How to Get Leaders to Really Care About Employee Engagement

When a recent Gallup poll found that only 68.5 percent of workers consider themselves “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” at work, it’s no surprise that we find ourselves in an employee engagement crisis.

Despite this, it’s still challenging to get leaders and managers to focus on employee engagement.

We know that it’s crucial to the long term success of organizations. We know it’s tied to building a high performance workplace. So why don’t leaders take it seriously?

The problem with employee engagement

The issue with employee engagement is that many leaders don’t know how to quantify it.

Measuring it does very little to help them manage core objectives. The data also does nothing to help them understand how business is trending.

To illustrate this, let’s look at one way organizations measure engagement: The employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS).

The results of an eNPS survey can be 90. It can be -90. It’s an interesting measure, but what do you actually learn from it? If you improve it by 10, 30, or 50 points, will it reduce employee turnover, help fill open roles quicker, or boost productivity?

Perhaps, but by how much and to what degree will that affect bottom line results? When a leader has to prioritize, focusing on work that is challenging and resource intensive yet drives ambiguous results does not make it to the top of the list.

Employee engagement is something that’s very difficult to address with confidence.

Tying employee engagement to core objectives

While employee engagement is difficult to measure, we do know it’s important.

So, is it enough to just measure it and focus on improving it? Is it enough to make it a core objective and make employee engagement metrics a core component of performance reviews.

No. I don’t believe it is.

First, there’s a temptation to focus on moving the number and not address primary issues. We know this is a problem because we’ve heard from employees examples of where management would exert influence in trying to help improve eNPS scores.

More importantly, if we believe employee engagement has a significant impact on the bottom line, why take the shortcut? Put the effort in to understand how much of an impact it really has.

Understanding the bottom line impact of engagement

Instead, identify employee engagement outcomes that make it a real leading indicator of business results. When this happens, leaders genuinely care.

How do you do this?

Let’s look at an example from a leading global resources company. They set goals around cutting costs and improving productivity and safety. After sharing these goals with employees, leadership leveraged idea software to tap into insights from their front-line because they recognized that these are the people who notice inefficiencies everyday and can help them reach their goals.

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At first, most of the ideas didn’t align to their cost cutting and productivity objectives. So management focused a little more on communications and helping employees understand strategy and objectives.

Over the course of the next six months, 95 percent of the 1,700 ideas that came through focused on cutting costs and improving productivity and safety. More importantly, the platform helped to ingrain continuous improvement into the company culture.

Employees used their discretionary efforts to help their organization achieve their core objectives. Every employee felt that their voice was being heard and that their ideas contributed to the future of the company.

For leaders, a steady pipeline of ideas and projects for lowering costs, improving productivity and safety provides them with confidence of long-term success.

How leaders can set employees up for success

In order for this approach to be successful, leaders must establish a clear vision and set goals that are meaningful at an individual level. By doing so, employees become empowered to address obstacles that prevent success or opportunities that improve or accelerate outcomes.

In this way, engagement can be measured on multiple levels and can be actioned. It becomes a strong leading indicator.

An interesting aside we’ve noticed is that employee engagement levels through idea software can be a decent predictor of turnover. For example, employees who aren’t engaged in ideating are generally less invested in the long term success of their organization.

It makes sense. If you’re intention isn’t to stay at a company long-term, you’re not motivated to contribute towards making the company you work for better.

Giving an opportunity to contribute

In the end, it makes sense to provide employees with an opportunity to contribute towards company goals in a meaningful way.

Did their contribution help the company reach its goals? If yes, your employees are engaged. If not, you may need to examine whether employee and company goals are aligned and/or understood.

It may not be a panacea for all aspects of employee engagement, but it is a great way to determine if you’ve successfully engaged your employees on key priorities.

Brennan McEachran is the CEO and co-founder of SoapBox, a Toronto-based company that creates idea software for enterprise that allows you to collect, manage and act on employee ideas that solve big challenges faster. For more information, visit


4 Comments on “How to Get Leaders to Really Care About Employee Engagement

  1. Brennan, I’m certain SoapBox is an ideal product, however I take issue that the data gathering is the challenge leaders face. A far larger issue is how to prevent the “BIG THREE” ( politics, culture, silos) from interfering with the actions indicated by the survey. For example, my firm does employee engagement, but we start with the CEO and he asks only one question. Next we put rules inlace that guarantee no interference for the big three. If an idea is offensive to an executive, they have to have a better reason for not doing something than the employee had for suggesting it. The “or else” is that we get all the data and can move an issue all the way to the CEO in matter of days. If the executive loses the debate, he/she has only a few days to make the change.

    With all the surveying tools I’ve looked at, the data, debates and recommendations are all owned by insiders with careers to protect. There’s only so much pushing you can do when you need your career. Worst yet, is the committee approach. Always remember that nothing truly brilliant nor truly stupid comes from a committee, just the average wrong answer.

    So, with regard to the best way to engage employees is to ask them a simple opened ended question, asked by the CEO and then execute the changes so fast that the results serve to enhance employee participation. Also, the facilitator should absolutely put some portion of their fees at risk pending the client’s assessment of the results. Otherwise, it’s just software.

    1. Hey Jim, I don’t think data gathering is the issue. Orgs are generally pretty good at collecting data… The issue is not treating engagement as a leading indicator to your results.

      I think, in the way you do it, it would be about the importance of setting a question the CEO asks so it will go beyond dialog and will also help the business move forward. If leadership is doing this because they feel obligated to then they’re missing a huge opportunity to grow their business.

      That said, I believe engagement is a bottoms up and top down problem. Managers need to care too

      1. The question the CEO asks the employees isn’t esoteric, it’s as broad and open-ended as a question can be. The challenge with specific questions is that they tend to confine employee thinking to the questions being asked. Our question is nine words long and it generates huge response. Neither my team nor the management team have any idea where this is going to take us. To assume otherwise is just plain silly. I’ve seen surveys where people vote on issues, which are shared along the way. Who cares what the vote is, if it’s a valuable suggestion or comment, management needs to deal with it, votes notwithstanding.

        Regarding your comment on the bottoms up and a top down problem. In our case, since we always report to the CEO, the initial opportunity to make a change is shared with whomever owns the expense or service, usually in the middle somewhere. The top down occurs only when the middle isn’t cooperating. They are always hesitant to be obstructionist because eventually they will end up at the officer level justifying not taking an action, which by all views is a good idea to execute. Not a good more for one’s career.

        “If leadership is doing this because they feel obligated to….:”, I’m sure neither the employees nor investors care much why. I’ve been doing this for twenty years and some portion of the executives and management need to be dragged into this, they’re usually the lazy ones. Not wanting to improve earnings isn’t a choice they get to make when the CEO is really in charge.

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