9 Devastating Truths Undermining Your Employee Engagement


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Admit it, your 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.

It’s kind of like an insecurity coupled with a frustration. You know you shouldn’t take it personally, but it’s hard not to. They are leaving YOU.

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

You’ve got to find out why!

But then it gets worse when you find out they left for a lateral move to another call center across the street. What?!

The truth is – you are the problem. But it’s not your fault. So what is the secret to employee engagement?

You’re not alone

While it’s not any consolation, the truth is this plague has been around for decades in call centers. (Click to Tweet)

Even though it’s been around forever, in a report authored by Lori Bocklund of Strategic Contact, ‘High Attrition’ was the number one challenge call center leaders say they 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.

The problem creates the problem

The truth is that 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 gets asked to conference attendees in the opening session at every one of these events.

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

Same junk – different year 

Every time this question is asked more than 70% of the audiences’ arms are raised. At every event! So if you interpret this as these leaders are new to call centers (it’s totally logical to think) then 70% 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) sucks.

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. We need to change the trajectory of this vicious cycle. (Click to Tweet)  

Did you know – it’s broken

The devastating truth is that many of the things you assume and think are helping your effort to improve employee engagement are actually undermining it. And the industry is full of these examples. But remember, it’s not their fault either.

It’s kind of like 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 is the truth behind some of the common practices that so many call center leaders assume or think is working, that are in fact creating 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, they talk about Purpose being 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.

They share that Purpose is a key driver of recruitment preference, discretionary effort, and employee retention. The truth is, 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. 

In an interview with Brian MacNeice co-author of the book Powerhouse: Insider accounts into the world’s top high-performance organizations he shares findings from his research into organizations such as the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, Doctors Without Borders, Mayo Clinic, Finnish State School Education System, Kirov Ballet, Tata Group in India, Southwest Airlines, US Marines Corps, New Zealand All Black Rugby, St. Louis Cardinals, The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and others.

Listen and learn how these companies leverage Purpose for high performance.

What do your people feel?

What do your people feel the Purpose is of your company? What do they feel their Purpose is in the company? If it’s merely to handle customer problems – they can do that anywhere.

Do your employees know how they make a difference or impact in the Purpose? Do your employees know how they are helping others to fulfill the Purpose?

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 and they share findings from over 2,000 employees from different generations, positions, and industries around the globe to answer questions about their well-being.

Firstly, 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. The truth is 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 (learn more) that everyone in your organization can improve are:

  • Feeling Valued: People want to be appreciated and appropriately recognized. They want to be made 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.

Measuring and improving these skills allows you to holistically focus on well-being. And it can pay off for your organization. David and Todd said, the numbers may shock you.

  • Individual productivity rises nearly 20%: Contributors with poor well-being only produce 64% of possible work output, while those with excellent well-being produce a whopping 83%.
  • Team productivity soars too. Work output increases from 61% to 81% as team well-being goes from poor to excellent.
  • 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.
  • Employees with excellent well-being also out-perform their peers at every skill necessary to deliver groundbreaking, difference-making great work. And, on average, employees with good or excellent well-being plan to stay at their organizations two years longer than peers with poor or average well-being.

Include well-being and Purpose into your core strategies for employee engagement. By doing so you’ll be well ahead of your competition to attract and retain top talent – and in your financial performance.

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 trusted they are more productive and they’ll attract more great people. If they don’t feel trusted, the exact opposite will happen.

Dave Gilboa, co-CEO of Warby Parker wrote in the article Here’s what happens when employees don’t trust their managers in Fortune Magazine that to earn trust you have to give trust. Trust is a two-way street.

He goes on to give an example of how Warby Parker shares sensitive information with employees. They also explain not only the ‘what’ and ‘how’ but the ‘why’ so they understand why certain decisions are being made.

They feel by trusting employees with information that would be harmful if ever leaked to the press or competitors, they are allowing employees to trust them back. They find that the better context they provide the team, the more motivated they are and the better they can do their job.

A policy on policies 

One clear way to send the message of distrust to employees is to have numerous policies. To have managers continually deflecting questions by citing policies. (Watch how it impacts customers too)

What does a lot of burdensome policies say to you? We don’t trust the people who work here. We need a comprehensive set of rules for them to follow so they stay in line. Would you want to engage with that?

4: They came engaged and you killed it (Click to Tweet)

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 that said, “I look to hire the disengaged.” That’s dumb. So what happened? Why is morale low? Why did they leave?

Yes, you probably do need to improve your selection and interview process. Although it would be too easy and inaccurate to place all blame there.

Sustain and nurture their engagement

Start with a goal to sustain their engagement. You hired eager and willing people. What do you need to do in order sustain it? Then understand what could be causing it to wane.

An Employee Empathy Map can be used 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 our goal should be to focus on purpose and well-being. So your survey needs to help you best understand performance levels in those areas. (Learn how)

One thing to ask employees to rate for a better understanding of Purpose could be, “My work makes a significant contribution and is worth doing.” Is this on your survey now?

Make an impact

We all want to make an impact. We need to know we’ve made a difference. This is core to our being.

And a survey by consulting firm Korn Ferry of nearly 1,000 executives from around the globe the largest percentage of respondents (28 percent) said the “ability to make an impact on the business” matters most to millennial employees.

You have to understand the Purpose to know if you are making a difference. Once you doubt this, you begin to question your fit. Your discretionary effort is withheld and you begin to search elsewhere for fulfillment.

For you to better understand employee well-being, have your employees rate, “My strengths, abilities and knowledge are recognized and utilized.” Is it occasionally? Very infrequently? Never?!

How can your well-being be strong if you feel neglected?

I’ve seen too many surveys send people in the wrong direction. And if not sent in the wrong direction they are often send in a direction that will not yield benefit. It’s time we measure better.

6: You show no vulnerability

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

The way to create a safe zone requires embracing the concept of vulnerability. And creating ground rules (not a policy) for behaviors and conversations where people feel it is okay to share what they’re truly thinking with no recrimination.

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

Strength not Weakness

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 lower engagement 

In her book Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…and What Does, author Susan Fowler talks about feeding people motivational junk food. In her interview on the Fast Leader Show she provides the perfect overview.

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.

People may elect to engage in these and deliver the desired performance for a time but in the long-run their interest levels fall and people begin to feel discouraged, disillusioned, and debilitated by their failures.

Susan shares that leaders keep promoting junk food motivation possibly because:

  • Many leaders simply do not question common practices.
  • Leaders have not gained skill to apply the science of motivation.
  • People don’t understand the nature of their own motivation, so when they are unhappy at work, they ask for more money – they yearn for something different but they don’t know what.

8: Engaging people doesn’t work

One of the major mistakes leaders make that may be undermining their ability to engage employees is that they actually try to engage employees.

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 me. If it is, this increases the divide between us and them.

Engaging employees doesn’t work – it must not feel like it’s something that management is doing TO me. (Click to Tweet)

Employees must feel that engagement is something that management does WITH me. And employees are already motivated. But what motivates them?

Health food Motivation

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.

She shares that 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 focused on helping all contribute and build their skills on improving the well-being of one another.

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 – some people won’t engage despite your best efforts. It’s OK to let those people go.

I’ve seen many highly skilled leaders get held 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 that are engaged to 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 sucks. Particularly when you keep trying to move forward and keep getting undermined by your efforts.

But simple changes to the way you go about your employee engagement efforts can have dramatic effect on your productivity, performance, and cost reduction.

Just imagine going for months and retaining all of your high performers.

Imagine going to meet your boss and feeling confident, not stressed, and having all positive things to share.

Imagine waking up Monday morning looking forward to the day ahead, fully staffed.

Start by targeting number 1 on this list and working to implement positive changes.

Try addressing a new item each month. Keep moving forward and don’t let any anchors slow you down.

You could dramatically improve your employee engagement performance in a few short weeks.

Move onward and upward

Download the guide 7 Simple Employee Engagement Hacks That’ll Help You Crush Competitors.

This article has been updated with new content from the original

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Jim Rembach
Jim Rembach is recognized as a Top 50 Thought Leader and CX Influencer. He's a certified Emotional Intelligence practitioner and host of the Fast Leader Show podcast and president of Call Center Coach, the world's only virtual blended learning academy for contact center supervisors and emerging supervisors. He’s a founding member of the Customer Experience Professionals Association’s CX Expert Panel, Advisory Board Member for Customer Value Creation International (CVCI), and Advisory Board Member for CX University.


  1. All of these truths – are, unfortunately, true. Good to see them so well identified. They reflect the fundamental (and devastating) reality that engagement isn’t cultural and doesn’t represent personal commitment – to the enterprise itself, to the company’s product and service proposition, to fellow employees, and to customers and the customer experience. Since engagement is primarily about employee productivity and alignment, it can never drive ambassadorial behavior through a ‘people first’ set of values and beliefs.


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