TTG Consultants
TTG Consultants Human Resources Consultants Specializing in  Career Management and Corporate Change

by Dave Bowman


Active engagement of employees in their jobs is mandatory if U.S. business is to experience high productivity in our global economy. However, Gallup research indicates that 54% of U.S. employees are not at all engaged at work and only 29% are truly motivated and engaged. Additionally, a Conference Board study showed that 53% of American workers are unhappy in their jobs.

Clearly, disengagement and unhappiness are recipes for lower productivity and mediocre corporate earnings. Of course, this begs the question, "What is employee engagement?"

Many management gurus say engagement exists when employees feel empowered; they "own" their work and treat it as their business. Therefore, they often are proactive rather than reactive - they don't have to be told what to do. When engaged, workers are motivated in their work, excited about innovation and enthusiastic about continuous improvement. They have trusting relationships and participate in good communication and information flow.

But, engagement doesn't exist in about half the working population. So what has failed us?

Currently used engagement methods include the use of various competency-based selection, appraisal and development programs, as well as analysis of training needs.

But if three critical, additional strategies were applied, we might see a turn around in these sorry workplace statistics.

These three strategies are...

  • Proper placement and use of talent in specific jobs (to include skills and knowledge training to further develop those talents),
  • Appropriate accountability and incentives,
  • Accurate performance appraisal.
Of course, depending on circumstances, there are other issues that help as well, such as loyalty and congeniality. But they seem to grow out of the other methods and strategies.

Let's take an in-depth look at each of these strategies for creating workplace happiness and engagement.

Proper Placement & Use of Talent

Neuroscientists, such as the esteemed Drs. Harry Chugani of Wayne State University and Joseph LeDoux of New York University, have indicated our talents don't change significantly after our mid-teens. This means our interests, strengths, needs and stresses - including our thought, feeling and behavior patterns - basically remain fixed throughout our adult lives. It also means people don't change a great deal after they're hired, despite all the training, coaching and other development programs to which corporations may expose them.

Thus, we must be very careful about the people we hire, by using job and function-based interviewing, as well as pre-hiring investigative techniques. We also must identify those talents (competencies) that define the very best employees in every level and function, and then use appropriate selection instruments that allow us to discover matching candidates. However, based on the Gallup and Conference Board findings, U.S. business is doing a poor job of this competency-based hiring.

An excellent tool for discovering talents/competencies is the Birkman Method®. It measures fifty-five elements of human behavior, including interests, strengths, needs and stresses. Most of these elements have 99 levels of intensity. Therefore, the nuance of each element, as related to the other fifty-five, creates a precise and accurate profile of an individual - and thus the best job "fit" can be determined. In terms of validity and confidence levels related to competencies, both field feedback and research indicate the composite result of Birkman Profiles is well into the ninetieth percentile. This tool merits much further use.

The Birkman Method® measures intensities in ten areas of individual interests, as well as eleven areas of strengths (usual behaviors), needs (environment and interpersonal expectations) and stresses. This Profile doesn't provide "right" or "wrong" answers. It measures only "what is" and allows the observer to decide whether "what is" matches job requirements.

To determine best candidates for a job, the instrument is administered to several employees who are already good performers in a similar or the same job. Thus, a profile of a successful incumbent is established, against which potential candidates can be measured. Next, the instrument is administered to all final candidates for that job. Management is shown the profile comparisons, and these become part of the hiring decision. Of course, this assessment is only part of the hiring decision process. Also included are experience and education, as well as the results of reference checks and interviews.

And so, competency tools can be of great value in matching candidates to jobs, but doing so is a bit like fitting new glass into a window. If the window measures 8 inches X 5 inches, but if the tape measure used when buying the new glass is in metrics, the glass may not fit. So, the tool must match the task it's supposed to measure. It seems this doesn't occur often enough in the hiring process.

Of course, competency/talent measurement tools only establish ideal profiles. Rarely, if ever, does any individual exactly match a competency profile. The purpose of such a system is to ensure that each person chosen for a job comes as close as possible to the ideal profile.

This is not to suggest that people cannot improve themselves. Clearly, they can learn new skills and knowledge, which increases their self-awareness and usefulness. But if the newly acquired skills and knowledge don't coincide with their natural talents/competencies, the training and development are apt not to have a major or lasting effect.

It's also important not to try to train everyone in the same job to behave and perform in the same way. Clearly, we can hold everyone in the same role accountable for the same result, but we must challenge each person to reach goals in his or her own way, by using one's own unique set of talents, skills and knowledge. This is an important goal.

Thus, if we are to expect continued employee happiness and engagement, we must place employees in jobs that match their talents/competencies, then provide them with additional skills and knowledge training.

Many studies have shown that one of the key reasons employees leave organizations is their lack of opportunity to use their core strengths and skills.

Much of U.S. business has not understood this dynamic. From the early 1960s to the 1990s, it was believed that moving managers from function to function would make them "better rounded" executives. Sales executives were moved into finance; operations supervisors became sales managers; human resource people (then known as personnel) were transferred into manufacturing and so on.

What a disaster this turned out to be! Assuming water had found its own level - that is, these managers enjoyed what they had been doing and their talents/competencies reasonably matched their job requirements - when transferred to other functions they found themselves in foreign territory, and in many cases having to use their weaknesses instead of their strengths. This necessitated much extra effort and many additional hours of work. It also created enormous stress, which often resulted in stomach ulcers, heart attacks, broken families and a host of other problems. This system endangered the entire workplace environment.

There's an old adage that says, "We do best what we best like to do." In other words, we excel when we're involved in things that interest us and which use our strengths rather than our weaknesses. When we have an interest in an activity, and we're using a strength to complete it, it's often viewed as "fun" instead of "work" - we therefore put our mental, physical and emotional being into it.

So, one way to keep employees happy and engaged is to stop promoting or moving them into areas that do not match their talents/competencies. It's also important that all levels of management understand the difference between talents/competencies (interests and strengths) - differences which cannot be taught or transferred from one person to another - and skills and knowledge, which can. Thus, it IS possible to achieve engagement through workplace enjoyment and pleasure, rather than drudgery.

Appropriate Accountability & Incentives

Mismanagement in this area often has led to much employee disengagement. Instead of establishing appropriate accountability systems, managers often use bullying tactics to achieve high productivity. However, bullying is a throw-back to Neanderthal management, and such methods usually are effective only in the short term. When supervisors continually scream, employees eventually either tune-out or leave - even in tough economies.

For example, a department in a large insurance company was experiencing considerable turnover and therefore unacceptable performance. Internal exit interviews by the immediate supervisor and human resources weren't uncovering any unusual reasons for the exceptional number of departures. By interviewing several former employees, it was discovered that the supervisor had used bullying tactics on most of his subordinates in order to get quick results. He had often shouted at them, even threw plates and cups of coffee, saying that if they reported any of this, they would, "get a lousy performance rating and no raise." Obviously, the subordinates had been too demoralized, frightened and intimidated to give honest exit question responses to either the supervisor or human resources.

The company didn't want to terminate the supervisor because he was well regarded in his highly technical field. Thus, it was determined that leadership coaching might change his behavior. After six months of instruction and monitored implementation of leadership techniques, his management by intimidation was transformed into management by consensus and accountability. Subordinates were happy again and felt they were part of a team. Turnover nearly stopped and productivity increased substantially. In short, employees again were engaged in their work.

Accountability, coupled with monetary incentives, also can be an effective engagement tool, provided the incentives reward the right results. If not, a disengagement backlash can follow.

An example of this was a telesales group, which had been accountable to and incented on the number of calls made, rather than on revenues produced. The supervisor's view was, "If enough calls are made, the law of averages will apply and a sufficient number of sales will be profitable to make my bottom line budget." However, profitability had been poor, since the telesales staff tended to pitch only the easy-to-sell, low-priced merchandise. The telesales staff was pleased with its incentive plan, but was being blamed for the profitability problem and thus was disengaging. Members were thinking the department soon may be re-staffed or discontinued. With some training in up-selling techniques, as well as the installation of an up-sell rewards system, employees became re-engaged and performance improved quickly.

Similarly, a production team had been incented only on the number of products assembled rather than on production related to quality. Consequently, quality had been poor and returns were high. This dramatically affected company profitability and the bonuses in other departments - there was a chain reaction throughout the entire company. Production employees were being called sloppy, with inadequate skills. Although they liked their incentive plan, which rewarded the wrong things, they disliked being blamed for the quality problem and thus they were disengaging. When a fair and equitable (not always easy to quantify) quality control system was installed - and after the bugs were worked out of the system - re-engagement occurred, production quality improved and so did profitability.

Thus, to maintain happy, engaged employees, it's vital that individual accountability be established to measure the "right" performance, with rewards that are proportional to results.

It's also important to clarify customer accountability regarding engagement. It's often said that nothing happens until we make a sale. Without that, there's no reason for production, finance, administration, human resources, or any of the rest of an organization. However, if a customer doesn't buy again, due to price, poor quality, or because goods or services are unneeded, a seller will have major problems. Thus, the customer's needs must be a focus for employee accountability, and rewarded accordingly.

Recently, a cosmetics company was experiencing declining sales. Customers simply weren't buying the new products created by the Director of Marketing and her staff. The marketing department staff was becoming discouraged and disengaged, some even were looking for new jobs. But, marketing had conducted no focus groups, no customer preference surveys, or any other research as to what customers wanted/needed. Instead, the Director of Marketing had used her "gut" as a guide to customer wants and needs for new products. However, after a re-alignment of customer preference accountabilities, the range of new products changed and sales increased - along with staff re-engagement.

Of course, not all employees or departments have external customers. Many, such as human resources, information technology, accounting and parts of administration have internal customers. That is, they deliver a product or service to another group or department within the same organization. These customers are no less important than external customers, since ultimately they reflect the external image and reputation of the organization. Thus, clarifying accountabilities for internal customers is just as vital for maintaining employee engagement as that for external customers. This is vital, and frequently overlooked.

For example, not long ago the financial data from an accounting unit was always late in reaching its customer, the sales department. After many complaints about accounting's tardiness, the sales manager finally set-up his own data gathering function, and considered the report from accounting "old news" by the time it arrived. He soon told accounting he didn't need its reports, and the two people assigned to these were laid off. This affected morale in the rest of the accounting unit, resulting in employee disengagement.

The problem arose because the accounting supervisor assigned accountability only to the accuracy of numbers, not to on-time delivery. In her view, correct data was of prime importance, but she hadn't checked out this view with her customer, the sales manager. Therefore, she had four accountants check the reports before they were submitted to the sales manager. Each of these four people checked the reports separately, and each in his or her own time (they each had other duties). Thus, the reports were nearly always late.

When the on-time need by the sales department was fully understood by everyone in the accounting unit, and the report checkers developed a method for checking the reports together, instead of separately, the reports began arriving at the sales manager's office on-time. Shortly afterward, accounting department morale improved substantially, and re-engagement occurred.

Another example of a lack of understanding expectations involved a newly formed manufacturing unit that was performing poorly. It was found that the supervisor had created job descriptions for the unit and had hired according to talent profiles he'd established - certainly a good start. But, he had not set up accountabilities for each job. When performance slowed, he blamed the employees, who had no idea about what was expected of them. As a consequence, they became disengaging, which made the problem even worse. After he assigned accountabilities, with proportional rewards, employees again became interested in their jobs and the unit - and performance quickly improved.

For accountability to foster engagement, it must relate to expected department and corporate bottom lines, and it should be rewarded accordingly. When proper accountabilities are coupled with appropriate placement of talent (and when appropriate training is available), engagement will nearly always occur.

Accurate Performance Appraisal

If appraisal systems are inconsistent or misunderstood, confusion and disillusionment can result, along with disengagement.

The purely subjective, or "open-ended" appraisal method can cause the most misunderstandings and employee disengagement. In this method, supervisors measure and rate employees on an unguided basis (there are no established standards or elements for measurement). Often - particularly in small organizations - an appraisal form, which lists the competencies, behaviors or components of productivity for measurement, doesn't exist. This leads to inconsistent, unequal measurements and judgments among supervisors in similar units. Employee discouragement and disengagement result. Certainly, some open-ended questions or issues can be appropriate, but at a minimum, a standardized set of components/subjects for measure must be adopted (benchmarks established, against which appraisals are made), along with guidelines about how and when to use the appraisal system.

A second potential problem with appraisals can arise when they are administered only by supervisors, and no other employees are involved in the rating process. Although a guided (non-open) format certainly helps credibility, this method leaves the supervisor with the sole judgment of productivity and behavior. Obviously, personal bias can lead to inequities in measurement between subordinates, which often results in unit or team employees disengaging.

But a better procedure exists: the 360° appraisal method - in which the supervisor, several peers and subordinates, as well as perhaps customers, vendors and others participate. This is much more equitable and provides a more broadly based view of employees, their talents/competencies and performance. And, if the 360° instrument contains a standardized set of issues for measurement it can be a very fair appraisal of everyone.

A beverage processing company was experiencing low productivity and an exodus of employees in an administrative unit. Employee interviews, as well as interviews with exiting workers, indicated they felt discriminated against by their supervisor, particularly during their anniversary appraisals. They said they thought the supervisor only gave "good reviews" to those she liked. The others received low ratings and no compensation increase. Thus, many were discouraged and some were leaving the company.

A 360° appraisal process was installed, involving ratings by the supervisor, peers and subordinates. This resulted in a diversity of opinion, which often was quite different from that of the supervisor. Raises were then based on the consensus of all opinion, not just the supervisor's - and re-engagement occurred.

A third potential problem with appraisals, and their contribution to disengagement, can be the language used. For example, if an employee's persuasiveness is to be measured, a problem of definition/meaning can exist, since the word can mean different things to different people. For one person it brings to mind Mother Theresa motivating others to give to the poor; for another it signifies the hard-sell of a used car salesman. When undefined, unclarified words are used in the appraisal process - whether used in ratings from supervisors, peers, subordinates or others - inconsistent, entirely inappropriate, unfair ratings can result, which ultimately can cause disillusionment and disengagement.

Some years ago, all employees in the operations unit at an auto parts distributor were receiving unusually high 360° appraisal ratings. When this was investigated, it was found that many employees who were rating others hadn't understood the meaning of some of the competencies listed in the appraisal form. Many tended to be in management lingo.

As a result, as well as to beat-the-system, many workers began making deals among themselves - "I'll give you top ratings if you give me the same. That way, we both get a raise." This created short-term employee engagement, but for the wrong reasons. Obviously, it couldn't last.

When the appraisal elements were clarified and defined, with everyone understanding the meaning of words and concepts, things settled down and engagement was maintained for the right reasons.

A fourth issue surrounding appraisal systems involves the alignment of employee strengths with their development. As we've discussed, when strengths are improved through skills and knowledge training, employee performance inevitably improves. Thus, the appraisal system must measure the willingness of employees to engage in training, as well as rate their resulting improvement.

A utility company was experiencing a lack of employee interest in the many training and development opportunities offered. Even when these programs were offered at no cost, very few employees took advantage of them. Through employee interviews, it was found that whenever they enrolled in these programs, their annual reviews didn't credit them for their improvement efforts. The view was, "why bother?" Thus, there was little productivity improvement because there was no talent development. The result was fewer raises and a spiral downward in morale, productivity and engagement.

With the simple addition of two additional elements for measure on the appraisal form - "efforts at continuing education" and "productivity improvement due to continuing education" - employees again began enrolling in training programs, productivity improved, raises ensued and re-engagement occurred.

In summary, to determine if employee engagement exists, we need only to look for several key indicators: empowerment, motivation, innovation, continuous improvement, trusting relationships, good communication and information flow. If these are present in the workforce, it is likely engaged.

However, recent studies have shown that the conventional methods of creating these indicators, and thus employee engagement, aren't working. Competency-based selection systems aren't chosen or used properly, appraisal systems measure the wrong things, development programs don't often consider employee talents, and training needs aren't properly analyzed.

Instead of these conventional methods, there are three alternate strategies that can create the indicators of employee engagement. First, improve the placement and use of talent in specific jobs (including skills and knowledge training to further develop those talents) through the use of competency assessments with greater validity of measurement. Second, use accountability and incentive systems that more precisely tell employees what is expected of them - and then reward them when that expectation is met. Third, implement performance appraisals that better measure expected results and improvement.

If the U.S. is to succeed in a global economy, it must greatly reduce the Gallup statistic indicating that 54% of workers are not at all engaged in their jobs, and the Conference Board's finding that 53% of U.S. workers are unhappy in their jobs. We can replace these sad report cards with much better ones!

Dave Bowman is President of the International Association of Career Consulting Firms, as well as Chairman and Founder of TTG Consultants / Arbora, a firm specializing in individual career and corporate change - with more than 200 offices in 23 countries. He is the author of several books and training programs, as well as a frequent columnist and contributor to many radio and television news/talk shows. He can be reached at 800.736.8840 and

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