Employers Should Foster, Rather Than Force, Engagement

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By Caryn Freeman

June 25 — Rather than force employee engagement strategies on employees, employers should instead consider the root causes of why employees may not be engaged, according to practitioners interviewed by Bloomberg BNA.

“Behavior of individuals is shaped [to] a large extent by their environment; ‘disengaged' is a label that we are giving employees who don't seem to be getting what we want them to do in business,” Darnell Lattal, executive director of Atlanta.-based Aubrey Daniels Institute, which focuses on workplace behavior, told Bloomberg BNA June 24.

Why Are Employees Disengaged?

Lattal commented that workplaces built around punishment, threat, fear and failure to follow through on commitments propagate disengagement.

“Employees get excited, they assume certain things will happen, and then they don't. They have been promised in subtle ways and big ways, that if you do this it will show up [positively] in your performance reviews or this will show up potentially in your pay, and then as soon as those wonderful words are spoken, there is failure to follow through,” she said.

Lattal said such disappointments then manifest in employee behavior, and organizations label that as disengaged instead of looking at conditions that engender changes in behavior. She said leaders should also consider how what they say and do might suppress engagement or accelerate disengagement.

Lattal further encouraged employers to look carefully at the direction, feedback and clarity employees have about their roles and how often they are involved in problem solving.

“How often do we use their ideas to advance service or quality issues? Often we leave employees behind and make assumptions. One could look at our own behavior as leaders and say we are often disengaged from the process of engagement,” she said.

David Zinger, founder of Winnipeg, Canada-based consulting firm David Zinger Associates, told Bloomberg BNA June 24 that organizations see disengagement and think that it's work-related when there might be other contributing factors, such as depression.

Still, Zinger cautioned against employers becoming “amateur psychologists.” He said, “If you see something going on in the workplace, address the performance issues, do the work-related things but also ensure that [employees] can find assistance and get the help they might need.”

“I do believe that the workplace is accountable to employees,” Zinger, who spent 15 years as an employee assistance counselor, said.

Employees Resist Coercion

Employers should be aware that often employees can feel like engagement initiatives are an attempt to “force them into happiness,” Zinger said. “It's how you do it and the intention behind it. Sometimes I think the workplace over-interferes in employees' lives,” he said.

“I think we oversell the idea of resistance,” Zinger said. “Before we look at resistance, we should look at coercion. If an employer is using engagement or well-being in a coercive fashion, that should not be taking place.”

Lattal said managers can assist in fostering an engaged workforce by recognizing achievements, focusing on small or subtle improvements in engagement, and examining their own personal behavior to know if they inhibit engagement. She also advised organizations to encourage managers to talk to employees about factors that impede engagement and how employees feel about conditions in the workplace.

Anonymous Surveys Don't Work

Zinger commented that anonymous engagement surveys are “counter-intuitive,” and said employers should discuss disengagement more openly with employees. He added that disengagement should never be a “punishable offense” but rather a “trigger for conversation.”

“If an employee is disengaged we shouldn't be getting that data in an anonymous survey; we should be able to have a conversation about what's happening at work and what we can change,” Zinger said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Caryn Freeman in Washington at cfreeman@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Simon Nadel at snadel@bna.com