9 ways to sink employee engagement

by  Leigh Steere  |  Change Management

Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen several articles outlining ways to boost worker motivation. Many of the ideas are worthwhile—such as asking employees for their input, and truly considering it. But experts have been sharing this counsel for years, and surveys show that employee engagement continues to decline.

I’d like to take a slightly different approach in this post and focus on nine specific things that damage engagement. Most of these fall in the category of “it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Be honest. What’s at play in your organization? Do you…

  1. Edit and “spin” company information, rather than sharing transparently? In an effort to avoid workforce panic, some organizations limit the details they provide to employees. Instead: If jobs are at stake, spell out the unvarnished truth. Describe as best you can what it means for employees. They need the truth so they can plan (and help you).
  2. Blame leadership mistakes on someone or something else? Instead: When you make an error, stand up and confess it. Outline the consequences, and say what you’re going to do to make things right. Your honesty and humility will build employee trust. They’ll respect you more.
  3. Communicate pie-in-the-sky visions that lack specifics? The danger: Each employee will walk away with varied images of the finished rocket ship. Since they are working from different pictures, their components won’t fit together in the end, and the rocket won’t fly.
  4. Punish failure? If you condemn people for making errors, your remaining employees will stop taking the kinds of risk necessary for creating breakthrough products and solving tough problems.
  5. Nickel-and-dime employees in the name of cost containment? True story: In response to a star salesperson’s expense report, a manager said, “We will reimburse you for 31 miles, not 37. Even though the freeway is faster, it’s longer, and we pay for the shortest route.” Here’s another common example: reducing medical benefits for hourly workers while still issuing bonuses to execs. Tales like these spread quickly, damaging morale and your ability to recruit top talent.
  6. Create shareholder returns on the backs of employees? Question: Are you asking each person to work more hours, accept pay freezes and reduced benefits, and handle responsibilities previously covered by two or three workers in order to boost shareholder value? You’ll experience a short-term gain but a long-term employee productivity loss.
  7. Look the other way when a high-performing employee breaks the rules? Instead: Confront ethical violations and bad behavior immediately, no matter how “good” the employee may seem otherwise. If you turn a blind eye, you become complicit in the wrongdoing, and employees will stop trusting you.
  8. Reward ineffective managers? Question: Are you giving bonuses to managers because of their individual contributor work—or because they are building strong teams and getting great work done through others? Do you have managers who yell? Who are reluctant to confront poor performers? Who seem to prefer tasks more than people? Here’s a free tool your managers can use to get some immediate straight talk on what they are doing well, and what needs improvement:
  9. Assume your best answers will come from senior leadership or outside consultants? Your employees have deep knowledge of your industry, organization, customers, and processes. They know where the gaps are. They see opportunities for improvement. They want to make a difference. If you use consultants at all, engage them as facilitators to draw out what your employees already know. If you invite your employees to help solve your greatest business challenges, you will create engagement.

I have a challenge for you. Send this post to your employees. Ask them what resonates. Invite them to submit specific examples. Give them a way to share their stories and concerns anonymously, to allay their fears of job loss if they tell an uncomfortable truth.

Here are some first steps for renewing employee engagement: Publicly acknowledge the items on this list that have been issues in your organization. Articulate the damage caused by these nine items, and apologize for your role. Tell employees what you plan to do differently, and follow through on those changes.

You may not be able to repair your corporate climate in a week or even a year. But taking a bold step in the right direction will signal to employees that you are serious about restoring engagement.

Special thanks to Gary Mitchiner, Walter Wong, and contributors who wish to remain anonymous. Your input helped me shape this post.


About The Author

Articles By leigh-steere
Leigh Steere is a researcher, product developer, and adviser in the field of people management. She writes on fostering creativity, employee engagement, and high performance in the workplace. Visit for a free assessment of your management style and tips for managing more effectively.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Jon M  |  12 Dec 2011  |  Reply

Leigh, Challenging! Excellent! You offer some tough things that should – and need to – be done at times. Leaders need to stand up to the challenge and understand what the points in your post are saying. The next step is to take them to action. Thanks for your insights. Jon

Leigh Steere  |  13 Dec 2011  |  Reply

Jon, thank you for your support!

Lorna Donovan  |  14 Dec 2011  |  Reply

Leigh, The kinds of chosen actions you’ve outlined appear in all corners of the work world, too. From corporate, to government, to non-profit…. It’s a wonder that anyone’s inspired by the sounds of things!

Dr. Paul White  |  15 Dec 2011  |  Reply

Leigh, I especially agree with point #4 “Punish failure”. I believe part of the failure of employee recognition programs to impact employee engagement is their total focus on recognizing performance. Dr. Chapman & I believe that valued team members need to be supported and appreciated even when they make mistakes — otherwise the message sent is “you are only good to us when you are perfect.”

Bryan Moore  |  17 Dec 2011  |  Reply

I recently published a blog regarding the incredible number of not engaged and disengaged employees in U.S. companies. To your point, too many companies are managing survival in a difficult economy on the backs and at the detriment of the employees rather than leading a business through by motivating and empowering the employees. Cultivating, influencing and inspiring passion in the people is one of the effective leaders most important duties.

Susan Saldibar  |  19 Dec 2011  |  Reply

These are excellent points. What I suggest to businesses who have exuberant new employees is to encourage them to flesh out their ideas and present them to management. It tells the young talent in the company that you believe in them and it helps them articulate their thoughts, weeding out the weaker ideas in the process. I just blogged about this on my Wordpress blog Thanks for a useful article!

John Bernard  |  02 Jan 2012  |  Reply

Leigh….loved this! We share a common passion.

I’ve seen everyone of these sins committed!

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