Imagine that employee engagement at your company stinks. Maybe a recent layoff, difficult re-org, or budget cut has left your team demoralized and shopping for their next career move. Since these events are beyond the control of most managers, it's easy to feel like employee engagement is a lost cause. And since you already know engagement is low, why bother measuring it?

Turns out, that mindset might be making things worse. Here's why.

A Cycle of Fear
Raising difficult issues at work can be scary. Finding the courage to speak up can leave you feeling exposed, and it isn't unusual for skeptical managers to discredit the messenger, which can result in a louder message, an attempt to enlist support, or eventually, defeat and disengagement.

Managers, on the other hand, often feel unprepared to address the challenges they perceive. Afraid that negative sentiment will snowball and get out of hand if it surfaces, some managers respond by trying to explain the problem away, or marginalize the messenger in the hopes that the discontent won't spread. This is likely to lead to a greater sense of urgency from dissatisfied employees.

Developing new cultural norms as businesses evolve is a high-stakes negotiation for everyone involved, and as stress levels rise, our ability to communicate and adapt diminish, along with business outcomes. Breaking this vicious cycle starts with a public commitment to listen. It won't change the things that may have caused the crisis to start with, but it does mean that people don't have to shout so loud.

The Power of Listening
Few things are at once as powerful and underestimated as listening to someone. Simply by asking people about their experience and acknowledging their perspective invites stronger engagement. Unfortunately, listening doesn't come naturally to everyone, and getting the best results takes care and practice. Even with the best of intentions, managers can reflect responsibility for a bad situation back onto their employees by offering them advice, such as "be more organized" or "manage your time better."

Rather than offering advice or solutions, managers who invite their teams to propose solutions and try them out build stronger, more engaged teams.

Invite Participation
The best way to shrink big, insurmountable problems is to get them into the open. Multiple, diverse perspectives are more likely to crack difficult problems, generate the most surprising solutions, and most importantly, will reflect the sensibilities and priorities of the team solving them. For example, one executive who started hearing complaints about conference room equipment assumed that solving the problem would require expensive equipment upgrades. It turned out that simply ensuring a fresh supply of whiteboard markers led to employees feeling more cared for and supported. It was a surprisingly humble solution that only surfaced in conversations with others.


You Get What You Measure
Without a good way to measure engagement, it's impossible to know if you are making progress. When the progress you can expect is small, measuring it is even more critical if you hope to build momentum. A continuous data stream can tell you right away whether you are making progress or not and give you a chance to adjust when necessary and double down when you find something that works. 

So, even when it seems hopeless, here are a few things you can do to start climbing out of the valley of despair:

  1. Find the courage to accept where you are
  2. Signal a commitment to actively listen
  3. Invite participation
  4. Celebrate and build on small wins
  5. Measure what matters, because what you measure is what you get