How to succeed by understanding why Employee Engagement Programs fail.

Let me paint a little picture for you.

The senior executive team of a large operational business with a big blue-collar workforce (a construction company, industrial manufacturer, logistics company, etc) are having their weekly meeting and lamenting over the figures. They’re noting how sales are down, productivity is down, sick leave is up and there is a general feeling of poor morale around the business.

As they shake their heads in disbelief and start to dwell in the misery of it all, some bright spark mentions that maybe we need an employee engagement program. They have read about them, not really sure what’s involved, but think it would be a good project for marketing and HR to take care of.

So, the marketing and HR managers get together and kick things off with all the best intentions. Yet, all too often they inevitably fall into any number of traps.

Yep, I’ve seen it many times before. That is why I’ve come up with what I believe to be the 10 most common reasons for employee engagement programs to fail. The good news is that by being aware of and addressing each of these reasons right up front, you can greatly increase the chances of your program succeeding.


1. A lack of real buy in from Senior Management.

While some senior management teams will have a thorough understanding of employee engagement and all its complexities, it’s fair to say that others need to be educated on just how involved a project such as this can be. Not only do those at the top need to buy in to the program, they need to be prepared to commit to receiving, considering and actioning constructive feedback. Even if they disagree with what they are hearing, any issues being raised that could potentially create roadblocks to improved employee engagement need to be treated as valuable information. They then need to be actioned accordingly if the project is to succeed. There needs to be a very clear message that the senior management team is serious about improving employee engagement right from the beginning.


2. A poorly defined brand.

What has a brand got to do with employee engagement? I’ve heard this asked by many an executive over the years. It’s simple really. A brand (among many other things) is the identity of the business in the eyes and minds of all its stakeholders – both internal and external. If there is no clear consensus as to who a business is, what it stands for, and what it is trying to achieve in the broadest possible sense, it becomes very difficult for employees to find something to engage with.  So, a business that finds itself in this position is well advised to create a brand strategy before embarking on an employee engagement program.


3. The wrong people in the working group.

Putting in place a cross departmental working group to drive any kind of internal change project is pretty much a no brainer. However, for this group to work effectively and create the desired impact, the individuals that make up this group must be chosen carefully. All too often an email is sent out requesting volunteers to be part of this group, and the result is an unbalanced cross section of employees from around the business. More often than not in this case, the areas that are feeling the least engaged are the ones least represented. This creates an obvious problem. To address the problem, some good hardnosed, ground roots research is required.

Firstly, gain an understanding of the different areas of the business, how they operate, and very importantly who the key players are. These are the ones that you want in the working group. They could be managers, supervisors, or everyday workers. Their title is irrelevant. Their ability to influence their co-workers is what matters. A warning though.  These aren’t always the people that want to be involved in a project like this. There is a fair chance that you will come across some resistance. No doubt some negotiation will be required, but once they’re on board, the benefits will far outweigh the difficulties faced.


4. Not all the issues are put out on the table.

Once the working group is in place, it is important to get all issues out on the table in a structured and constructive manner. Don’t allow these meetings to turn into a whinge fest. Set the meeting rules clearly up front, let everyone have their say, document it, and then present the findings back to senior management


5. No formal budget allocated.

Nothing grinds a project to a halt faster than a lack of funds. Present your findings from your research to date, along with your proposed plan forward with projected expenditure attached. Make sure that whatever budget you can secure (which will most likely be less than you asked for) is locked in prior to moving forward. It can be tough, but do not accept a ‘we’ll wait and see how things go’ response. I’ve seen far too many projects come off the rails further down the track because the project leader was not prepared to fight for a financial commitment.


6. Speaking the wrong language.

In a blue collar, operational type business, chances are that terms such as employee engagement are going to see a mass rolling of the eyes, as will anything that is seen as ‘fluffy’. Talk the language of the people. Always focus on tangible results. Ensure that in all communications, feedback and input is encouraged and valued. Make sure employees are listened to, and that two way conversations are happening.


7. Utilising the wrong channels.

Some employees are social media savvy and get all their information that way, so an ongoing presence here is vital to connecting with them. On the other hand, some may even struggle with email. The secret here is implementing a multi channel strategy. This is largely where all that hardnosed grass roots research from earlier comes into play to determine which channels to utilise when and how.


8. A lack of transparency in incentives/rewards.

Ok, so you’ve created some incentives for employees to get on board with the program. Maybe you’ve introduced an employee of the month award for the person that best exemplifies a positive working culture. That’s great. These types of awards can work well. However, just be careful that the process in place for choosing the winners is fair and transparent to everyone. All that good work can easily come undone once murmurs start around the business that the voting is biased, or that only certain people will ever be eligible to win it. Keep things consistent, transparent and open equally to all areas of the business to avoid this kind of situation.


9. A lack of forward planning.

You’ve created some great momentum, so don’t stop now. Unfortunately, I’ve seen project managers get so caught up in managing, delivering, driving, etc for the current six months that they forget to plan for the next six months. Ongoing measurement, analysis and future planning are vital to the program’s ongoing success. Chances are that a business with some serious morale problems isn’t going to be fixed over night, and as time goes by things change. Plans need to be rigid in terms of ensuring that regular initiatives are happening, but also flexible enough to adapt to an always changing and sometimes unpredictable environment. We are dealing with human beings after all.


10. Not prepared to work hard.

Let’s face it. To implement all of the above successfully, it will require a lot of work, and the reality is that if you want to do it properly there are very few short cuts. Implementing and managing an effective employee engagement program across a large and/or diverse business can easily become a full time job. Just make sure that you are willing to put in the hard yards before you put your hand up to take the lead.

Author: Cameron McIver


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