4 Reasons Employee Engagement Doesn’t Work

William is passionate about employee engagement. So much so his company specializes in it. So it comes as no surprise that William has seen his fair share of misguided attempts to improve employee engagement. In this post, we get some insights into four areas where the attempts failed. 


There are a significant number of organizations around the globe where employee engagement simply doesn’t work. It is completely ineffective and they realize little to no benefit from it. They have experienced so much disappointment around this issue that they have come to believe it is the flavor of the month in HR trends and it will soon pass. So, they have assumed the role of devil’s advocate or outright naysayer.

In one respect, this group is completely accurate. They have created some program or initiative and done all the things all the so-called “experts” in the engagement arena have suggested and they saw little to no improvement, so they canned the effort altogether. No sense wasting good money on a bad idea. Right?

In my experience, the majority of the “failed” employee engagement efforts can be traced back to at least four major faux pas.

Recruiting tool

Employee engagement has become the rally cry for people trying to find work (especially the Millennials). So in order to try and score the best talent, organizations make the phrase “employee engagement” a part of their recruiting rhetoric. It’s not that it is a part of the organizational focus overall, it just makes it sound like a great place to work.


The real problem is you don’t have good quality employee engagement for the right reasons.


PR efforts

Because of social media, there is an enormous amount of pressure for organizations to appear more human and a bit less like a money vacuum that is never satisfied. As a response to this shift in public sentiment and expectation, more effort is being placed into appearing to work extra hard for the human side of the organization so it feels more like they’re part of the bigger picture. Short term solution, if engagement is just a PR campaign. The people who work for the organization will be happy to tell their friends about how much of a liar their boss is. It’s ugly, but it’s the truth.

Distractionary methods

Life isn’t perfect, nor is running an organization. There are a lot of moving parts and many players with varied backgrounds, temperaments and perspectives. When things seem to be heading south for whatever reason and morale is low, companies begin talking about the importance of engagement. It’s not a real interest in employee engagement as much as it is a desire to pacify the angst they feel and that just seems like the logical thing to do.


Engagement isn’t a program or project to attempt. It is a way of operating.


Profit chasing

It’s not exactly a secret that businesses are in it for the profit. Nothing intrinsically nefarious about that. And yes, quality engagement does produce higher levels in profit. The rub is when engagement is trying to be used solely as an accounting device to just get money. Doing this completely undermines the purpose – as well as basic definition – of employee engagement.

At the end of the day, each one of these is a disjointed attempt at doing some real good within the organization. It is a fragmented perspective of what employee engagement is all about. It can be easy to hear all the selling points of why engagement is important and recognize that your organization is lacking in one of those areas. So you want to do engagement because your motivation is to fix the problem. In reality, the problem you’re all worked up about is really a symptom. The real problem is you don’t have good quality employee engagement for the right reasons.

Engagement isn’t a program or project to attempt. It is a way of operating. It is designing an atmosphere in which your organization chooses to function. It must be the DNA of your organization or it will be a faint copy of something noble and everyone will see through it. Engagement efforts done for one or more of the above reasons will actually be more destructive than no effort at all.

If you want employee engagement to work, then let your employee engagement efforts be motivated by one simple thing: You value those who help make your organization successful and you want to honor them consistently.

Connect with William

William is the Executive Director of The Leadership Advisor, an international business advisory company specializing in the areas of leadership development, organizational culture and employee engagement. He is a published author (Personal Ecology), a public speaker, an avid blogger and has a passion for social responsibility. William believes that creating quality leadership, culture and engagement within a company is Engineering Atmosphere™. He believes turning those same efforts towards the community is the common good and the responsibility of every business. William also mentors young people at various universities in Helsinki, Finland where he currently resides.


Photo by  Christian Rudat

William Powell is The Leadership Advisor, a public speaker and Organization Development consultant determined to make human flourishing the 21st century metric for success. For over 15 years he has successfully worked with leaders from around the globe to develop and sustain healthy business performance by focusing on helping the humans - that make it all possible - to flourish first...the organization will flourish as a result of this.

  • Thanks. This post reminded me of another, and I wondered if you’d seen it. It is titled the Employee Engagement Racket. http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-10-05/the-employee-engagement-racket I’d be interested in your comments on it. If an organization doesn’t come at employee engagement with a win-win objective, it is doomed. It requires a reframe from ‘how do I get them to do what I want them to do” to ‘what’s an approach that can deliver mutual benefit’. Agree there are ,any aspects of the employee experience that contribute to the big “E”, and if am employee doesn’t trust that the organization has their interests (not just the business or shareholder interests) at heart, emotional engagement to the work they are paid to do won’t follow.

  • I couldn’t agree more. There has to be a balance between employee satisfaction and meeting organizational objectives. When both parties are striving to help the other succeed, then engagement will be at it’s pinnacle.

    As for the link you suggested, I think the author is a little too jaded from some bad experiences to bring much value to the issue of quality engagement. A little too much cynicism not-so-cleverly packaged as “realism”.

    Thanks heaps for your contribution to this discussion!

  • Hi William,

    Your article is quite informative indeed regarding employee engagement. No matter what may be the reasons the willingness of the employees to work is very essential for an organization to succeed.
    Please visit our blogs on a similar topic to share our views

    Ruhi Desai,
    Senior Business Development Manger @ Sapience Analytics Pvt Lmtd

  • It is not just a way of operating but a mindset and ” heart-set” that leaders and managers embrace. When I walk into a highly engaged company I can feel it when observing the employees.

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