In search of the elusive associate engagement

AME | March 14, 2017

by Drew Locher

A recent Gallup survey found 31.5 percent of employees are 'engaged,’ 51 percent are 'not engaged,’ and17.5 percent 'disengaged.' Most every leader with whom I come in contact states a desire to improve 'associate engagement.' So why is engagement so elusive?

First let's define the word. Very basically it is where associates contribute to the success of an organization beyond the norm of simply showing up and performing their 'job.' In these days of ever increasing global competition and ever demanding customers, most organizations recognize the potential benefits of harnessing the full capabilities of all members. How can an organization connect with not just the 'hands' of its associates - their physical abilities - but their 'heads and hearts' - their ideas for improvement of the business?

Consider volunteer organizations. Why would an individual contribute uncompensated time to such organizations? How can that same spirit be translated to for-profit, for-pay organizations? Most importantly such organizations have an inspirational purpose that volunteers share. For-profit and for-pay businesses need to create the same. It is not enough to manufacture a product or deliver a service. The product or service must represent something greater. When I worked at GE in the 1980s the tagline was 'we bring good things to life.' They aren't just cars. Automobiles provide the means for people to 'see the world' and experience the wonderful places life offers, or at least those within driving distance. Google isn't just a search engine. It brings much of the world's information to the fingertips of every person with access to the Internet. Without purpose people will certainly disengage. So, what is your organization's inspirational purpose?

Volunteer organizations also provide a sense of belonging with others who share a passion for the purpose. Abraham Maslow defined a sense of belonging as a basic need of humans. All organizations must provide various means for associates to bond with each other and the organization itself. This can be done in a business and a social environment. Beyond the camaraderie that often is created as people work together on a common objective, deeper bonds come during other interactions sometimes away from the workplace. Volunteer appreciation events, social events and fundraisers and the like serve this purpose quite nicely. For-profit, for-pay organizations need to workhard to create a sense of belonging within all associates. This can be accomplished by providing apparel with company logos, having associates work together on charitable causes outside of work, inviting associate family members to arranged social events, or a combination of a multitude of other possibilities. How does your organization create a sense of belonging?

Next, all organizations need to provide processes for engagement. It is just too important to leave it to each individual to find ways to contribute. Even volunteer organizations can experience disengagement due to a lack of effective processes. If would-be volunteers are unable to contribute in an effective and timely manner, the resulting frustration can lead to said disengagement. This is of particular importance to for-profit and for-pay organizations where associates spend most of their time creating value. Many of the processes that make up the Lean Management System seek to engage team members. Gemba walks, conducting daily 'huddles', ANDON systems, and others can all result in improved engagement if properly practiced. What processes has your organization put in place for engagement?

Finally, we will discuss leadership. Leaders must recognize the value of engagement and provide the time and encouragement for associates to put into practice the aforementioned processes. Further, associates must know that leaders and the organization as a whole care about their well being. Only then can the organization expect people to reciprocate. Such care is demonstrated by an emphasis on safety, the even handed application of fair policies of a company, empathy for the feelings and needs of team members, responsiveness to their problems, providing effective education and instruction to be successful in their jobs, and other ways. To be clear dynamic leadership is not necessary, just consistent, supportive leadership. Does your leadership demonstrate true care for all team members? Do leaders provide opportunities for engagement?

As you consider the four fundamentals for engagement - an inspirational purpose, a strong sense of belonging, the means for engagement, and supportive leadership - do they seem all that difficult? True they take deliberate practice. But most would agree that each falls easily in the realm of possibility. So, can the mystery finally be removed from this subject? Does engagement need to remain so elusive? Is your organization ready to engage?

The theme for AME’s 2017 International Conference in Boston is ‘Get Engaged’ and will focus on employee engagement. Come learn how organizations like FedEx, Intermountain Healthcare, Crown Equipment and more have successfully engaged their team members. For more information, visit