The Real Reasons Your Staff Is Disengaged

BBQs and flex-time are great, but they won't make your staff go above and beyond. Find out whether you're failing as an engaging employer

Written by Deborah Aarts

Study after study shows that high levels of employee engagement yield big business benefits. Highly motivated workforces have been linked to higher sales, better profit margins, lower staff-turnover rates, stronger brand reputations and increased resiliency within an organization.

You want engaged workers. It’s a no-brainer.

But if the benefits are so clear, then why doesn’t every company in Canada boast a hyper-engaged workforce? According to employee-engagement expert Mark Royal, it’s because most CEOs—and the managers they oversee—have an inaccurate or incomplete view of what employee engagement really is.

PROFIT spoke with Royal, the Chicago-based senior principal at Hay Group and co-author of The Enemy of Engagement, about the top four mistakes entrepreneurs make when attempting to engage employees. Read on to determine whether any of these ring true—and, if so, whether your people-management strategy needs a tune-up.

1. You think “engaged” means “happy”

Think you’re doing your job if your staffers come to work with smiles on their faces? Think again.

“Employee engagement is not about making employees happier,” explains Royal. “Happiness may come with it, but engagement is primarily about driving a more productive workforce. It’s about motivated efforts directed at company goals.”

Engaged employees like their work, yes. But they’re also committed to the organization, they identify with its objectives, they’re energized to go above and beyond, and they intend to stick around. Simple on-the-job contentedness factors into those results, but it won’t deliver them alone.

Read: Who are your most disengaged workers?

2. Your managers shirk off responsibility

Managers can have an amazing effect on engagement—after all, if they’re doing their jobs well, they’re intimately tied to the day-to-day experiences of employees on the front lines. Yet many managers don’t feel engaging employees is part of their job description, dismissing it as an HR duty or, worse, a meaningless corporate credo.

“The success of initiatives or efforts to engage employees often stand or fall on the extent to which leaders within the organization are committed to them,” explains Royal. “When managers see engagement activities as sideline tasks separate from their core business, those activities tend not to succeed.”

Read: How to get middle managers to embrace engagement

3. You’re not focused on what really drives engagement.

Too many firms take a scattershot approach to driving engagement. They’ll add a staff BBQ here and implement a work-at-home Friday there, assuming that these perks will add up to something good. Not so, says Royal. He believes there are two conditions that materially improve employee engagement above all others.

The first is optimism about the future. Great workers want to know that they’re working for an organization with a clear plan, with capable leaders steering the ship, he says: “They want you to help them understand they’re playing for a winner.” They also want to know their personal role in that future: are there opportunities to grow professionally and to progress into leadership roles?

The second is reciprocity. Employees tend to be more committed to delivering superlative work when they feel they’ll get something in return. “Employees have to know that when they do go above and beyond, they’ll be noticed and recognized for it,” Royal says.

By ensuring these two variables are entrenched in the fabric of your organization, you’ll get workers that care enough to go beyond. All other perks and benefits are just gravy.

Read: The 4 things great bosses do

4. You don’t give engaged employees the tools to thrive

It’s great to have a staff full of cheerleaders. But what good will that do you if you can’t score any goals? All too often, companies that have invested heavily in employee engagement find themselves falling short of their objectives. Why? As fired up as workers may be, they lack the tools to effectively harness their enthusiasm. “Employee enablement needs to accompany employee engagement,” explains Royal. “Not many companies know that.”

So, what is employee enablement? At root, it involves removing any impediments that might otherwise prevent motivated employees from going the extra mile for the companies. As Royal says, engagement is the desire to do good; enablement is the ability to actually do so. And if your company encourages one, but not the other, that means trouble: “A lot of engaged employees are also extremely frustrated,” he says. “They’re right where leaders want to be in terms of engagement, but still feel held back.”

In fact, Royal says that as much as 20% of today’s workers are not sufficiently enabled to act on their high engagement. “These people are motivated, but not nearly as productive as their organizations need them to be,” he explains. “There’s an inherent mismatch between their desire to succeed and their inability to do so.” Faced with this, some uber-engaged employees will press for the changes needed to allow them to thrive. But most won’t, Royal says; they’ll either become disillusioned or defect. “That creates a real drain on the return companies might get from their engagement efforts,” he says.

Podcast: The why and how of employee engagement

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com