What's a Leader to Do When Employees Are Still Disengaged

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They move slowly, shuffling feet, moaning, groaning, seeking to drain the life out of those around them.

Has the zombie apocalypse finally arrived?

Did your teenager just get up on Saturday morning?

Neither. That’s just the 70 percent of employees that are disengaged (according to Gallup polls) meandering around your workplace.

Here’s the thing. You can’t just build a wall to keep them out–they’re already inside, and leaders everywhere have to bring them back to the living. Many companies realize the crisis and engage in a number of employee engagement tactics, but recent research by Gallup helps illuminate why the efforts aren’t working.

In the case of revitalizing employee engagement, “good try” isn’t good enough. Here are the pitfalls to watch for.

1. Don’t just issue a survey, tell managers to get better, then forget about it ’til next year.

This is all too common. Surveys are issued with the best intent. But then one of six terrible things happen when the surveys are complete and the data collected. Survey results are never broadly shared (or worse yet are selectively shared to protect leaders self-interest), never explained, never acted on, ignored altogether, or simply thrown in the lap of leaders to “fix it” with no clear plan, guidance, or resources to do so.

It’s critical to put as much time into designing the tools and education for managers to act on the survey results as it is to design an insight-yielding survey, to begin with.

2. Be more selective about people put in management positions.

As the Gallup research noted:

Most people become managers either because they were top individual performers or because they’ve been around the company a long time. Neither of those two things has ever shown a strong relationship to being a good manager. Companies choose candidates with the right talent for the job only 18 percent of the time.

It’s critical to not just default to the “next in line” to fill a leadership position but to find the absolute best candidate for a role that has the attributes and characteristics required to yield an engaged organization (and peak performance along with it).

For example, engagement would be more likely to flourish if a leadership role were staffed with someone authentic, who truly cares about his/her organization, who prioritizes learning and growth opportunities and is adept at planting seeds of growth in employees versus seeds of doubt (with insensitive or callous words and actions). These are all characteristics critical for creating a fully engaged organization.

Stories abound of crucible roles that were filled with “organization killers”–and then the powers that be sit around and wonder why engagement levels are so astonishingly low.

Fill that role carefully.

3. Get power flowing downhill.

Quite simply, in most organizations still struggling with employee engagement, a “transfer of power” never took place.

Decision making still rests at the top of a slow-moving, bureaucratic pyramid. Empowerment never takes place or does so artificially, at best. Employees are given no more trust and autonomy than before the engagement effort began.

This is poison.

Autonomy must become a mandatory for all leaders to grant, with performance evaluations looking at whether or not the leader’s organization has been effectively decentralized. Engagement, and the energy and fulfillment that flows from it has zero chance to blossom in a disempowering environment.

Thus, accountability for autonomy is crucial.

So if your company has been engaging in employee engagement efforts, you get partial credit. Now it’s time to learn from mistakes and keep tomorrow morning from being another dawn of the dead.