The Rules of Employee Engagement

The other night I was at an event with dozens of my former employees. As we chatted about what’s going on in our lives, I heard a recurring theme. One woman told me about her most recent job, “I was hired to replace two people who left.” She started out handling the workload of two people, and did it so well that she eventually got handed the workload of three.

overworked employee

Another friend told me how the more successful he is at his job, the more responsibility he gets. Of course, that’s normal, but what was happening to him seemed a little extreme. He started out overseeing 20 websites for his employer and now handles 96, “I’m just glad they hired some people under me.” But with his duties increasing exponentially, he’s struggling to keep up.

These employees are singing a familiar song, one I heard echoes of in the latest Global Workforce Study by Towers Watson, a global professional services firm. The study, which found almost two-thirds of U.S. workers are not fully engaged in their work, defined three types of engagement:

  1. Traditional engagement: Employees’ willingness to expend discretionary effort on their jobs.
  2. Enablement: Having the tools, resources and support to do their jobs effectively.
  3. Energy: Having a work environment that actively supports physical, emotional and interpersonal well-being.

Overall, just 37 percent of U.S. workers are highly engaged in what Towers Watson defines as a “sustainable way” (meaning they scored well on all three elements of engagement). Here’s a more specific breakdown:

  • About one-fourth (27 percent) are unsupported, meaning they are willing to go the extra mile but don’t have the necessary enablement and/or energy.
  • Thirteen percent are detached, meaning they feel enabled and/or energized but aren’t willing to go the extra mile.
  • Nearly one-fourth (23 percent) are totally disengaged, meaning they score poorly on all three aspects of engagement.

Why the lack of engagement? Towers Watson says it’s:

“The result of almost a decade of pressure to do more with less and respond to the challenges of global competition, ever-evolving technology and the ongoing need for strict cost management.”

Sounds familiar, right? More specifically:

  • Only 43 percent of disengaged employees say their supervisors have removed obstacles that prevent them from doing their jobs well.
  • Just 26 percent say management involves employees in decisions affecting their lives.
  • Less than half (48 percent) feel the amount of work they are required to do is reasonable.
  • Only 40 percent say they have enough staff on their team to do a good job.

The employees who reported being highly engaged were far more likely to be positive about these areas.  When you look at what sustainable engagement requires you to give employees, it’s really pretty simple:

  • Enough support from their supervisors to do the job well.
  • The tools and resources they need to do the job well.
  • Enough staff to do a good job.
  • Mental, emotional and physical downtime so they can come back and keep doing their jobs well.

What is at risk for your business if your employees aren’t engaged? This isn’t just a feel-good thing. In some related research, Towers Watson looked at sustainable engagement scores for 50 global companies and found that companies with high sustainable engagement had operating margins almost triple those of organizations with a largely disengaged work force.

There are other risks, too. Remember my friend who was doing the work of three people? When she found out her employer was about to take on another huge project that she’d be in charge of, that was the last straw. Not ready to do the work of four, she quit and is now her own boss for the first time in decades. “I’m so glad I did it,” she told me.

How engaged do you think your employees are – and what are you doing about it?

Help Photo via Shutterstock


Rieva Lesonsky Rieva Lesonsky is a Columnist for Small Business Trends covering employment, retail trends and women in business. She is CEO of GrowBiz Media, a media company that helps entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses. Visit her blog, SmallBizDaily, to get the scoop on business trends and free TrendCast reports.

11 Reactions
  1. That is truly fascinating if not surprising data. It makes sense that people who are happier, more engaged and better supported will produce more for the company. I like that they offered simple, clear ways to fix the problem as well. Makes you wonder why more companies aren’t making this more of a priority. Great article!

  2. I do agree that bosses can sometimes be a hindrance to projects.

  3. Great article Rieva and certainly a critical issue for all executives and managers.

    All employees all want to be engaged and when they first join a company they are ready to be fully engaged. Then they are met by the traditional top-down command and control system wherein management orders them around, rarely listens to them and fails to treat them as valuable employees. All of this disengages most of them.

    This is a very self-defeating process since fully engaged employees are about 500% more productive than if disengaged (a la Stephen Covey born out by my own experience) with sky high morale and innovation, literally love to come to work, and are capable of crushing their competition.

    This situation is very sad since creating a fully engaged workforce is really quite easy to do. It is done by using the opposite approach to top-down, call it Autonomy and Support. The last time I did it with a 1300 person unionized group it was true nirvana for employees and management.

    In the Autonomy and Support approach, management simply meets the five basic needs all people have: to be heard, to be respected, and to have competence, autonomy and relatedness (purpose). The key to doing this is to provide more than enough opportunity to each person to voice their complaints, suggestions, and questions, and to respond to those to the satisfaction of the originator or better.

    Best regards, Ben Simonton
    Author “Leading People to be Highly Motivated and Committed

  4. Such an interesting study – one which I can see relating to the UK as well. I think that being expected to take on the work of 2 or 3 people, or being expected to take on more work when you’re overloaded is becoming commonplace (unfortunately). If employers want to take on new clients then they should ensure they have the infrastructure to support it.

  5. Thanks everyone for your comments.
    Sometimes I think simple solutions would go a long way. Business owners should take pause and ask themselves how they would feel if their boss treated them in this particular way. It’s all too easy to lose perception

  6. I’d like to bring up another aspect of “Employee Engagement”…how about those of us who are motivated, loyal, qualified, yet completely UNDER-UTILIZED?! It’s amazing to me how many peers I speak to that are hired to fill a position, or a new one is created (perhaps something to do with not wanting to lose headcount?) yet don’t have enough work to fill their day. We have asked for MORE and are completely ignored. I’m completely baffled–and job hunting–yet again.

  7. Rieva is “spot on” in her post… If businesses want to grow and prosper especially small business they must fully engage team members in all areas of the business….They must instill clarity to team members which will create team member confidence which equals full participation and involvement. Under utilization as Kirsten clearly addressed must be changed….Businesses must take a deeper look at team members skill sets, and desires to grow and mentor them, promote them and INVOLVE them…This of course reduces turnover and lowers costs…