days or weeks. Lack of communication creates doubt about the decision, and candidates will walk away from offers if they feel a prospective employer is not interested in them. We have done it ourselves.

Workers in virtual offices, remote locations or global organizations may never have a face to face encounter with people in your central organization. Making them part of the culture requires stimulating online virtual experiences.Virtual onboarding improves consistency in geographically dispersed organizations while providing opportunities for localization of policies and procedures.

Onboarding done well improves time to full productivity or time-to-competence, but the transformation to full productivity requires more than job skills. It includes assimilation into the culture, performance expectations, and socialization. Virtual learning can help with all of these factors.

One of the primary benefits is reduced cost, not only because of the reduced cost of training delivery, but also lower new employee turnover.

Virtual learning gives you the ability to use several modes in a blended learning approach, which improves learning retention.


We can recommend the following practices to take advantage of virtual onboarding.

  • Manage onboarding as a project. Use onboarding technology or a project plan to define the onboarding process from beginning to end, with specific milestones.
  • Avoid “One Size Fits All” Onboarding. In a multi-generational, globalized environment, onboarding requires multi-modal learning and information delivery and localization. It should also be tailored to the job role.
  • Complete as much of the paperwork as you can online and before the first day of work.
  • Go mobile. Make sure all your resources are well-adapted to mobile use, especially for the generations that grew up with mobile devices.
  • Use e-learning with gamification to enhance learning about company products and services, company history, the industry sector, culture, and benefits elections.
  • Use collaboration tools. If you don’t have a company collaboration tool like Yammer, Trello, or Producteev you can create private groups on LinkedIn or other social media platforms.
  • Get personal with videoconferencing. A welcome phone call or email from the hiring manager is a nice touch. You can reap additional benefits with a video call. Try including the new employee’s work team in a brief welcome call.

Virtual onboarding can help you improve time-to-productivity, increase employee engagement, lower new hire turnover, and save training costs. The result will be a more engaged workforce, higher productivity, and improved business results.

See our onboarding infographic to learn more about how onboarding can benefit your business.

Employee Engagement for Employee Satisfaction and Retention


“To win in the marketplace you must first win in the workplace.” – Doug Conant

An organisation without employees, this is beyond imagination. But that’s what is happening to many of the organisations now.


Do you think an organisation with disengaged employees is truly an organisation which impacts its bottomline?

No...such a workplace of disengaged employees is more like a workplace without employees. For an organisation to succeed, mere presence of the employees is not enough, but the employee engagement is what mostly matters.

“When people go to work, they shouldn’t have to leave their hearts at home.” – Betty Bender

The line speaks volumes. Very often we tend to drop off the aspect of engagement though it greatly contributes to the success. Thus, we often miss greater things that can happen when we focus on smaller things. When we give importance to small things, they can be solved in a simple way, otherwise they turn big and cost much. It is rightly said, “Only those who have the patience to do simple things perfectly, will acquire the skill to do difficult things easily”

Employee Engagement is the sense of commitment with which the employees contribute to the growth and success of an organisation, while in the process they also enhance their own selves to become completely competent. Employee engagement has become the most important aspect that needs much attention of the corporate executives now, as it’s been slightly neglected earlier. It is a key without which one cannot unlock the door of success. It was also proved that an engaged environment is highly productive than the one which is not.

Employee engagement can be measured in various ways like polls, surveys and personal sessions with each employee and it can be enhanced only when the data collected through surveys and other ways is looked into and valued.

Now let's look at some of the ways in which employees can be more engaged and turn productive.

Be open to inform or communicate

All employees will have a desire to know about the organization they are working for, and that cannot be ignored. Being the agents of sustainability and spending life’s much time with the organisation, they expect to have the right to information on every aspect of the place where they are working and contributing their physical and intellectual capabilities. This can happen when governing body trust their employees and trust gives back trust in most cases. So building trust is an essential element to initiate open communication between the employers/executives and employees.

Don't play favourites

This often happens but it never works out. Favouritism always creates an air of discomfort in the organization, that most of the employees get demotivated. It’s healthy to be consistent in your relations with your employees and never let them down by playing favourites, as its impact may not be immediate but gradually it will harm the employee morale. Have an all equal approach towards all your employees, for every employee is sensible enough to analyse the way in which he/she is being treated.

Show but don’t say

The very common thing that happens with managers or executives is they always give responsibilities, but they don’t take. They dump duties on the staff without a clear reflection on what has to be done. But the employees always love to work with people who show them the things and stay along with them, take risks at times and motivate constantly to achieve results. Right strategy involves exemplifying things to keep employees in a comfort zone.

Tactful handling

Executives/Employers must be tactful in dealing with employees. They should act according to the nature of each individual and make the most of their potential. It is really important to be wise enough and handle risks to plan a solution that never harms the repute of the organisation. Hence have a complete knowledge of all your employees and their attitudes to deal accordingly. Know the fact and use tact to set everything in its place.

Be slow to anger and swift to appreciate

Appreciation and recognition of employees efforts is something which an employer/executive cannot do without. Sometimes though work becomes complex, employees strive without giving up, in such cases appreciation in any form can fetch employee satisfaction. And at times things may go wrong, what would one do then?? Shout and Howl? Never is it going to help. Always be slow to become angry. Don’t assign work to your mouth, but let your mind work on it and avoid making things more complex than they are.

Let your managers have skills rather than ills 

Not all but some managers are the source of demotivation in workplaces. They may appear normal, but their impact on the employees make situations bitter. So always ensure your managers are not tricky, unpleasant but genial, responsible and right leaders.

Give an ear to your employees word

It's good to give an ear to your employees ideas and suggestions. If the ideas are beyond implementing or unsuitable, bring out the facts and dismiss it in a pleasing way, but if they are valid, there’s no loss to implement them.

Above all, a truly engaged workplace will reach the heights of success, however tough things may be, it also leads to employee satisfaction and retention, thus look into all the information collected in various ways to measure employee engagement. Research, Restrategize, and Recapture the engagement that is lost. 

This is not at all trivial, for “The way your employees feel is the way your customers will feel.” – Sybil F. Stershic

Pixentia is a full-service technology company dedicated to helping clients solve business problems, improve the capability of their people, and achieve better results.