Employee engagement has become quite the topic -- for several decades now. Yet organizations are still scrambling to reverse stagnant engagement statistics, which show more than half the active workforce is mailing it in each day. Some of the prevailing wisdom places blame on the dramatic shift in workplace demographics, as Millennials and Gen Zers now make up the largest segments of the workforce.
It makes sense why organizations are buying up all the bean bags, lattes and perks they can offer employees to entice their loyalty -- because hey, Millennials love that stuff! Right?
Unfortunately, those efforts are largely unproductive because they buy into conventional wisdom on engagement. The solutions to date have been largely flawed, focusing too narrowly on outdated strategies (which never worked in the first place) and forcing conformity among employees.
More recent research, like the 2020 State of Talent Optimization Report from Predictive Index, tells us the reasons for disengagement are more multifaceted. The study found only 22 percent of leaders understand what's driving employee engagement. Bean bags won't fix a lack of trust in leadership.
Instead of trying the same solutions and expecting a different result, let's debunk three commonly held beliefs about engagement so we can create solutions that address the real issue at hand.
Myth 1: Creating a "fun" place to work will increase engagement.
You can't make a place fun to work at if the organizational culture doesn't support it. I recently talked about this with Matt Havens, an engagement consultant and speaker helping corporate clients understand the generational divide, with clients ranging from Lockheed Martin to Blue Cross Blue Shield to LaQuinta hotels. He told me, "Companies routinely misdiagnose poor organizational culture as a lack of employee engagement." The reality is that culture eats engagement strategies for breakfast.
In some cases, a culture lacking accountability or rewarding the wrong behavior could be the root cause of your engagement issues. Havens pointed out to me that there's no amount of forced fun you can insert into the workplace to combat the real disease eating away at productivity and engagement.
Organizations should first focus efforts on creating an environment where a great culture can thrive. In my experience working with founders of fast-growth companies, this requires focusing on leadership development across the company to empower leaders in new ways.
Myth 2: Each generation in the workforce wants something different. Increase engagement by delivering tailored experiences.
Instead of looking at the differences between each group, organizations should focus on the similarities present. In short, stop putting people in boxes, and recognize that each employee is a person, no matter when he or she was born. Let's take the fact that all people desire relationships and meaningful connections, regardless of age. There are countless ways to increase opportunities to allow employees to form deeper relationships with their work family. The organizations making intentional strides to do so are the ones winning the engagement game.
One of my clients has actively avoided hiring Millennials because of these issues. We did an audit on the organization's leadership gap and found that it's put itself in danger by not leaning into hiring such a huge portion of the active job pool. The reality is that many Millennials approach their work with a huge dose of creativity and innovation. Don't miss out by avoiding this or any other single group.
Myth 3: Recognizing and rewarding employees will increase engagement.
Almost everyone likes being rewarded for a job well done. However, in this desire to create a more engaged workforce -- and, perhaps, because Millennials have a reputation as "the trophy generation" -- companies have overcorrected and lost the meaning behind their recognition efforts. Simply installing recognition programs or sending shout-out emails to the team isn't enough.
More importantly, your recognition efforts will quickly be seen as generic and lose their value even sooner. Leaders need to be equipped with tools to personally recognize their employees outside of standard scripted practices.
Havens shared with me one approach he used when he was leading contact centers at a Fortune 50 company: "I once let an employee have my office for the day. He worked in a cubicle and saw the office as a sign of respect. There was no better way to recognize him, it cost nothing, and we found a way to connect over something important to him." The best recognition programs offer the flexibility for some creativity without overburdening the process with red tape.
Increasing engagement is important; however, don't buy into these myths as the solution to your challenges. Engagement takes more than token efforts, and your employees deserve your real attention.