7 Mistakes that Undermine Employee Engagement Strategies

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Managers and career experts discuss the top mistakes that crush employee engagement and how to fix it.
Employee Engagement

It's no secret that companies benefit from engaged employees who are committed to their work, however only about 13 percent of employees are enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplaces worldwide, according to Gallup. The remaining 87 percent of employees are indifferent or even potentially hostile to their organizations.

Employers know that satisfied employees produce better results and provide better customer experiences but they can make mistakes. What may seem like a good idea, such as added benefits, gamification, or a pay raise, may have little effect on employee engagement. At the same time, there's steep competition for talented employees, making it critical for organizations to get their engagement strategies right. Here are seven mistakes to avoid that can prevent organizations from building a team of enthusiastic and engaged employees.

1. Broken Promises
One of the quickest ways to reduce employee trust and motivation is to break a promise, says OfficeMax Co-founder Michael Feuer. "Employers and managers want to keep their employees happy and may make promises they know they can't keep," Feuer notes. "But even if it's a small thing, the employee will remember that you didn't follow through and that damages the relationship."

A better approach is to explain why you are unable to meet the employee's request as early as possible. "Transparency is paramount," Feuer says. "Employees will appreciate your honesty but not giving them an explanation or just making a vague excuse is worse than simply saying 'no.'"

2. Poor Time Management
In today's always-on, hyper-connected world, businesses face intense pressure to churn out results. This increasingly means that the barriers between work and home life are merging. It's not uncommon for employees to check their email at all hours of the night or put in extra hours during the weekend. Some companies have added daycare centers and dry cleaners to their facilities in an effort to help employees work without interruptions.

Asking employees to dedicate more time to their jobs can lead to a burnt-out staff. "You have to respect the personal lives of your employees and a good boss knows how to prioritize what needs to be done to operate efficiently," Feuer says. When he led a company of more than 50,000 employees as the former chief executive officer of OfficeMax, Feuer says he stressed to managers and executives the importance of communication. "Everyone has responsibilities and I would rather have an employee tell their manager that they have to take care of something or needs extra time instead of us having incomplete tasks," he says.

3. Lack of Leadership
Strong leadership from the CEO to supervisors is essential for addressing problems and helping employees stay engaged with their work, maintains Gail Games, chief learning officer at Adena Health System. Adena Health System received a 2015 Gallup Great Workplace award for creating an engaged workforce culture.

Adena's workforce is composed of about 3,000 workers and part of the company's success stems from its focus on leadership training, Games says. "We spend a lot of time discussing the importance of accountability, problem solving, and leadership among our staff and we put the onus on managers to make sure their teams are meeting their goals," she says. "What we've found is people become disengaged primarily because of their leader and so we want to help managers address problems early on."

4. Temporary Solutions
Perks like free food or casual Fridays can make a workplace more pleasant but these incentives alone won't boost job satisfaction or retention rates, observes Mary Lorenz, corporate communications manager at CareerBuilder.

"While workplace perks can certainly help boost morale in the short term, ongoing engagement problems are usually a sign of a deeper problem within the culture, such as poor management or lack of trust in the leadership," Lorenz notes. "It's important for companies to remember that employee engagement is an ongoing effort. It's about building trust and fostering relationships, and those things take time to grow

Nor is money a reliable way to build loyalty. The CEO of Gravity Payments, a credit card processing company, received a lot of attention recently for promising to raise the minimum salary of every employee to $70,000. Every employee appreciates a raise, but such actions must be backed up by strong leadership, Games notes. "A lot of people think having more money will make them happier," she says. "But if you still have a terrible boss or you're under a lot of stress, that money will be a temporary solution."

5. Lack of Communication
Just as customers want to be acknowledged for their loyalty, employees want recognition and feedback. "People's wants and needs as customers often transfer to their expectations as employees," notes Eric Feinberg, senior director of product strategy at Answers. "Employees want meaningful communication from the executive teams; they want to know that they're being acknowledged for doing good work."

Maintaining a dialogue with your staff is also important, Feinberg adds. All companies should make an effort to host town hall meetings or online Q&A sessions with their employees, in addition to letting them communicate anonymously. "There's a growing fear of information being leaked, but executives shouldn't be afraid to talk about some of the things the company is doing, especially if employees have questions," Feinberg adds.

Companies should also keep their messages to employees simple, advises Christopher Cabrera, founder and chief executive officer of Xactly, a sales incentive solutions provider. For instance, the company realized that its list of values was more effective when it was trimmed down from nearly a dozen to four core values: customer focus, accountability, respect, and excellence. "It's not that the values were bad, we just had too many of them and we couldn't focus," Cabrera says. "This led to a whole set of initiatives to make sure we are living by these core values [and] when I read thesesurveysthat list us as a great place to work for, the employees cite our core values as the reason why they like to work here."

6. No Accountability
Especially in large corporations, it's easy for employees to feel that their contributions are meaningless unless they feel like they are part of a team. In addition to leadership, a sense of unity is important, Games says. For example, when caring for patients "we tell all our employees that they're caregivers regardless of their role," she adds. "Everyone is responsible for the patient and we want our employees to feel that they're part of a team."

7. Unequal Treatment of Employees
Obviously employees have different responsibilities and positions, but every employee should feel valued for their work, notes CareerBuilder's Lorenz. For instance, the efforts companies make to engage temporary or contract workers shouldn't differ that much from the efforts they make to engage full-time employees. "They may only be with you for a short time, but contract workers will feel more engaged if they are made to feel like part of the company--not as a secondary workforce," Lorenz says. "Provide them with some orientation to familiarize themselves with the mission and values of the companyas well as how their work supports it." It's also important to give temporary employees encouragement and honest feedback and recognize their efforts for a job well done, she adds.

Even after addressing all of these points, employee engagement is an ongoing effort. Just as companies strive to understand and engage their customers, the same should be done for their employees.

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EXPERT OPINION