The ‘Really Weird Irony’ of Low Employee Engagement Levels

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SleeperOn Monday, we wrote about The Marcus Buckingham Company’s (TMBC) StandOut Global Engagement Index (GEI), a new tool for measuring employee engagement levels. According to Marcus Buckingham, founder and namesake of TMBC, the GEI differs from traditional methods of measuring employee engagement in two important ways:

  1. The GEI’s results are calibrated according to country.
  2. The GEI measures engagement at the team level, rather than the organizational level, because “team leaders are, by far, the biggest drivers of employee engagement.”

After exploring the GEI, we took a look at the results of TMBC’s first global engagement survey, and we found that employee engagement may be in an even worse state than we initially thought. Recent Gallup numbers say 31.5 percent of U.S. workers are engaged, but the GEI found that number was much lower: 19 percent. Also of note: the U.S. is tied with China as the most engaged country in the world. 

19 percent. Most engaged. To put it lightly: that doesn’t seem right.

According to Buckingham, macroeconomic conditions account for some of the rock-bottom engagement levels across the globe. Spain, for example, is in bad economic shape, so of course engagement levels are low there.

But, Buckingham says, the main cause of low engagement levels may be the fact that, up until the GEI came along, we’d been measuring engagement all wrong — and, thanks to our bum approach to employee engagement, we’re not focusing on the people who have the greatest ability to affect it.

We Can’t Fix the Problem of Employee Engagement Unless We Empower Our Team Leaders

SchemaDuring the course of our conversation, Buckingham points out that the business press “likes to write about organizations having one coherent culture. We revere certain cultures, like Google, or Patagonia, or Goldman Sachs.”

As a (sort of) member of said press, I admit I am guilty of doing exactly that.

Problem is, engagement is a team issue, not an organizational issue. That’s why TMBC chose to measure engagement at the team level with the GEI: because that’s where engagement really starts and ends.

“Obviously, on some level, going to work at Goldman Sachs doesn’t feel like going to work at Patagonia,” Buckingham says. “But, in terms of what it’s actually like to go to work at Patagonia — that will vary hugely according to the team you’re on. There’s more difference within Patagonia than between Patagonia and Goldman Sachs, in terms of [engagement and culture.]”

Buckingham calls the problem of low employee engagement “a really weird irony,” because even though we know that team leaders and managers drive 70 percent of employee engagement, we approach engagement as an organizational problem. In doing so, we leave the people who can actually have a meaningful impact on engagement levels completely unarmed and unaided.

“It’s weird that we haven’t built any tools for team leaders at all,” Buckingham says. “We have none — not even a few good ones. We have zero.”

In this way, Buckingham says, our organizations are more poorly run than the teams one could create on an Xbox.

“You play any sports game on Xbox, and the first thing you can do is create your own team, invite people on, figure out what plays you are going to run, [and] figure out the chemistry of the team,” Buckingham says. “We don’t even offer team leaders a way to create their own team, name their team, invite people on, remove people, disband the team, create another team — like you could on Xbox.”

MiddleWhat have we given team leaders instead of the tools they need? Centralized performance management programs organized for the benefit of the company, not the team. Learning management tools that do nothing but enable us “to count how many people have taken each class.” Personality assessments that don’t give team leaders any meaningful insight into their team members and their relationships with one another.

And, of course, employee engagement data that reaches them months after the fact, when it’s outdated and useless.

Engagement is low because “we haven’t equipped the people who facilitate engagement with the tools they need to do that,” Buckingham says.

Buckingham and TMBC see the GEI as the first step in rectifying this sorry state of affairs. It is meant, above all, as a free tool to help team leaders measure engagement levels on their teams.

Raising engagement levels, however, requires more than just measuring them.

“You can’t make a pig fatter by weighing it every day,” Buckingham quips. “But, if you want to take responsibility as a leader, you want to look at yourself through the lens of the people being led.”

The GEI, Buckingham hopes, offers a “reliable, credible, calibrated way” to do just that.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at what Buckingham believes the next steps are for improving employee engagement. Check back then!

By Matthew Kosinski