The problem of low employee engagement continues to challenge companies everywhere. Gallup recently released the results of its latest employee poll, and 68.5% of workers still consider themselves "not engaged" or "actively disengaged" at work.

The problem is a complicated one, and I won't attempt to oversimplify things. A number of factors can influence an individual's engagement at work, including serious illness and problems at home. But the fact is that often times low employee commitment stems from dysfunctional relationships between employer and employee, manager and worker, leader and team.

I like to compare the employer/employee relationship to a marriage. In the beginning, both parties are enamored, and can do no wrong in each others' eyes...But in time, the romance wears off. Lack of communication and respect can slowly erode the relationship. The next thing you know, both are just going through the motions.

Is there any way to rekindle that fire?

In marriage, one can't underestimate the importance of two key factors. I believe both of these can also be applied effectively to the workplace.

Effective communication

A situation can't be improved unless the parties involved understand the problem. Open, honest, and respectful communication is essential in promoting understanding and getting everyone on the same page.

Focus on giving

In any partnership, there's a need for both parties to receive. But what we often forget is if we focus on giving, we give the other party motivation to give back.

So how does this look in real life? Recognizing that we can't cover every detail of every situation, here are a few suggestions that can be adapted to your needs.

1. Start the conversation.

Begin the conversation by outlining the goal: You want to help the employee enjoy his/her work. Resist the urge to place blame, unless you take it upon yourself for not communicating earlier. Make sure to tell them you value them and don't want to lose them (literally or through disengaged work), and that's why you're having this conversation in the first place.

Ask questions like:

  • What are your biggest challenges at work?
  • Are there any tasks that you feel should be eliminated? Why?
  • What other changes would you make if you could?
  • What can I do to make things better?
  • What aspects of your work do you really enjoy? (Maybe there's a way to give them more of this.)

Most likely you can't implement all their ideas, but if you put forth effort to apply some of what they tell you, you can start to get them back.

2. Look for the good.

When you identify employee strengths, you can use these to benefit the company. Commend them for what they are doing right, and you send a powerful message: I appreciate you. (If you want to cultivate an effective 'praise culture' at work, read this.)

For example, I worked recently with one manager (we'll call her 'Christine') who was very unsatisfied with an employee's performance. (We'll call the employee 'Jennifer'.) According to Christine, Jennifer spent at least half her day socializing with coworkers, and wasn't pulling her weight around the office.

After time, I noticed that Jennifer did tend to talk a lot with her colleagues. But her friendly demeanor and great conversational skills were great for customers and for the company culture. I also noticed that when Jennifer had a specific task to complete, she worked hard until the work was finished--especially when she had a clear deadline and understood the part the task played in the big picture.

I advised Christine that when she give Jennifer an assignment, she should make sure Jennifer understand the full role it plays, and to also be more specific with her timelines. We looked for ways in which Jennifer could have increased contact with customers, to take advantage of her sunny disposition. Finally, I encouraged Christine to look for areas in which she could commend Jennifer. The relationship between the two gradually improved.

3. Make expectations clear.

Workers often complain that they simply don't know what's expected of them. It's common after a failure to discover major misunderstandings between leader and team member.

As a teenager, I was fired from my first job after only a month of work. My boss didn't even explain why I was let go. In hindsight, I can surely see where I could have improved, but I was young and inexperienced. Had they been more clear in what was expected (or let me know where I was falling short), I would have been eager to prove myself.

Remember: Employees aren't mind readers. Some individuals need more details than others. Make sure your direction isn't vague.

Otherwise, if a finished product is less than desired, you'll have nobody to blame but yourself.

4. Keep the dialogue going.

Steps one through three aren't 'one and done' solutions. To return to the marriage metaphor, a relationship will only thrive when each party continues to focus on open communication and seeking to benefit the other.

Of course, the employer/employee relationship is different, but the key is to see your employees as individuals. Focus on offering help, and continue to tell them what they're doing right. That makes it easier to communicate what they're doing wrong, and it makes it easier for them to accept.

Jorgen Vig Knudstorp, CEO of the extremely successful Lego group, sums it up nicely with his philosophy:

Blame is not for failure. It is for failing to help, or ask for help.

Stop waiting for things to get better on their own. Start talking today, and help your people to fall in love with your company all over again.