Is employee engagement really improving? Not just yet.

Eryc Eyl
Eryc Eyl
Feb 26, 2020 · 5 min read

Earlier this month, Gallup made a big splash with news that employee engagement numbers in the US had hit a record high. After 20 years of measuring this important business outcome, the percentage of engaged employees reached 35% in 2019. While that’s not a particularly impressive number, it has climbed nine percentage points since 2000.

For some, this might seem like a cause for celebration. After all, when positive metrics move up and to the right, things are going well, right? Well, sort of. As always, we have to look beneath the headline for the full story.

First of all, I have only love, praise, respect, and admiration for the Gallup organization and their amazing researchers. The work they do to help us understand our fellow humans all over the world provides enormous value and adds much-needed complexity to issues that are often oversimplified. And they have arguably the most extensive set of longitudinal data on employee engagement in the world. I often look to them for research, perspective, and guidance. Their latest book, It’s the Manager, is destined to become a classic in management literature. You should read it.

It’s not (entirely) Gallup’s fault that this headline has been misinterpreted, but let’s take a closer look at the data.

Digging into Gallup’s employee engagement data

Gallup has tracked employee engagement across a broad swath of US organizations since 2000. In that first year, Gallup estimated that 26% of employees were engaged, while 18% were actively disengaged. In 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, 35% of employees were engaged — the largest percentage so far — and 13% were actively disengaged. While that data might suggest some improvements in employee engagement, the historical data shown below make it clear that there hasn’t been much progress.

Chart showing Gallup’s employee engagement data from 2000 to 2019. Slight decrease in not engaged and actively disengaged
The percentage of employees who are “not engaged” has had its up and downs, but in 2019, it was just 4 percentage points lower than it was 20 years earlier.

To better understand these data, it helps to know how Gallup defines these three categories of employees:

  • Engaged. These employees are “involved in and enthusiastic” about the work they do. They willingly expend discretionary effort to help their organizations achieve their goals. For example, they’re more likely to take proactive steps to improve customer service, address problems, and take advantage of opportunities to make the organization more successful.
  • Actively disengaged. The smallest group, these employees are emotionally disconnected from their work and workplace. These employees negatively impact performance and can even undermine their organizations’ strategies.
  • Not engaged. This is the largest group in Gallup’s data and the one we should focus on. While these employees might be “satisfied” with their work, they lack the emotional connection and commitment necessary to create authentic engagement and motivate discretionary effort.

What can we learn from the data?

If we revisit the chart above with these definitions in mind, we can make a few key observations:

  • The percentage of employees who are involved and enthusiastic has increased by just nine percentage points in 20 years. Furthermore, this increase hasn’t been linear, so it’s a little soon to call it a trend.
  • The percentage of employees whose disengagement is destructive (i.e., the “actively disengaged”) has decreased by just five percentage points since 2000, but also not linearly.
  • The percentage of employees who are satisfied but not truly engaged has decreased nonlinearly over 20 years by only four percentage points.

Since we don’t have access to Gallup’s underlying data, we can’t test the differences throughout the years for statistical significance. However, in practical terms, we can conclude that engagement, especially as measured by the percentage “not engaged,” has remained flat over two decades, even while significant investments have been made.

In 2012, Bersin & Associates (now part of Deloitte), published a study of the employee engagement market and found that organizations at that time were spending approximately $720 million per year to improve employee engagement. While updated data isn’t readily available, one can imagine that the number has grown (or, at best, stayed flat) in the years since.

What should we do about employee engagement?

What the heck is going on here? What other key performance indicators would organizations allow to flatline for this long while they invested heavily in improvements?

I propose that it’s time to stop engaging employees. More precisely, it’s time to stop doing engagement TO employees; it clearly isn’t working.

I’m not saying that authentic employee engagement isn’t essential. It’s actually more important now than ever. As organizations have automated, eliminated, and outsourced so much of their low-value work, the human work that’s left is of increasingly high value. And when human employees interact with human customers, value is created and brands come to life. Without humans, there is no brand, and without a brand, there’s no identity, no differentiation, and no value. So employee engagement is a business imperative.

But there’s more to it than that. Because we spend so much time working, and because the experiences we have at work cross over into other domains of our lives and spill over onto the friends and family we hold most dear, what we experience at work doesn’t just affect ourselves and our employers, but ripples out to affect how we function as a society. So employee engagement has become a moral imperative as well.

But managers and leaders in organizations need to realize that they CAN’T engage employees. Employees are semi-autonomous agents who CHOOSE to engage or not. We choose to emotionally connect and commit to organizations — or not.

What managers and leaders can and should do is stop doing engagement TO employees, and start doing it WITH them. Start focusing on deliberately and intentionally creating the conditions that are most likely to ethically influence employees to choose to engage. That’s actually what the buzzword “employee experience” is all about. That will require developing a more sophisticated understanding of employees’ beliefs and assumptions about what’s expected of them. Leaders will need to dig into the human operating systems that we have come to call culture, and then they’ll need to keep digging.

Keep hope alive for employee engagement

The good news in all of this is that something HAS changed pretty significantly in the last 20 years: we’re having conversations about engagement. Most leaders and managers understand the business value of employee engagement and no longer need to be convinced that it matters. That’s good news for employees, for organizations, and for society as a whole.

And here’s more good news: When we start to understand how culture works, we can start to improve it. And when we improve culture, we’ll improve engagement. But understanding and improving culture will require different approaches, persistence, and time. It’s time to shift how we think, talk, and act about employee engagement so that we can positively transform the lives of individuals, the impact of organizations, and the health of our world.

So while the percentage of engaged employees might have hit an all-time high, the majority of employees aren’t standing on that summit. We have work to do to make sure that everyone can come together on that peak. When we do, we’ll really have something to celebrate.

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Eryc Eyl

Written by

Eryc Eyl

Speaker, Author and DJ | Corporate Culture, Customer Experience, Employee Experience, Employee Engagement, Human Experience, Dance Parties

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

Eryc Eyl

Written by

Eryc Eyl

Speaker, Author and DJ | Corporate Culture, Customer Experience, Employee Experience, Employee Engagement, Human Experience, Dance Parties

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

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