Employee Disengagement: There is a Solution

Survey after survey concludes that a high percentage of the workforce is disengaged. Take, for instance, a recent Gallup report on the “State of the American Workplace” that suggests only 30 percent of workers are engaged, while the rest are not engaged or actively disengaged. Although the topic seems to have gained more traction lately, employee engagement is not a new problem; and the numbers haven’t changed much over the past decade. Clearly, organizations are missing the mark on motivation.

So where do companies go wrong in their attempts to motivate employees? And more importantly, what should they do differently to change the level of engagement among their workforce?

Let’s take a look, for example, at a frequently used method of motivation—Employee of the Month Programs (EOM). These programs have been a popular form of employee recognition and continue to be used in organizations. Their intent is to award high performing workers, but in reality their impact is much different. EOM programs are inherently flawed because there can only be one winner, and therefore, many losers. Co-workers are pitted against one another, creating the potential for destructive internal competition. Often, the awards become something that is just passed around, each person waiting for their turn to be the “Employee of the Month.” At this point, the reward is no longer contingent on performance and has little value or meaning to the person receiving it.

While there are plenty of other programs that fail to motivate employees, there are similarities in how they fail to deliver on even the best of intentions. Typically, they lack one or more of the following criteria:

  • Reinforcement must be contingent on a specific, desirable behavior
    • Employees know what is expected and what they need to do to earn reinforcement.
  • Reinforcement is delivered immediately after the desired behavior occurs
    • The closer you can pair reinforcement with the behavior, the better. Waiting a week or a month after a performance occurs reduces the strength of the reinforcement and, worse, it may inadvertently reinforce an undesired behavior.
  • Feedback on performance is given daily
    • I always say the best job anyone can have is if, at the end of the day, they know exactly how they did. Frequent feedback is necessary to provide reinforcement, but also to allow employees to learn things they can change in order to improve.
  • Reinforcement delivered is personal and sincere
    • Knowing what is reinforcing to each employee can be difficult, but it is critical to making reinforcement effective. For some, dinner with the boss may be a treat, for others a nightmare. Take the time to find out what is reinforcing for your employees individually is critical.
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If you are trying to think of new ways to motivate employees, my advice is to stay away from programs like EOM and instead create a recognition system in which everyone is capable of “winning.” Define clear, objective criteria and provide a meaningful reward for everyone who meets it. When everyone has a chance to succeed, co-workers are more likely to share best practices and work as a team rather than compete against one another. Rewards don’t have to be elaborate or expensive either. An afternoon off, a longer lunch break, a chance to work on a popular project, all are examples of “free” rewards.

This guest post is courtesy of Aubrey C. Daniels, Chairman and Founder, Aubrey Daniels International.


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