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We’ve all heard about the importance of “engaging” employees.  Engaged employees are:

  • Happier and more satisfied in their jobs.
  • Less likely to leave the company for a better opportunity.
  • Able to be more productive and create higher quality results for customers.
  • The foundation for organizational constancy, profitability, and sustainability.

Sounds great, huh?

But what is the cause of this effect that we call “employee engagement?”  What actions can we take to engage our workers – or is the level of engagement determined by the individual employee?

Can any employee become more engaged at work?

Do Attempts at Employee Engagement Work?

Much of the literature on employee engagement encourages organizational practices focused on enhancing the soft skills of its members.  Managers are encouraged to engage in active listening in order address to employees’ concerns without judgment.  HR managers push employee surveys to continuously “take the pulse” of employees’ morale and level of engagement.   The C-Suite is assigned the task of creating a compelling vision to ignite workers’ creativity and commitment toward achieving organizational goals.

Employee engagement, therefore, is an organization-wide initiative comprised of activities and behaviors that are most likely to engage the hearts and minds of the workforce.

Inevitably, organizational leaders need a starting point in order to quantifiably measure the impact of any engagement initiative.  This means that employees are surveyed in regard to their feelings and beliefs that are associated with engagement.  While the quality of the results is directly affected by the validity of the testing instrument, many workers become somewhat suspicious when a “new” survey is requested – particularly when the questions focus on attitudes that are often unstated.

Although often referred to as “employee survey fatigue,” there are some practitioners who believe that employees aren’t actually tired of being asked their opinion.  Instead, they are apathetic for other reasons that are directly related to the company’s managerial practices:

  • Lack of action fatigue: “Thank you for taking the survey – but we’re really not going to do anything with the information that you’ve provided.”
  • Executive fatigue: “We’re tired of analyzing and interpreting all these surveys – so our employees must be tired, too.”  (Hint:  Try using a smaller but statistically relevant sample.)
  • Poor survey fatigue: “I know that we’re asking you to spend A LOT of time answering poorly worded questions on this survey – but we want to know EVERYTHING.”

Once the survey results have been organized and analyzed, the company begins the often hit-or-miss process of introducing new practices, policies, behavioral standards, and incentives to better engage their workers.  These include measuring the effect of these initiatives through revised performance reviews, adding gamification in training to keep employees’ attention, focusing engagement activities on employees who are ranked as “neutral” or “somewhat favorable”, and offering computerized apps to enhance and track employee engagement.

Sounds like a pretty good strategy, right?  In theory, these practices should lead to a happy, engaged workforce.  So it’s not surprising that a recent study noted that 90% of leaders believe that an employee engagement strategy will have an impact on organizational success

Unfortunately, only 25% of executives ever get around
to creating or implementing an employee engagement strategy.

Employee Engagement Challenges Management Norms

Perhaps because so few organizational leaders get around to creating an actionable plan to engage their workers, it’s no wonder that:

So, does this mean that organizational leaders are simply “not walking the talk” when it comes to employee engagement?  Or is it that “engagement” is too subjective and nebulous to be massaged or manipulated on an organizational level?

Or maybe the 21st century’s workforce can no longer be motivated using management practices from the 20th century?

There is a distinct difference between management and leadership.   Traditional business practices focus on the controlling aspects of management that influence the minds of the workforce, rather than the more creative aspects of leadership that influence the hearts of workers.  There is a continuum of motivation in the workplace:  a motivated employee might only be somewhat engaged.  In contrast, engaged employees are more committed and internally driven to achieve desirable results.

In other words, engaged employees are passionate about their work.  They believe in the mission of the organization.  They believe that they are creating something of value for customers.  They are confident in their abilities and assured that they will be recognized by their employers.  But they do it because they are emotionally engaged in the work or cause NOT for the external recognition.

The predictable, linear mindset that characterizes a great manager must be expanded in order to permit elements of the unknown to enter the workplace and potentially lead to serendipitous outcomes and wins.

Essentially, employee engagement requires leadership NOT management!

While management practices attempt to motivate workers, the reality is that motivation is inherently internal.  While bosses might be able to inspire workers to do their best work, this can only be maintained if the individual worker inherently wants to do it.  If a worker doesn’t like what he or she is doing, then it is highly unlikely that they will ever be fully engaged in their duties and responsibilities – even if they are doing their work well.

Engagement is MORE than just meeting performance standards.

While good workers will still get the work done, they are less likely to be fully engaged and committed to their jobs.  The motivation underlying their performance will most likely focus on security:  keeping their job, maintaining their income, or avoiding low performance reviews.

In order to engage employees’ passions, the “work hard, play hard” work ethic was rampant in the late 1980s-1990s.  Employees were encouraged (demanded?) to give 110% — regardless of the deleterious effects on their health or personal lives.  Thankfully, this attitude has evolved as more workers diligently strive toward greater work-life balance.

Work-Life Balance is the new nirvana for many American employees – even though the U.S. ranks 30th out of 38 countries on a recent OECD work-life balance study.   According to this study,

  • 66% of full-time workers do NOT believe that they have work-life balance
  • 33% work on Saturday, Sunday, or holidays
  • 60% identified “bad/overbearing bosses” as the source of their imbalance
  • 68% belief their poor morale at work is a result of poor work-life balance
  • Overwhelmingly, flexible work schedules and remote work options (69% and 55%, respectively) were believed to significantly improve employees’ work-life balance

With so many workers suffering the consequences of poor work-life balance, the old management mantras of “work hard, play hard – and do it all at 110%” offers no solution to the stress and burnout rampant in the modern workplace.

Burned out, stressed out workers can NEVER be engaged! 

Tips to Re-engage Employees at Work

Interpreting these findings and the role of work-life balance on employee morale, I suggest that companies seeking ways to more fully engage their workforces should begin to focus their attention on what really matters to their employees.  What really matters is what is important to the individual worker.  It is not generic, nor is it a “one-size-fits-all” miracle.  It requires managers to become engaged with their employees.

Although this seems simple (and somewhat obvious), this drastically challenges the management paradigms of the 20th century.  Managers are expected to engage with their subordinates as human beings in order for employees to become engaged with the company.  The assembly line of workers completing rote tasks is dead and companies that succeed in a time of rapid, unrelenting change must put the “human” back in their human resources.

While this list of recommendations is NOT all-inclusive, it can serve as a spark to ignite your company’s leaders to re-inspire, re-engage, and re-kindle the passions of their workers.  When the company genuinely seeks to engage with and satisfy the needs of their workers, they will be rewarded with the achievement of desirable, noble organizational goals.

  • Banish “cookie cutter” motivational ideas – instead, recognize and address the individuality in each employee.
  • Revamp your recruitment practices to include identifying the areas, work, and causes about which job candidates are passionate – then actively seek to find a strong person-job fit that builds on these passions.
  • Expand opportunities for training and development so that workers can continuously learn more about the aspects of their job that hold the most interest for them – be sure to make it accessible and voluntary (workers often “go through the motions” of mandatory training).
  • Consider ways to enable employees to insert their own creativity in the performance of their duties and responsibilities – be on the lookout for jobs that are “boring” and more prone to presenteeism, disengagement, and turnover.
  • Introduce leadership competencies into traditional management practices through participative management – this allows employees to be actively involved and heard during decision-making processes (this consistently increases motivation, engagement, tenacity, and commitment during implementation).
  • And finally, ignore the 20th century’s edict to “leave your personal issues at home” – the 24/7 eLeash has all but obliterated the boundaries between work and home! Respect that there will be an overlap, but you recognize that the creativity and passion that are the foundation of employee engagement require that our very real human emotions will (and should) be brought into the workplace.

Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning and Coaching company focused on eradicating workplace burnout through the B-DOC Model.  An entrepreneur for over 25 years, keynote speaker, author, blogger, business coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action” by watching her TEDx Talk on YouTube.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to

One thought on “Start Igniting Employees’ Passion (Instead of Engagement)

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