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Challenges to Employee Engagement

One of the most challenging aspects of being in a leadership role is employee engagement — that is, mastering the art of leading a diverse group of people who may or may not share your same desire, passion, or motivation. What’s more, the employees who are found to be most challenging often zap your time and your energy. Add a constantly changing workforce to the mix and it becomes very difficult to know exactly how to lead.

Many leaders have tried pep talks, monetary rewards, or even consequences for poor performance. However, none of these really seem to have any impact (Nicholson, 2003). So, what can you do to get your employees to follow your lead?  How can you keep them energized and focused on the task at hand?

You Can’t Do It 

It is nearly impossible to motivate or change anyone who doesn’t want to receive your advice or direction. What you can do is challenge what you do have control over — your perception of your current employees. You can add some creative approaches to motivate this engaged group of employees. Nicholson believes that progressive leaders need to ask themselves a different question to generate different solutions:

How can I look at my staff not as a problem to be solved, but as individual people to be understood?

To understand each person you need to recognize that each one of us is made of energy. When people experience challenges at work, at home, or in their social lives, it can often be attributed to an energy block. Motivation is a form of energy. It is the energy that propels us into action. When employees demonstrate a lack of motivation, you can assume that they are experiencing an energy block somewhere in their lives. This can look like stress, sickness, or financial difficulties. Nicholson’s research indicates that one of the most common blocks to staff motivation in the workplace may be the employee’s perception that the boss does not really care about them.

I am not suggesting that, as the leader of your team, you need to be deeply entrenched in the personal lives of each one of your staff — that is virtually impossible and is, in fact, unhealthy. What I am suggesting is that it is important to recognize that each employee is a human being with their own fears, concerns, desires, and emotions. It is important to develop a good rapport with your staff. This will allow you to identify someone who may be having trouble at work and enter into a different kind of dialogue with them to get them back on track.

In my own career, I have gotten myself caught in situations where I have passed negative judgment about the work ethic of an employee, only to discover there were significant (and valid) issues happening outside of work that was impacting their ability to do their job. Had I asked better questions or had a better rapport with this individual, I could have responded differently and supported them through the various programs we had available to us at work.

In addition to having a good rapport with your staff, there are five other strategies you can use to boost employee engagement. They are developing a positive work culture, allowing employee autonomy, eliminating performance reviews, good hiring practices, and holding yourself to the same standard as your staff. Each one of these is explored below.

The Workplace Culture

Building and maintaining the integrity of the culture can be tough in the beginning. However, when this is done with intention, it produces engaged employees and will pay dividends in the end. Examples of this include:

  • Having a mantra or mission statement to rally around
  • Making the values of the organization explicitly known and discussed
  • Having an effective system for reporting problems
  • Creating a pleasing physical environment

Employee Autonomy

Presumably you have done the work and have hired the best possible candidate for the job. They are qualified and have all the skills you desire to get the job done. Let them do it!

  • Ask their opinion–they are knowledgeable
  • Solicit feedback–they are implementing your ideas, interacting with your customers
  • Empower staff–give them the knowledge, tools, and resources they need to be successful in their job

Performance Appraisals

It is important to have healthy and respectful boundaries with your staff so that you can do your job well. Showing employees that you care will be far more effective than any performance appraisal — so show empathy, don’t do an inventory of their performance!

  • Get rid of performance reviews–always be open regarding problems they face, not just at review time
  • Respect the diversity of employees–don’t paint every employee, and the gifts they offer, with the same bush
  • Position employees in the right roles–ones that highlight their personal strengths
  • Develop employee strengths–and work on weaknesses
  • Keep a pulse on the morale–of employees and teams during times of restraint, tough projects, or stress

Again, this does not mean that you need to be best friends with your staff. It does mean knowing your employees well enough to have effective communication is a motivator. Engaged employees know that the boss cares!

Lead With Integrity

Employees lose significant motivation when they see you slacking off, breaking rules that they must follow, leaving early and coming in late, taking personal calls at work, and so on. You can demonstrate care for your employees and their workload by doing your share!

  • Be a facilitator and not a dictator
  • Make the employee cut if necessary–if another employee is not carrying their weight, is not competent to do the job, or has a detrimental impact on your team, don’t let your team suffer or make them carry the weight
  • Lead from your strengths
  • Demonstrative positivitylike energy will attract like energy
  • Be organized, communicate effectively and clearly, and have a plan
  • Be open and transparent about expectations
  • Demonstrate that you are not afraid to get your hands dirty
  • Engage your employees and offer praise and encouragement

Hire the Right People

The best organizations spend a good deal of time interviewing and testing prospective hires. While it can be exceptionally difficult to have the time or the personnel to engage in an extensive hiring process, a resume and one interview won’t tell you much more than the basic skills a candidate possesses. Hiring the wrong people can significantly impact your overall workplace climate and the motivation of your current team.

Ideally, multiple interviews with a prospective hire will allow for a more accurate sense of their character and their values. If a person’s character and values align with those of your organization, you are more likely to be pleased by their performance and chances are high that they will be with your organization for a good deal of time. Organizations that hire based on a resume, a personal reference, or one interview will likely suffer from high turn-over and greater organizational expense when an under-performing employee has to be cut. Investing your efforts up front will pay dividends in the end.

Isn’t There a Motivation Formula?

There really isn’t a one-size-fits-all model for employee engagement. Realistically, motivation that comes from any other source other than the internal drive of each employee, isn’t worth your time or your effort. Motivation must come from each individual.

As an effective leader, however, you can set the stage for employee motivation and its development as part of the organization’s cultural norms. Being mindful, making conscious decisions with regards to hiring practices, and developing an excellent rapport with your staff will go a long way in nurturing employee performance.


“What Is Motivation and How to Strengthen It.” N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.

“If You Want More Productive Employees, Learn How To Get Out Of Their Way.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 25 Feb. 2014. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.

Nicholson, Nigel. “How to Motivate Your Problem People.” Harvard Business Review. N.p., 31 July 2014. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.

Fromm, Jeff. “Millennials In The Workplace: They Don’t Need Trophies But They Want Reinforcement.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 15 Mar. 2016. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.