The Cost of Unengaged Employees and How to Inspire Change

Dr. Hua JiangEngaging the workforce may be one of the most important and toughest challenges entrepreneurs face. As Paul Keegan discussed in his The 5 New Rules of Employee Engagement, merely 30 percent of American employees are fully engaged at work, leading to an annual cost of $450 billion to $550 billion spent on absenteeism, workplace accidents and employee health care. According to Kevin Sheridan’s Building a Magnetic Culture, even some of the best companies to work for in the US only registered less than 40 percent of their employee as highly engaged. As noted in Aon Hewitt’s 2014 Trends in Global Employee Engagement, there is a close relation between global GDP growth and employee engagement growth. “GDP growth slowed from 4 percentage points year over year (YoY) growth in 2010 to 2 percentage points YoY growth in 2012. Engagement growth has also slowed from 2 percentage points YoY growth in 2011 to just 1 percentage point growth in the most recent 2013 engagement levels.” However, high employee engagement is closely associated with an organization’s business success. Based on a sample of 568 participants working in organizations with a total of 500 or more employees, a report by Harvard Business Review suggested that 71 percent of the participants rated “high level of employee engagement” as a factor most likely to bring business success.

When employees have poor attitudes toward their employers or do not feel empowered in the workplace, they offer less of their potential in organizational life. A critical question for both researchers and internal communication consultants to think about is—what engages employees, promotes employees’ commitment to organizational goals and at the same time enhances employees’ well-being?

To achieve efficiency and productivity, organizations need to recruit and retain employees who feel proud of being a member of their organization, act as an enthusiastic advocate of their organization to its external stakeholders and go the extra mile to fulfill their job responsibilities. Both academics and professionals have identified a supportive work environment as a key pre-condition of employee engagement. A growing number of business and communication studies have suggested numerous factors that could drive engagement, such as immediate supervisors’ leadership behavior, organizational communication structure and a positive work-life interface in relation to employees’ happiness and life satisfaction.

Engaging organizations promote an authentic supervisor-subordinate exchange culture, with clear evidence of self-awareness, internalized moral perspective, balanced information processing and relational transparency, where mutual trust and respect between employees and their immediate supervisors are valued and fulfilled. When immediate supervisors are conscious of their own strengths and weakness, internalize moral standards in congruence with group, organizational, and societal moral norms, analyze all relevant information and even contradictory viewpoints, when making decisions, and stresses genuineness and trustworthiness in interpersonal interactions, employees tend to be highly engaged at work.

Transparent organizational communication does not simply include information dissemination but also employees’ active participation in information acquisition and distribution. All information that is exchanged between employers and employees should be truthful, substantial and complete. As for accountability, transparent communication emphasizes reporting an organization’s legally releasable information, activities and policies in an accurate and timely manner to hold the organization accountable for its behavior. Effective, transparent communication creates engaged employees.

Employees’ level of work and life satisfaction increases when their work can leads to new knowledge, skills, capabilities, behaviors and ways of viewing things used for life. When they feel self-fulfilled, confident and accomplished working for their employers, they are more engaged in their work.

My co-author Dr. Rita Linjuan Men, University of Florida, and I recently surveyed 391 employees from diverse industry sectors in the United States. The results of our study showed an organization’s transparent internal communication structure and the way employees’ work enriches their life drives employee engagement. Authentic supervisors promote transparent communication within an organization and enhance employees’ positive work-life interface experience.

To cultivate a supportive organizational environment, organizations must have authentic leadership, transparent communication and enriching work experiences. But it is not an easy job. Here are some research-based suggestions for organizational leaders and internal communication consultants to start with:

  1. Understand the value of employee engagement to business success and organizational growth and highlight it in organizational communication initiatives.
  2. Respect employees’ demands and needs outside of their work and think about how employees’ work experience can potentially enrich their life, by advancing employees’ knowledge, skills, capabilities, behaviors and ways of thinking applied in life domain, by promoting employees’ positive emotional state, by boosting employees’ confidence and facilitating employees’ self-fulfillment or self-accomplishment.
  3. Train employees’ immediate supervisors to be authentic leaders, having strong self-awareness, holding high ethical standards, being balanced in processing information and fair in decision making, and being transparent in interpersonal interactions.
  4. Cultivate a transparent climate for internal communication. Make sure that employees actively participate in information acquisition and distribution. All information shared with employees needs to be truthful, substantial and complete. Organizations hold themselves accountable for organizational behavior.
  5. Be open-minded, understanding, fair, realistic, supportive and flexible. Make the cultivation of an engaged workforce a long-term, rather than short-term organizational effort.

Hua Jiang, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in Department of Public Relations, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

Posted in [Blog], [Research Library], Employee / Organizational Communication.

2 Comments

  1. Very nice piece. I’ve found that many people are speaking the same words these day, but they are trapped by outmoded systems and processes that are inherently incapable of operationalizing the principles underlying those words. The five areas where organizations need to fundamentally think and develop counterintuitive alternatives are measurement, rewards and recognition, communication, learning and development and continuous improvement. All organizations have some type of systems and processes in those five areas, but few of them are deeply rooted in the prerequisites for fostering deep levels of trust that put employee well-being as the first and most compelling priority of the organization. One of the best books written in the past 30 years on that subject is “The Customer Comes Second: Put Your People First and Watch ‘Em Kick Butt” by Hal Rosenbluth. My book, “Getting the Heart of Employee Engagement,” also touches on the same principles.

  2. An interesting article. It all boils down to speaking and acting “human”, but knowing that and achieving it are two very different things.

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