Employee engagement: Why it matters

Employee engagement: Why it matters

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While heading off to school recently, my seven-year-old grandson turned to his mother and said, “Mommy, I am tired of learning.”

He’s not alone. Data suggests 18 million K-12 students in America are also “disengaged” – aka bored – with their education. Imagine if that trend of disengagement continued into the workforce.

As it turns out, we don’t have to work too hard to imagine that reality. According to Gallup Research, just 32 percent of workers are engaged in their jobs. Further, their research shows that 18 percent are actively disengaged, while the rest fall into the category of “quiet quitters” – those who are content to do the bare minimum their job requires, either at the office or at home.

Employee disengagement decimates America’s economy. Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2022 Report projects disengaged workers are responsible for an annual 11 percent – a stunning $2.8 trillion – drop in U.S. GDP. (Ask your smart speaker to calculate 11 percent of your firm’s topline revenues for an estimate of what employee disengagement costs your firm each year.)

What characteristics define the 32 percent of the U.S. workforce that is engaged? Engaged employees bring a deeper commitment to their work, are more enthusiastic about their jobs, and are more invested in their company’s success. Typically, employees who are engaged are self-motivated and eager to collaborate with others. They continuously learn, and they take great pride in the work they do.


James Heskett, founder of Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge initiative, is a prominent expert on worker engagement. He believes that cultures of engagement are critical to corporate strategy – and that they can be taught and nurtured by managers.

“Though ample research suggests how to do it,” Heskett says, “the number of actively disengaged employees far exceeds those who are engaged. And the numbers aren’t improving.”

One problem, his research shows, is that many companies consider engagement an “HR thing.” In reality, Dr. Heskett counters, employee engagement may be “the single most competitive strategy available to many organizations.”


Why do most companies fail at engagement?

A dominant theme that emerged in Professor Heskett’s research is that organizations “lack leadership talent with the attitude, training, and willingness to devote time to the difficult task of engagement.” Too often, he points out, “an annual employee survey is taken, trends analyzed and reported back, opportunities for improvement discussed … and management returns to handling other primary responsibilities.”

Dr. Heskett’s research also suggests that managers often put too much emphasis on “making the numbers” to the exclusion of other goals. On the other hand, if employee engagement is the goal, “making the numbers” would come much more easily. According to Heskett, engaged workers are more likely to remain on the job, are more productive and higher-performing, and foster higher levels of customer engagement – all of which boost profits and growth.

Assessing and evaluating workplace engagement levels can be challenging, and there’s no single standard approach. However, Gallup Research’s Q12 survey measures employee engagement by asking workers the following 12 simple questions:

  • I know what is expected of me.
  • I have the materials and equipment to do my work right.
  • At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
  • In the past seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.
  • My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.
  • There is someone at work who encourages my development.
  • At work, my opinions seem to count.
  • The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.
  • My associates and fellow employees are committed to doing quality work.
  • I have a best friend at work.
  • In the past six months, someone at work has talked with me about my progress.
  • This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.

Considering these questions, how engaged are the employees at your company? And how engaged are you as a leader?

Besides the $2.8 trillion drain on U.S. GDP, what other consequences can we expect to impact America’s place in the 21st century if nearly 70 percent of our workers remain disengaged at work?

It’s time for business leaders to prioritize workplace engagement – the future depends on it.


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