Why Your Employee Engagement Programs Fail

That Won’t Work!

“David, I’ve tried that. It doesn’t work.”

Roger was isolated, burned out, and frustrated. His team had turned against him, his boss was done waiting, and Roger knew his job was on the line if he didn’t produce results.

We had discussed tools he could use to have a better relationship with his team and to help them achieve results. Every suggestion I gave he met with an objection, such as “I’ve tried that…That won’t work… You don’t understand…”

As we explored further, it became clear that William really had tried. He’d said the right things, tried doing the right things, but his team would not respond.

Most leaders who want to get better at leadership do it the way Roger tried to do it. They focus first on what they do.

If you’re like most leaders, you focus first on how you’ll talk to our team, how you’ll run your meetings, what you’ll do to address performance problems, how you’ll train, coach, encourage and do all the other things leaders do.

These activities are important, of course, but they’re not everything. In fact, if your leadership and employee engagement activities don’t produce the results you hope for, it’s likely that you need to put your attention somewhere else first.

The Real Problem

To understand the real issue here, think of a tree. Picture the entire tree in your mind. Go ahead and do that now before you read further.

You probably saw a trunk, branches, and maybe some leaves or needles. What's interesting is what you didn’t picture or draw.

Years ago lightning struck a giant locust tree in my front yard. Unfortunately, it killed the tree. When the arborists came out to cut down the tree, they said they would remove half the tree.

“Half the tree?” I replied, “Wait a minute – I thought I was paying you to take out the whole tree!”

The arborist smiled and said, “As above, so below. As much tree as you see above ground, there is an equal amount of it below ground. We’re only taking away the half that’s above ground.”

What you see when you look at a tree is only half of the tree. Leadership is similar – what you do is only half of your leadership. Ultimately, your employee’s engagement is not something you do – it’s the product of who you are, who they are, and the environment you create.

Your Leadership Roots

When your branches and leaves aren’t healthy, it’s time to focus on your roots. In the same way, if your leadership programs, employee engagement activities, and solutions aren’t working, it’s time to focus on you and your leadership roots.

In our new book, Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul, Karin Hurt and I focus most of our work on the "what you do" aspects of leadership and management. But we begin with who you are - what you do is important, but it can’t replace who you are.

Leadership is first who you are, then what you do.

When I say “who you are,” I’m talking about your roots. Roots sustain a tree, they nourish it, they bring in water and nutrients. They anchor the tree during storms.

Your leadership roots do the same thing for you. They sustain you, give you energy, and anchor you when life is difficult.

Your leadership roots are your motivations and values. These are the reasons you lead. To explore your roots, ask yourself a question, “What do I really want from this position?”

People usually answer with the 5 ‘P’s:

  • Power
  • Prestige
  • Purse (money)
  • People
  • Purpose

You’re Not Fooling Anyone

If your first answers are power, prestige, or purse (money), your team is unlikely to respond to your leadership. People aren’t dumb. You may never say it, but when you’re all about yourself – your power, your money, or your status – people know it. It bleeds through everything you do.

In contrast, when people and purpose motivate you, your team knows it. They know you genuinely care about them and that you serve them in order to accomplish something bigger than any of you can do on your own.

Those motivations will last through challenges and tough times. Your teams will stick with you because they trust you.

Next, examine your values. Leaders who sustain lasting results combine the values of confidence and humility. They have the confidence to say what needs to be said and to keep the team focused on results and they have the humility to treat others with dignity and hear tough feedback when it is shared.

Your Turn

Remember, leadership is first who you are, then what you do. If what you’re doing doesn’t work, I invite you to examine your “roots”.

What motivates you? Why do you lead? If the answers are all about you, how can you start to put people and purpose back at the center? Internally, do you value both confidence and humility?

Leave us a comment and share your thoughts: As a leader how do you stay focused on what matters most?

Take care,


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