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Employee disengagement is not a single cause issue - deal with it

Brian Sommer Profile picture for user brianssommer October 19, 2016
Technology solutions that treat employee engagement as a single cause issue are often missing the point. The variety of issues is myriad so why aren't the solutions sensitive to causal factors?

Workers can be ‘engaged’ and ‘disengaged’ at various times during their employ. It's not a single cause issue.

For some, it may be a passing thing, for example, they are still hungover from last night's great office party. For some, it could be a months or years-long issue, for example a recent diagnosis of a major health problem or family bereavement.

For others, it could be a long-term work related issue, for example an inability to work with a boss who manifests an abusive behavior.

In short, engagement is not a single-issue problem that can be solved with a single software tool. Sadly, that perspective isn’t necessarily shared by many HR technology purveyors of engagement tools.

At the recent InfluenceHR and HR Technology Conference events, vendors discussed an array of engagement solutions. Implicit behind many of these is an assumption that a company’s engagement problems can be solved via their solution. That assumption may only be partially correct.

Engagement spectrum issues

Ask yourself why a person may be disengaged and the potential causal factors list can grow to epic levels. At this moment, you might not be as engaged as much as you should be because you are momentarily under-caffeinated and/or under-sugared. Candy maker Mars, Inc., has made this issue a hallmark in their promotion of their Snickers product. They remind people that “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry”.  If all engagement issues were as simple as this, we’d all be eating Snickers bars at work.

No, the causal factors behind engagement are numerous, varied and cross a range of factors some of which are within the control of an employer and some that clearly are not.  The biggest single factor in a lack of engagement may be the behaviors of a person’s boss. That one factor could lead to a lot of disengagement and voluntary attrition.

Engagement isn’t one-dimensional. You could be disengaged for minutes, days, years or a lifetime. A parent of a troublesome teen may be frequently disengaged as the employee is constantly worrying about the next real or perceived trouble the child will get into within the near future.

Software vendors worry about engagement as poorly engaged workers tend to be less productive and prone to high attrition. That fact has been shown to be highly correlated. However, when companies don’t know WHY someone is disengaged, how can they or the HR technology solution they deploy, then know HOW can they can solve it?

Of the solutions being touted at these two HR shows, vendors discussed how their solutions affect people. There were solutions that:

  • Helped people fend off diabetes and heart disease
  • Encouraged people to walk more
  • Encouraged people to get more fit
  • Required people to enter ‘how they’re feeling’ one or more times a day

There are some logic issues with some of these solutions. For example, while exercise can be shown to lower stress, possibly release endorphins and improve longevity, the moment a person goes back to working with a bad boss all of that stress and disengagement can return. While software vendors can show how one activity can potentially create a positive attribute for a person, they cannot show that the attribute is sustainable or will cause another engagement issue to occur.

Let’s look at the different logic issues. If a person is disengaged at work, can the company ‘fix’ this? It can if the cause of the disengagement is within the company’s control. If it’s an employee who is clinically depressed or just lost a loved one, then the company’s options are quite limited. Sure the company can offer counseling via an EAP program, but, this only works IF the employee is willing to use this and notifies the company of the cause. Otherwise, many matters remain private and none of the company’s business.

Can you imagine a boss walking up to a worker and saying “Charlene, you look like you’ve put on 15-20 pounds and don’t seem as energetic as usual. We’d like you to join a gym and start wearing a FitBit.” The real reason Charlene is disengaged and gaining weight could be due to: pregnancy, fertility drugs, depression, injury, steroid treatments, etc.  Vigorous exercise might be contra-indicated for Charlene. How is she to tell her boss “No” without explaining why? The boss is owed no explanation on this – it’s not any of his/her business. It’s a personal matter.


Let’s all agree that exercise is a good thing but it won’t cure the engagement factors that the employee can’t control. The best engagement solutions deal with the cause of the engagement and, given the variety of causal factors for disengagement, a company may need a number of cure-alls.  The company may need:

  • A wellness program
  • EAP
  • Better on-the-job training
  • Career planning services
  • Attrition prevention/detection solutions
  • Better mechanisms to integrate experienced hires
  • Corporate culture change
  • Credit counseling for employees
  • To pay people better
  • Better bosses

The list can go on and on as the causes and solutions are myriad.

Can any company ever have 100% of its workforce fully engaged? Maybe – if the company has only one employee and only measures engagement on the right day. Otherwise, some percentage of workers will be disengaged at any time. And, some people will just be curmudgeons no matter what programs a company has. That’s an important point as some folks who do great work and are very productive, just like to carp about their job/boss.

What both of the graphics shown above should help employers recognize is that:

  • Engagement issues are NOT a one size fits all matter
  • The company can’t solve all engagement causes
  • Some workers need more help to get re-engaged than others
  • Some engagement matters are no one else’s business
  • A triage approach may be appropriate so that the company addresses the largest number of engagement issues for the least amount of money

Engagement is a serious, multi-faceted and complex issue. Companies would do well to examine which causes of engagement issues it will address and which solutions are best suited to solving those. The goal of these firms would be to create a great engagement program that is cost effective and delivers solid business results. How that gets done will involve some corporate soul-searching, a lot of reviews of applicable technologies and the development of a great business case. Is your firm up to this work?

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