It takes two to tango

Or, how much can organizations influence employee engagement?

It takes two to tango

Posted by Robin Erickson, Ph.D. on August 18, 2016.

I’ve been studying employee retention and engagement for almost 15 years. During that time, engagement rates—or more accurately, disengagement rates, have been an ongoing problem. Gallup’s State of the American Workplace reports that from 2000 to 2016, only 26 to 33.6 percent of American workers were engaged in their work—and 15 to 20 percent were actively disengaged.1,2 Aside from what we can intuitively glean from this situation (e.g., lackluster performance, people simply going through the motions), lack of engagement also factors into “trouble” metrics, such as increases in voluntary turnover, absentee rates, mistakes and safety issues, and employee claims (such as grievances, workers’ compensation applications, and Equal Employment Opportunity complaint filings).3

For many companies, some of the causes of engagement issues are no mystery and a no-brainer to fix. Bersin by Deloitte interviews revealed that companies often have some idea of the engagement problems they face before they even begin to address the issue. Perhaps voluntary turnover is high in a particular department or division because of a difficult manager. Maybe new systems or processes have drastically changed the work itself in a short time span. Sometimes even success can be the source of employee dissatisfaction or angst—for example, periods of rapid growth can cause disengagement if employees are unsure how changes will affect them.

But can organizations fix all of the influencers of lower engagement? Put another way, how much control does an employer really have over their employees’ engagement levels?

Our research for a new Bersin by Deloitte report, Designing an Employee Engagement Strategy, has revealed the following common influencers of employee engagement and who or what has the most control over each: the employee, the company, or the relationship between the two.

Who controls the influencers of engagement?

Source: Bersin by Deloitte, Deloitte Consulting LLP

Both organizations and the people who work for them are integral to employee engagement and each has influence. For example, there are issues personal to an individual employee that the company cannot change, such as a long commute, a spouse being transferred, or significant health issues suffered by the employee or a family member. In addition, employees do control whether their attitude is good or bad, their ability to be assertive, their organizational commitment, and their level of discretionary effort.

The influencers in the middle box above are those affected by both the relationship between the employee and the organization—for example, a leadership team can be principled and act in an upstanding manner but still not be trusted by a cynical employee. Similarly, an employee may not get along with his or her coworkers—sometimes the coworkers are at fault and sometimes it’s the employee.

Organizations have sole influence over only part of the equation—those issues in the green box in the figure above, such as mission and vision, location, physical work spaces, compensation and benefits, policies, and the work itself. Even so, organizations may not be able to change some of the problems that trigger employee dissatisfaction or disengagement. For example, some companies may have to vary shift hours to respond to customer needs or other variables, even though employees would prefer standard shifts. Or they might be contractually bound to be open during certain hours or days (even holidays), such as a retail store in a plaza or mall. If the problem is inherent in the work itself, or if it would be impossible or impractical to change, the issue goes beyond engagement—and trying to change these kinds of issues may not be worth the time, effort, and expense.

Knowing who has the most influence to make a difference in employee engagement is important to understanding whether change is possible and, if so, what resources are likely to be involved. When the issue lies with the employee, say a personal or health-related matter, and the company cannot improve the situation, it’s important to exercise compassion and understanding in these cases, as they will potentially foster the kind of goodwill that leads to stronger engagement.

You can find more about customizing your organization’s approach to engagement by downloading Bersin by Deloitte’s complimentary WhatWorks Brief: Design a Strategy for Measuring Employee Engagement.

And join Christie Moon, Director of Organizational Development at the National Aquarium, and me on August 23rd at 12 pm ET for a complimentary webinar, Designing an Employee Engagement Strategy: More than Measurement.


Robin Erickson, Ph.D., directs Bersin by Deloitte’s Talent Acquisition, Engagement, and Retention research. Recognized as a Talent thought leader, she advises Bersin members, conducts industry surveys, writes reports, and develops frameworks and tools.

1 State of the American Workplace: Employee Engagement Insights for U.S. Business Leaders, Gallup, 2013, http://www.gallup.com/ services/176708/state-american-workplace.aspx.
2 “Little Change in U.S. Employee Engagement in January,” Gallup / Amy Adkins, February 8, 2016, http://www.gallup.com/ poll/189071/little-change-employee-engagement-january.aspx?g_source=EMPLOYEE_ENGAGEMENT&g_medium=topic&g_ campaign=tiles.
3 “What Do We Really Know About Employee Engagement?” Human Resource Development Quarterly / Alan M. Saks and Jamie A. Gruman, June 17, 2014, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/hrdq.21187/abstract.

As used in this document, “Deloitte” means Deloitte Consulting LLP, a subsidiary of Deloitte LLP. Please see www.deloitte.com/us/about for a detailed description of the legal structure of Deloitte LLP and its subsidiaries. Certain services may not be available to attest clients under the rules and regulations of public accounting.

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