For nearly two decades, Gallup has been measuring employee engagement, and the numbers have been pretty pathetic. Back in 2000, only 30 percent of employees were considered “highly engaged,” and 18 years later, after spending literally billions of dollars on engagement surveys and programs, we’ve only managed to increase that number to 34 percent. Two-thirds of our workforce is less than fully engaged, and at the rate we’re going, we’ll need more than 300 years to reach 100-percent engagement.

So, why are we spinning our wheels? We’re not making progress because we have been trying to solve the wrong problem all this time. We have assumed that engagement is rooted in happiness and job satisfaction; thus, our surveys and action plans focus on improving happiness, and we hope engagement will follow. The truth is engagement and happiness are two different things, and (perhaps more importantly) they aren’t even that related.

The key insight that we’ve been missing is that engagement is fundamentally a function of success, not happiness. When you create an environment where everyone can be successful – including experiencing personal success and success within their job role as well as contributing to the success of the enterprise – then you will have high employee engagement. Happiness and satisfaction may go along with engagement, but not always.

When you start interfering with employee success, you will also start to lose engagement. For example, if your employees don’t have the resources they need to be successful, or key people in other departments are simply horrible at collaborating, or red tape gets in the way of serving the member or customer, then your people will feel like they are spinning their wheels, and engagement will drop.

While engagement surveys mean well, they end up distracting us with data on people’s likes and dislikes rather than identifying the underlying patterns that are generating the dissatisfaction in the first place – patterns that lie deep inside your workplace culture. Those culture patterns are the missing link, and until you can find and fix the culture patterns that are interfering with success, engagement will not improve.

That’s where training comes in. Under the old model, engagement surveys might reveal that your employees are unhappy about the amount of professional development and training they are receiving, and perhaps you’d use those data to argue for an increase your training budget. That’s missing the point. The sentiment about how much training is the right amount distracts you from the real challenge: identifying the specific areas where training will address the underlying culture patterns that are getting in the way of success. When you spend your training dollars in those areas, you are far more likely to see an increase in employee engagement.

For example, a small nonprofit’s staff was divided evenly between employees who worked at the headquarters office in Washington, DC, and employees who worked remotely across the entire United States. When the organization did a deep dive into its culture, it uncovered some important patterns that revolved around this split between HQ and remote workers. The system was working fairly well, but it was being slowed down by underlying distrust between the two groups and a consistent failure to address important issues directly, particularly across the HQ/remote divide.

The organization addressed this challenge, in part, with training. Twice each year, it brings the entire staff together for strategy work, team building and professional development. One of these gatherings devoted a full day to conflict resolution training for the staff. Leaders wanted all employees to do a better job having tough conversations on a regular basis rather than ignoring them, which is pretty easy to do when you don’t share a workspace. Once they started addressing their conflict on a regular basis, the trust issues began to go away (you’d be surprised at how much easier it is to trust people when you work through your issues without the drama!), and, more importantly, performance improved. In other words, they started to be more successful, and as their success grew, so did their employee engagement.

The sooner you abandon your attempts to make your people happy and focus instead on making them successful, the sooner you’ll be able to start unlocking the potential of a fully engaged workforce. Once you can clearly connect your training interventions with that success and engagement, it will be easier to grow your training budget next year.

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