We Still Haven’t Cracked The Employee Engagement Code

By Kathryn Berg
The Village Business Institute 

One day when I was training a group of supervisors, I jokingly asked the group, “Who has heard of employee engagement?” Everyone laughed and nobody raised their hands, a reaction I took to mean, “We are so sick of hearing about employee engagement!”

employee engagement pinterestI have to agree. I am so sick of hearing about employee engagement. It seems like every expert has advice to add to the engagement conversation. But if that’s true, why is it that although “engagement” has become such a buzzword, the actual percentage of engaged employees has remained relatively stagnant (at about 30%) in each of Gallup’s annual surveys over the last fifteen years?

A thought occurred to me as I read an older article in the Harvard Business Review. The author, Frederick Herzberg, postulated that “The opposite of job dissatisfaction is not job satisfaction, but no job dissatisfaction.” Don’t worry—the first time (or two) I read that, I had no idea what he meant either. Reading beyond Herzberg’s vocabulary tornado, I learned that he meant that the things that cause job dissatisfaction and those that cause job satisfaction belonged in distinct categories with little overlap.

For example, a low salary is likely to cause job dissatisfaction, but increasing that salary doesn’t increase job satisfaction—it decreases the dissatisfaction. On the other hand, increasing opportunities for growth and learning will in turn increase job satisfaction, but the lack of those opportunities will not increase dissatisfaction.

I know, I know! Still very confusing. I’m going to focus on the satisfaction side for now. A lot of companies have been trying to increase satisfaction in creative ways—allowing for naptime, throwing Cinco de Mayo parties, having ping pong tables, just to name a few—and while those are fun and probably do make for happy employees in the short term (low job dissatisfaction), they’re probably not going to lead to long-term happiness (high job satisfaction).

According to Herzberg’s review, what will lead to satisfaction (and by extension, the “E” word—engagement) has much more to do with what motivates employees from the inside—enjoying what they’re doing, being recognized for doing well, achieving their goals, and growing within their roles.

All of this convoluted explanation brings me back to that original thought I had. If we want to harness these intrinsic motivators, we’re not going to do it by keeping beers in the break room fridge. We’ll do it by ignoring the pizzazz of the modern workplace and zeroing in on what really matters at work: our jobs. Everyone in an organization can play a part in making this change.

When planning for new hires or helping with internal career development, the company should consider who is or will be working and what they are or will be doing. Are you hiring people who love their work? Are you allowing them to learn new skills and take on new responsibilities? When hiring, we tend to focus on whether or not the candidate will be able to do the job duties at hand. Do your best to determine not only if they are able, but if they enthusiastic about those duties.

What kind of people are you managing? One of the most important parts of being a supervisor is creating relationships with your employees. Once you have done that, you’re able to help them in creating opportunities to grow and learn within your organization. You’re the one who gets to dole out more responsibility to those seeking it, and also the one recognizing high achievement. Getting to know your employees, learning their likes and dislikes, their strengths and weaknesses, is not a small responsibility. But the way you handle it will help determine the level of engagement you’ll see in those you supervise.

All the effort in the world from your organization and your manager can only go so far in engaging you as a worker. A former coworker of mine used to say, “What is your ‘why?’” In other words, why are you doing what you’re doing? Do you have a reason, a passion for your work? If you don’t, what can you do to find that passion? It’s a scary road to navigate on your own. Input from coworkers, managers, family, friends, or even a career coach (like my own manager, John Trombley!) can help you figure out your ‘why’ and, as a result, increase your satisfaction and engagement at work.

By no means am I suggesting we rid our workplaces of kickball teams, catered lunches, or slides from the second to the first floor. We should definitely keep those! But if engagement is our goal, we should start by thinking about what got us here in the first place: our jobs.


Kathryn Berg 2014 squareKathryn Berg

EAP Trainer

Kathryn joined The Village Business Institute in September of 2014 as a trainer serving the VBI’s Employee Assistant Program client companies. Prior to joining the Village, Kathryn spent two years working in the human resources field, focusing during that time on recruitment, training, wellness and benefits administration. Kathryn provides training on a wide variety of topics and currently focuses subjects such as harassment prevention and drug-free workplace compliance. She graduated from Georgetown University in Washington, DC, with bachelor’s degrees in English and Psychology and a minor in French. Outside of her work at the Village, she spends her evenings and weekends as a competitive swim coach.employee engagement facebook