These numbers suggest there’s something fundamentally wrong with the popular understanding of employee engagement.
Understanding What's Important
One of the major mistakes that companies make when trying to improve employee engagement is that they employ a set of metrics that measure what they already know - either that employees are engaged, or not. While there is some value in putting a number on employee engagement, these metrics are all essentially results of engagement, and don’t measure those things companies could change to improve engagement. Knowing that employees aren’t invested in their work doesn't tell you anything about why they're not invested.
The metrics of an effective employee engagement system require two fundamental differences from those that currently exist. First, measures must assess the upstream drivers of engagement, not just the outcomes of engagement. Second, the measures must be components of an evidence-based framework of change - there must be a model demonstrating that changes in those metrics will impact engagement as well as other critical outcomes.
In part, this measurement problem stems from a misunderstanding of what motivates people. Motivation is usually framed as a "more vs. less" problem, and often the concern is with just having enough motivation to produce engagement. But the question we should be asking is not about the amount of motivation, but rather the quality of motivation that will lead to engaged employees.
In reality, there are both good and bad forms of motivation that we can have more or less of. Bad forms of motivation include doing things because someone is pressuring us with a punishment or reward, or because we’d feel guilty if we didn't. When employees are going about their days at work burdened with guilt and threats of punishment, or working to get some reward, they very well may complete the tasks set before them. However, when motivated in this way, they are also unlikely to persist when things get challenging, to think creatively, or to go above and beyond when they are able.
On the flip side, good forms of motivation include doing things because we see the real value in that task, or because we find the task inherently interesting. It's much easier for all of us to get through tough or challenging tasks and be engaged in our work when we understand the value of doing so.
The reality is that most of us are motivated by a combination of these factors at work. The key to harnessing this knowledge is to create environments that support the positive forms of motivation, and that avoid promoting the negative forms of motivation. In this way organizations can boost the overall quality of motivation and enhance engagement.
Part of the reason that change is so challenging is because engagement is about the sum of our experiences at work. Just supporting employees in one way isn't often the thing that's going to turn motivation and engagement around. Instead, employee engagement is driven by a multitude of factors, and so a multitude of changes may be necessary. Especially when things haven't been going well for a while, it takes time for employees to learn new skills to create an environment that supports motivation, and also to really experience that change in their day-to-day lives.
The upsides to creating an environment that’s supportive of high quality motivation are numerous, and drive the important outcomes that organizations care about, including producing high-quality work, engaged employees, positive relationships at work, respect among employees, and pride in the organization. And to top it all off, organizations that foster high quality motivation are great places to be, meaning everyone enjoys their work day that much more.
The answers to understanding what's important to measure, how motivation really works, and how to facilitate change are challenging, as Gallup's numbers demonstrate. The key is to better leverage the behavioral science that has been focused on these issues for the past 40 years. We've led that behavioral science since the 80's and have now built it into a platform - motivationWorks - that empowers employees, managers, and leadership to work together to build stronger cultures and engagement. motivationWorks achieves this by measuring the factors proven to drive motivation and providing evidence-based recommendations that are actionable and effective. Through such tools, any organization can create and sustain a culture of high motivational quality that finally solves the challenge of creating a fantastic employee experience.