9 Shocking Ways You're Undermining Employee Engagement
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9 Shocking Ways You're Undermining Employee Engagement

Admit it, you’re stuck in a rut. Yet again, one of your high potential agents turned in their notice. That sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach comes back.

You know you shouldn’t take it personally, but it’s hard not to. They are leaving YOU.

Why does this keep happening? You run an employee satisfaction survey, you gather people’s ideas, you have a rewards and recognition program, you benchmark, and you have a committee!

You’re not alone

While it’s not any consolation, this plague has been around for decades in call centers.

Even though it’s been happening forever, a recent report authored by Lori Bocklund of Strategic Contact indicated attrition is still the number one challenge call center leaders face. With all of areas of focus (27 listed in the report), losing staff was the top challenge. And it was last year as well.

Culture & morale

The problem creates the problem

The chronic nature of this problem stems from the problem itself.

Think about this. I’ve been to several industry events over the years. There’s one question that’s always asked in the opening session:

“How many of you are coming to this event for the first time?”

Same junk - different year

Every time speakers ask this question, more than 70% of hands go up. At every event! So if you interpret this to mean these leaders are new to call centers (it’s totally logical to think) then many of the leaders in call centers are new each year.

When you are new at anything, what do you do? You look to see what others are doing. Right? But you end up looking to the majority (the average). Unfortunately, you end up emulating the average. Our industry average (for employee engagement) is dismal.

At best, we’re merely making incremental improvements. Unless we make some fundamental shifts in our behaviors and practices all of our future leaders in call centers will have more undesirable role models. We can do better.

It’s broken

The devastating truth is that many of the things you assume are helping your effort to improve employee engagement are actually undermining it.

It’s similar to when a caller spends 20 minutes complaining about waiting on-hold because they are in a hurry. It’s counterproductive. It’s self-sabotage. It’s foolish.

So what do many call center leaders think is working, but in fact might be unintentional self-sabotage?

1: I don’t know the Purpose

In the report Crunch Time: Why Purpose is Everything to the Modern Workforce by Calling Brands, purpose is defined as an ambition to make a difference in the world, by a sincere desire to make a positive impact on society, to offer a wider benefit to the community.

Purpose is a key driver of recruitment preference, discretionary effort, and employee retention. Purpose goes beyond a mission statement. 64% of the workforce feels more loyal towards businesses that claim to do more than simply create shareholder value. (Click to tweet)

Yet, a 2015 Achievers’ survey indicated a staggering 61 percent of employees don’t know their company’s mission statement. What’s more, of those who are familiar with their company’s mission, 57 percent are not motivated by it.

And many of those who know their company’s mission statement are unsure how they impact or affect it.

Purpose is a cornerstone in your organizational foundation. If it’s missing or misunderstood, trust will be hard to foster and all you attempt will be undermined.

2: You’re not focused on my well-being

David Sturt and Todd Nordstrom of the O.C. Tanner Institute wrote an article on Forbes titled The Truth About Employee Well-Being: Research Shows What Really Works. In the article they shared findings from over 2,000 employees from different generations, positions, and industries around the globe who answered questions about their well-being.

First, they mention that you must recognize that well-being reaches far beyond physical wellness, and that you must inspire mental and social wellness, too.

In fact, they reveal that mental and social wellness have a greater impact on overall well-being. They also share that mental and social wellness are largely overlooked by many current efforts to improve employee well-being.

It’s easy to go wild thinking about how to improve mental and social wellness. But it’s important to focus on the fundamental skills. The core skills (get the graphic) that everyone in your organization can improve are:

  • Feeling Valued: People want to be appreciated and appropriately recognized. They want to feel special.
  • Conflict Management: Despite what human history has revealed, people want to be conflict free. Rational people would rather have peaceful dialog over war when given a choice.
  • Ownership: People want to have ownership of something or own their relationships, thoughts, and destiny.
  • Openness: People need openness as it is required for the well-being aspects of trust. People need trust to eliminate fear and move forward.
  • Motivation: Abilities are recognized and utilized and people have positive feelings about interacting with one another and have intrinsic drive to support one another.
  • Feedback: People engage in and recognize the importance of regular and constructive feedback to improve their life.
  • Difference Management: People create collaborative relationships with one another and ensure that differences are not allowed to get in the way but are respected.

Improving these skills and focusing holistically on well-being can pay off for your organization. In fact, the numbers may shock you. Job satisfaction doubles with increased well-being: only 44% of employees with poor well-being say they are satisfied with their jobs, while 89% of those with excellent well-being say the same.

3: You don’t trust me

When you trust an employee you show it by getting out of their way. Autonomy has long been known as one of the drivers of employee engagement. It ranks high in many employee engagement studies.

When employees feel you trust them they are more productive and they’ll attract more great people. If they don’t feel you trust them, the opposite is true.

Dave Gilboa, co-CEO of Warby Parker wrote in a Fortune Magazine article that to earn trust you have to give trust. Trust is a two-way street.

He shared an example of how Warby Parker shares sensitive information with employees. They don’t simply explain the what and how, but the why. This helps employees understand why certain decisions are being made. It also opens up a two-way street of trust between employees and management.  And Warby Parker has found that the better context they provide the team, the more motivated they are to do their best work.

4: They came engaged and you killed it

How many disengaged candidates have you hired? You don’t hire any people that are already disengaged. Do you? (Read: How to Recognize a Disengaged Employee and Do the Right Thing)

I have never met anyone who said, “I look to hire the disengaged.” So what happened? Why is morale low? Why did they leave?

Undermining employee engagement

Sustain and nurture their engagement

Start with a goal to sustain new employee’s engagement. You hired eager and willing people. What do you need to do in order sustain it? Understand which drivers could cause engagement to wane.

You can use an Employee Empathy Map to support your discovery process. Engagement and disengagement are emotional constructs. When you use the map properly, you’ll be able to better understand causes of each.

5: Your surveys suck

We have all heard it. “What gets measured, gets managed.” It’s true. Then certainly what is being measured (or not) in your employee engagement surveys is a reason for poor engagement.

Remember, the goal should be to focus on purpose and well-being. Your survey needs to help you best understand performance levels in those areas.

One smart statement to ask agents to rank: “My work makes a significant contribution and is worth doing.” Is this on your survey now?

Other benchmarks to measure:


  • I feel I have an ability to make an impact on the business. (This is especially important to millennials)
  • My strengths, abilities and knowledge are recognized and utilized.

It’s time to measure better. Make sure your employee satisfaction surveys measure real drivers of employee engagement.

6: You show no vulnerability

Few opportunities for building trust are as powerful as creating a “safe zone” for difficult conversations, decisions, and strategy execution. Create an environment where people feel safe to say what they really think is best for your organization.

Creating a safe zone requires you to embrace the concept of vulnerability. Create ground rules (not a policy) for behaviors and conversations that encourage team members to share what they’re truly thinking with no recrimination.

In order for employees to feel safe you have to go first.

Being vulnerable is a good thing. It doesn’t make you weak. It actually makes you a better leader because you remove the fear of secrecy and distrust.

Howard Shultz, CEO of Starbucks, once said, “The hardest thing about being a leader is demonstrating or showing vulnerability… When the leader demonstrates vulnerability and sensibility and brings people together, the team wins.” (Brainy Quote)  

7: Your rewards decrease engagement

In her book, Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…and What Does, author Susan Fowler talks about feeding people motivational junk food.

Managers promise more money, award prizes for contests, offer rewards, threaten punishments, apply pressure, and use guilt, shame, or emotional blackmail to encourage specific behaviors.

When people give in to one of these tactics, they end up with suboptimal motivation. Their motivation is external and not internal.

Rewards and incentives may motivate your team to deliver the desired performance outcomes for a time, but in the long-run their interest levels will inevitably fall. Relying only on external motivators isn’t a long-term recipe for success.

8: Engaging people doesn’t work

Bad news: your committees, task forces, programs, etc. - just might be the problem. Employee engagement must not feel like it’s something that management is doing TO employees. If it is, this increases the divide between “us” and “them.

Employees must feel that engagement is something that management does WITH the team.

Susan Fowler introduces health-food motivation in her book. You want to serve this instead of the suboptimal or junk food motivation.

There are three optimal (health food) motivational outlooks you want to serve:


  • Aligned - You are able to link your work to a specific thing you value.
  • Integrated - You are able to link your work to a life or work purpose.
  • Inherent - You are able to simply enjoy work and think it’s fun.

Serving optimal motivation is not quick and simple. It may require more time to execute, but the long-term and sustainable gains are we well worth the effort.

9: You didn’t fire the disengaged

You’ve done everything you could do. You’ve helped employees connect with the purpose of the organization.  You are truly being the best leader and manager you know how to be, and everyone who works for you is 'engaged' except for one or two. They simply are not willing to become engaged.

It’s important for an authentic leader like you to know that some people won't engage despite your best efforts. It's OK to let those people go.

I've seen many highly skilled leaders become captive to their ‘anchor employees’. They weigh the entire ship down. To prevent yourself from getting caught in this trap, here are 4 signs of a bad employee who will probably never engage (get the graphic):

  • It’s all about them - they don’t care about others needs and they throw co-workers under the bus.
  • Their development is your job - they want you to do all of the work and they do nothing to develop themselves.
  • They don’t commit - they’re unpredictable in their performance and you never know who is going to show up.
  • They don’t want your feedback - they never own their performance or behavior. It’s always someone else's fault.

You owe it to those who are engaged. Cut the anchors loose. You must sail forward with everyone else. Highly skilled leaders learn to know when to let go.

End the devastation

That sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach is no fun, but simple changes to the way you approach employee engagement can have a dramatic impact on productivity, performance, and cost reduction.

Start by targeting number one on this list and working to implement positive changes. Then try addressing a new item each month. Keep moving forward and don’t let any anchors slow you down. Stay committed and your team will start reaping the rewards in just a few short weeks.



Topics: Culture & Morale, People Management

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