How To Avoid The Usual Pit Falls of Employee Engagement Programmes

Organisations spend big bucks on employee engagement programmes only to be disappointed with the results. It doesn't have to be that way.

Hundreds of millions are spent each year trying to improve employee engagement. Yet, pre-pandemic figures show how this investment fails miserably, with average UK employee engagement scores indicating an unproductive 45%. Why? We’re going about it all wrong!

According to a recent global survey of 38,000 employers, over 53% of UK organisations plan to broaden their employee engagement programmes. Against a backdrop of the challenges associated with COVID-19, how can we avoid the usual pitfalls that can make employee engagement initiatives ineffective?

The obvious challenge

Recognition of low employee engagement levels is only realised around the board table once the horse has bolted. Usually, voluntary talent attrition and high levels of employee absenteeism produce sustainable dips in bottom line profits. Little credence is given to exploring the ‘nub’ of the issues, often at a workplace cultural level. That then gives rise to a board-level appetite for quick, low-cost solutions delivered on an ad-hoc basis that historically fail to produce the desired results.

The hidden challenge

HR Leaders care about their people. They want to create a culture that values people and engages and inspires them. They also understand how these mechanisms are vital to improving productivity, talent retention and employee wellbeing. Yet, traditional approaches often fail because they take a one-size-fits-all approach that treats engagement, performance and wellbeing as separate entities. They look like a quick, cost-efficient solution on the surface but don’t produce the desired results. I’ve listed the most obvious ones below. Do you recognise any?

  • The mini-workshop solution. Typically, ½ day ‘chalk and talk’ sessions are mainly knowledge-based with little practical application—short-termism, producing little or no long-term change. 
  • Mental Health First Aid. Click here to read an interesting post written by a Psychotherapist on MHFA as a response to supporting mental health in the workplace: (5) Ten reasons why Mental Health First Aid won’t work for corporate organisations | LinkedIn
  • Re-emphasis of core values and mission. They are intended to ‘remind’ employees and reinforce Leadership role-modelling behaviours. Typically, ‘high-level’ with no focus on meaningful habits, beliefs, and behaviours that will strengthen employee engagement in everyday practice. 
  • Team away days. Great feel-good factor, producing little or no long-term change.
  • Frequent employee engagement surveys. Well-meaning, but if the solutions aren’t right, they become another contributing factor to cultural disengagement. 


The final one is something we’re passionate about, and it comes from personal experience – it’s employee incentives. My husband worked for a well-known international bank for over 25 years as ‘top talent’ at a senior level. I remember the financial bonuses, the healthcare packages and trips away designed to ensure he remained focused and engaged and felt valued enough to stay in the organisation.

It meant our family was well looked after, but in the end, these incentives failed, and he left to become our CEO. Employee incentives are only one part of the engagement puzzle. No amount of team away days, mini-workshops and CPD platforms provide an employee experience that engages their hearts and minds, especially when the pressure is on.

"The definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result."

All these initiatives are well-meaning, but with a 45% engagement rate pre-COVID-19, it is clear that many of us are backing the wrong horse. But it doesn’t need to be that way. Psychology and employee engagement research give us many areas to focus on to pick a winner.

Organisational Psychologist William Khan’s employee engagement theory defines engagement as an “employee’s ability to harness their ‘full self’ at work.” His work focuses on increasing people’s sense of who they are and the extent they’re invested in the roles they perform. Khan argues that engaged people are physically involved in their tasks, mentally invested in their role, and emotionally connected to others in the service of their work.

Notice how the one-size-fits-all initiatives don’t exactly hit the mark?

Khan’s research looks at how engagement occurs and the skills needed to develop and sustain it. He highlights the three psychological conditions that separate engagement from everyday hard work:

Condition One - Psychological meaningfulness

That mental and emotional return on investment makes engaging in their ‘full self’ worthwhile. A workplace culture where everyone feels motivated to commit fully to their role.

On a day-to-day basis, this means:

  • Do your people have the mental and emotional skills to develop and sustain strong and trusting relationships? Do these relationships promote dignity, mutual appreciation, and a strong sense of individual AND team value?
  • Do their roles stretch them enough to warrant perceived success? In other words, do people feel they are growing and have an accurate benchmark of their value and success?
  • Do people know their strengths and how to tap into them every day for more purpose, meaning and productivity?

Condition Two - Psychological safety

People perceive situations at work as secure and trustworthy. In other words, they feel safe to bring their ‘full self’ to work without the risk of negative consequences.

On a day-to-day basis, this means:

  • Do your people have the mental and emotional skills to navigate change and uncertainty positively? Can they be open with others whilst valuing opposing views? Can they maintain relationships whilst resolving challenges and conflict, so everybody feels valued and safe? 

Condition Three - Psychological availability

People are able to physically, mentally and emotionally bring their ‘full self’ to work.

On a day-to-day basis, this means:

  • Do your people have the mental and emotional resources needed to meet the demands of personal and team engagement? 
  • Do they have the skills to navigate pressure and stress at work and at home? 
  • Do they have the skills to promote the habits, beliefs and behaviours that reinforce engagement in everyday practice?
  • Do they have the skills they need to avoid physical, mental and emotional burnout?

Kahn's three conditions help us understand why current initiatives don't do enough to improve employee engagement

Employee engagement is not about big or one-off initiatives that provide a short-term boost in morale or a re-emphasis on organisational mission and values.

Neither is engagement about spotting the signs of poor mental health without addressing the broader, more cultural issues around wellbeing, engagement, and performance.

Tackling employee engagement involves a complex mesh of individual, interpersonal, group, intergroup, and organisational influences that all shape people’s levels of engagement. It means that the traditional approaches to employee engagement often create a knowledge-based environment in the training room that fails to transfer into daily life. These initiatives are often individualistic, working in siloed objectives on performance/engagement OR wellbeing, and individual Vs team development.

Seeing employee engagement in this way can be a game-changer for everyone. Khan's research points to a straightforward rule of thumb

The more capable people are at leveraging the connection between how they feel, think, and behave, the more they will draw on their ‘full self’ to engage and perform at work and home. Team away days and 1/2 day workshops are great initiatives in their own right, but ONLY once people have the skills to meet the demands of personal engagement.

Tackling employee engagement has to start with a skills base and here's why:

As a life-long academic with a background in industry, psychology highlights both the advantages of knowledge and the importance of skills.

  • Giving people knowledge-based information and facts is great when it comes to technical expertise. However, when it comes to tackling the psychology of employee engagement, knowledge only raises awareness of the gap in skills needed to remain engaged at work.
  • Knowledge is meaningless without practical application, and the same goes for building, delivering, and evaluating employee engagement programmes.
  • Skills turn the ‘what’ into the ‘how’ and enable people to adopt a framework that gives them their own recipe to meet the demands of daily life at home and at work.
  • Skills are valuable proficiencies that can be taught, shared, measured, practised and improved.
  • When it comes to return on investment, skills have overt outputs that provide tangible outcomes and results.

Build successful employee engagement programmes on the 6 E's:

Envision: Avoid the risk of employee cynicism and lack of senior ‘buy-in’ by painting a picture that people buy into. Set expectations and a vision of what an environment of engagement and performance looks, sounds and feels like by sourcing skill-based programmes with tangible and sustainable outcomes.

Empower: Meeting the demands of personal engagement can be different for everyone. So empowering people with a shared skill set enables them to thrive. It is probably one of the most important things you can do. If people do not have the skills, you are limiting potential.

Exemplify: Once people have a shared skill set that everyone sees the value in its application, the focus moves to leading from the top. Being the change, you want to see with “leaders leading” starts with ‘walking the walk’ with a skills base. 

Encourage: Recognise people when they use the skills. Encourage them to bring their ‘full self’ to work by giving them a voice to talk about what’s working for them and what isn’t. 

Embed: Maintenance is an ongoing venture. People ebb and flow, so ensure you create opportunities for continuous conversations around culture, performance and wellbeing. 

Evaluate: This is critical if you want to be credible in front of your people. The outcomes you need to aim for from an employee engagement initiative should positively impact all business areas. Get the outcomes right, and your seat at the senior table is guaranteed. Here are some examples:

  • 66% decrease in the early indicators of poor mental health.
  • Mind ‘Gold’ Workplace Wellbeing Index Award. 
  • Investors In People’ Platinum.’ 
  • +8% engagement
  • 8% increase in productivity
  • 16% reduction in absence.
  • 35% decrease in voluntary attrition.

*outcomes are taken from our skill-based programme that supported 1000+ Leaders, Managers and colleagues in a global organisation.

In short….

  1. Beware of quick-fix, ad-hoc solutions. How do your current employee engagement programmes tackle the three psychological conditions that separate engagement from everyday hard work?
  2. Do your current initiatives give people a framework and skills base that supports an engaged workforce with the shared habits, beliefs and behaviours to thrive?
  3. Do your current outcomes produce credible and meaningful business outcomes?
  4. Think about the 6 E’s when developing a successful employee engagement strategy. 

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