3 Unconscious Habits Eroding Employee Engagement

Transparency helps leaders see through barriers for employee engagement.


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Against the backdrop of an ever more globalized and volatile economy, today’s business leader faces a distinct challenge: to balance increased demands for innovation with an increasingly transient and disloyal workforce.

Though correlations between a highly engaged work force and elevated revenue are well established, a frightening engagement gap remains. 2015 Trends in Global Employee Engagement, a survey from Aon Hewitt, showed that in the U.S. alone nearly two-thirds of the workforce are either not engaged or are actively disengaged. At the same time, two out of three millennials plan to leave their current role by 2020 according to the 2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey.

This stark reality is causing many companies to reexamine strategies to re-engage their talent at every level of the organization. Companywide initiatives may be effective to set the stage for an engagement-rich culture, but much of the power to change the outlook of individual employees — and determine their level of active engagement and eagerness to perform — rests in the hands of their immediate supervisors and teammates.

Ironically, it is often the unconscious habits we are least aware of that cause the most damage. Here are three to look for:

  1. Contradicting expectations: The professed expectations of supervisors, managers and colleagues don’t always match their behavior. When the unspoken beliefs and behaviors that govern a culture leave the employee with conflicting messages, it can be difficult to determine the most appropriate course of action. And rather than expressing their full potential, employees often disengage as a means of self-protection.

To counteract this, individual contributors, teams and management need to develop high-level communication skills so they can express misalignments and challenge the assumptions that often go unchecked within an organization. It can be useful for colleagues to have candid conversations around these assumptions and conflicting expectations when they arise.

To navigate these topics, collectively design agreements about how team members want to relate to each other. When done well, these agreements allow team members a safe space to voice their observations without fear of reproach.

  1. Opposing leadership styles: Similar to concerns around conflicting expectations, opposing leadership styles also can contribute to disengagement among employees. This is particularly true as the millennial generation comes into its own as the workforce majority.

Millennials, unlike their predecessors, crave increased collaboration and professional development opportunities in their work environment. This means the outdated, top-down leadership structures that were popular among earlier generations are falling out of favor with the younger generation. Where directive leadership once held sway, those of the younger generation expect their managers to be key players in developing their direct reports.

Central to this, a new, relational paradigm is emerging as a major driver for millennials. Through leadership competencies like coaching, managers can access this paradigm to elicit the values imbedded in varying leadership styles. By listening and challenging assumptions, teams can forge a method of communication that bridges the gap between traditional top-down models and newer more collaborative, self-managed leadership styles.

  1. Disconnected contributor value: The days where employees were willing to blindly, mechanistically perform their roles are gone. Today’s employees want humanity in the workplace. They want to bring their whole being to the task at hand. As a consequence, it is vital that employees feel a tangible connection to how their contribution impacts both the organization and the larger world.

When managers learn to seek out the passion that drives an employee and connect that to how their role progresses the company’s mission, each team member gains a deeper appreciation for the value they bring. Through powerful, exploratory questions, managers can tap deeper levels of fulfillment that create fresh and resonant dialogue. By engaging with an employee around how their passion connects to their work, their productivity and work commitment naturally increases.

When leaders at all levels can foster transparency, calling out and pinpointing conflicting expectations, bridging gaps in leadership styles and using powerful conversations to engage employees’ potential, they can build a culture where fears are replaced with trust, communication and engagement.

Christie Mann is an executive coach, leadership consultant and faculty member of The Coaches Training Institute. To comment, email editor@CLOmedia.com.