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Leaders everywhere are scrambling to find solutions to their employee engagement challenges — and with good reason. Per Gallup, engagement levels are still abysmal: Only 33 percent of employees are engaged, and engagement levels only increased by 3 percent between 2012 and 2016.

The conclusion is clear: Engagement hasn’t yet been addressed in a way that leads to lasting change. We’ve been discussing it for years, creating programs and task forces, but nothing has done the trick — at least, nothing that works on a larger scale.

Employee Engagement: a Top Business Focus

Though only 39 percent of HR leaders feel that senior leadership prioritizes engagement, more than a third of organizations see engagement as their No. 1 business challenge, above turnover, recruitment, succession planning, culture, and performance. This is probably due in part to the fact that improvements in employee engagement also result in improvements in these other areas.

Gallup calculates that disengaged employees cost companies anywhere from $450 to $550 billion in lost productivity each year. Meanwhile, 73 percent of actively disengaged and 53 percent of not engaged employees are looking for new jobs or open to new opportunities.

Productivity and retention are both big budget expenses for an organization. Combine these struggles with a candidate-driven market, and you’ve got a recipe for talent acquisition and performance management disaster.

Solving the Employee Engagement Challenge

In many cases, the employee engagement tactics we’ve seen gain traction are, for lack of a better word, shallow. They only scratch the surface. For example, many companies are focused on company cultures based on fun office environments, happy hours, and gym memberships. Culture is critical, but it is your organization’s values and mission — not its trendy amenities — that drive a positive culture.

To fix the employee engagement problem, we need to dig deeper. In the rush to build “modern” company cultures, we overlook one of the most critical factors in engaging the workforce: setting goals. Employees who are granted the chance to grow their skills in ways they find meaningful are more committed to their employers.

Of course, if your employees already respond well to the trendy environment you have created, there’s no need to abandon those perks. Instead, cultivate the work values and motivators that create a strong foundation upon which to build these extracurricular elements.

Think about it this way: Employees want meaning and purpose and the autonomy to pursue both in ways that align with their own definitions of those terms. Even if they don’t plan to remain at your organization, you can bet they’re trying to learn and gather skills that will help them in the next step. If your organization capitalizes on that interest, you will develop highly qualified and knowledgeable employees who work for your success and support your organizational performance.

This shouldn’t be looked at in terms of traditional notions of upward mobility. Lucrative careers and skill development don’t mean becoming a leader or a manager. Employees are driven by the challenges that fit within their interests. Collaborative goal-setting allows workers to explore their own professional objectives in ways that connect to the organization’s goals and financial success. And remember that those who perform exceptionally well don’t always make exceptional leaders.

A version of this article originally appeared on Inspire Software.

Jason Arnold is director of leadership solutions at Inspire Software.



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