Employee Engagement -- Is it Increasing or Decreasing? Can it Be Sustained?

Most companies know the very visible and measurable benefits to having an engaged and involved workforce -- healthy workplace culture, lower turnover rates, and more satisfied customers. Many Gallup research studies are showing that employee engagement is rather low throughout many industries, and this topic is thoughtfully addressed in a new book by Lonnie Wilson entitled Sustaining Workforce Engagement: How to Ensure Your Employees Are Healthy, Happy, and Productive.

I spoke with Lonnie recently, and we discussed his book and the importance of employee engagement. I asked him: "Why are employee engagement levels so low?" Here is his complete answer:

The typical view of an “engaged employee” is some hard-working soul who asks few questions. He just keeps his head down and works hard to get the wash out.  Well, that falls far short of real engagement; which is an employee who is not only making a physical commitment (hard working), but an intellectual commitment (problem solving) and an emotional commitment (caring attitude) to his work, to his colleagues, and to his company.

The most comprehensive studies that have been done to quantify engagement levels in the US show that overall engagement is in the 30% to 32% range, with manufacturing even lower at 25% to 26%. These data are disturbing to most…and should be. That was not always the case.

Many years ago, engagement levels were higher, much higher. That changed when we grew as a country and as an industrial giant.  In the early 1800s, there were few factories and suppliers were very close to their customers. Think of the local tailors who made your clothes or the local smithy who fixed your wagon. They always worked hard. And at that time suppliers not only knew their customers, they cared about supplying them exactly what they needed and when they needed it.  Should problems arise, they would - Johnny-on-the-spot to fix the problems. These craft tradesmen were the epitome of engagement with physical, intellectual and emotional commitment attached to all they did.  

Then came mass production to make more products and make them cheaper. Next the railroads made distribution over long distances a reality and the craft worker became a mass producer usually making only part of a product as assembly lines were implemented. This effectively disconnected the worker from both the customer and the finished product. This drove a wedge between reality and any caring attitude they once had.  

Next, in an effort to improve both quality and worker productivity, the practice of “scientific management” was created. The most attractive aspect to the business owner was the concept of “best methods”. Known as Taylorism, it was now the job of engineers and managers, not the workers, to develop the best methods. This effectively drowned out any intellectual commitment the workers once might have had. 

With the impact of mass production, the advent of the railroads, along with the implementation of “scientific management”;  the concepts of emotional commitment and intellectual commitment were effectively severed from the worker and we are left with what we have today in manufacturing … 25% engagement levels. It need not be that way…..we can do much better.

In his book, Lonnie examines engagement from top to bottom integrating the theories of the scholars, with the experiences of the practitioners. He explains, in simple terms, how engagement can be achieved and why people try so hard to create a fully engaged workforce with both the best of intentions and a true passion to achieve it … yet fall short.

He believes there is a simple reason -- achieving engagement is all about management and the many changes that must be made, and that raises the crucial question: Is management both willing and able to recognize, accept, and execute the needed paradigm shifts? The stark reality is that the changes that must first occur are in the thoughts, beliefs, and actions of the management team. This book gives you a path to follow that may achieve just that. And the remaining question for the senior management is: What are you prepared to do?

How engaged are the employees in your company? Do you feel management is contributing to increasing or decreasing employee engagement?