What to do When Your Executives Don’t Get Employee Engagement

by Jason Lauritsen


I’ll admit that I entertain a delusional fantasy once in a while. Because so much has been written and communicated about the impact of employee engagement in publications like the Harvard Business Review and The Wall Street Journal, I start to believe that maybe all executives have finally gotten it. That we are past having to explain and justify why engaging employees matters. 

But then I get snapped back to reality by a conversation with someone who’s struggling with a leader who still thinks engagement is an HR thing, or worse, something unworthy of time and investment.

In order to create an engaged organization, you need engaged leaders. Those leaders must be committed to investing time and resources to create the right kind of work experience for employees. There is no path to a best place to work for employees that travels through disengaged leadership.

If you are faced with a leader or leadership team that’s not fully onboard with engagement, that’s an obstacle you must overcome to succeed in creating an engaged workplace. The first step is to diagnose what you are up against. In my experience, there are a few different reasons that leaders will push back on employee engagement efforts.

Here are a few common ones.

  1. They really don’t get it. They’ve heard all about employee engagement and maybe they’ve even been forced to participate in some poorly conceived efforts attached to that concept in the past. But, they haven’t seen anything come of it. And, they’ve never had anyone help them make sense of what it is and why it matters. To overcome this issue requires influence and education focused on helping the leader(s) understand how engagement drives favorable outcomes like improved performance and employee retention. 
  2. They don’t see it as a priority. Let’s face it, executives have a lot on their plates. They have to make tough decisions about what gets attention and funding and what doesn’t. Even if they see engagement as important but a “nice to have,” it’s going to get pushed down the list. The key to moving it back up their list is to help them recognize that an investment in engagement is an investment in every priority on their list. When employees are engaged, they are more productive, creative, and committed to organizational progress.  
  3. They hate people. Okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh, but I have run across executives in my career who tolerated the humans in their organization out of pure necessity. Maybe they got damaged somehow along the way in their personal or business life. Maybe they grew up in the old school management tradition of fear and intimidation and have lost their soul as a result. The executives I’ve encountered like this tend to be later in their career. My advice in this situation, run away. Seriously. Find another organization or leader to work with who believes in people. You aren’t going to change this person. They can’t all be saved. If you can’t run away, then strap on your helmet, try to minimize the damage they do, and try to wait them out. Retirement will be your light at the end of a long and frustrating tunnel.

Knowing what you are up against is a critical first step to making progress. Working with executives is usually about shifting mindsets. When you can help them understand and think about engagement as a means to drive performance and innovation, then you’ll start having different and more productive conversations. 

If you are currently doing this work, bring your questions and challenges to the “Ask Me Anything” webcast I’m joining on May 16 with AchievEE. This will be an interactive session where we’ll talk strategies and tactics for shifting executive mindsets about engagement. And, I’ll field as many of your questions as I can during our hour together.

Register here. It’s free. I hope you will join me. 

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