My employees are not performing.

If engagement creates tangible, financial results - why are engagement efforts so often a flop?

Top performing organizations don’t have to question their people’s level of dedication and effort. But leaders in organizations experiencing less traction can’t shake the nagging feeling that their employees are not working up to their true potential.

It might be that feeling itself that signals the need for a mindset shift. An organization’s employees are incredibly perceptive. If leadership is viewing its people suspiciously, is it any wonder that they’re disengaged or working below potential?

Under constant pressure from a board of directors or shareholders to increase revenue, profitability, efficiency,’s natural for leaders to feel this way! Leaders experience negative emotional reactions when those results fail to materialize, and making decisions and judgments from this place of negativity (even fear) can derail the best leaders into a pessimistic and controlling mindset. So often, that mindset is exactly what disengages the people a leader depends on most.

If not through closer oversight and tighter control, how can a leader guarantee the results they’re held accountable for producing? The answer will seem counterintuitive. They can do it by “letting go of the vine” and deciding that engaging people is the best way to motivate them.


Measuring engagement.

Engagement may seem like a “nice to have” rather than a must-have critical component of the business. Isn’t it too fluffy a concept to drive real performance?

Let’s explore what we mean by engagement.

The Gallup organization has conducted an extensive, decades-long study to ascertain the most impactful internal drivers of profitability in any given business, and in the process has collected mountains of data. What Gallup found begins to quantify the slippery industry term of “employee engagement.”

Gallup defined engagement as “feeling like a real contributor, enjoying ample learning opportunities, and having a strong sense of connection with one’s work and organization.” They found that these indicators were consistently tied to higher productivity, better quality of work, and higher profitability of the organization.


We already know that company leaders are keenly aware of and interested in bolstering their organization’s engagement. PwC conducts an annual global study that uses in-depth interviews of more than 1,400 CEOs in 83 countries. Over half of those interviewed view an absence of trust from their employees as a top strategic threat. It’s clear that they view a successful outcome in this area as important to their business.

If building a culture of engagement is so essential to improved business performance, why aren’t more companies doing it? And when many do try, why is the effort so often a flop?

Many times, the effort is impeded by already-broken trust. Companies with strong employee engagement rarely need to launch formal engagement programs--their high-trust culture is already the way that they do things. More often, it’s the organization diving into “engagement” that’s knee-deep in disengagement and distrust.

Organizational behavior researchers Sandra Sucher and Shalene Gupta published a paper in 2019, Broken Trust, in which they detail how a company can build back trust with its stakeholders. Sucher and Gupta point out that understanding employee engagement and trust depends on understanding the neurobiology of how these are objectively generated in human beings, citing research led by neuroscientist Paul J. Zak, whose research examined a mathematical relationship between the level of trust in an organization and the level of performance. He established that employees in high-trust organizations:

  • are more productive
  • have more energy at work
  • collaborate better with their colleagues
  • stay with their employer longer
  • suffer less chronic stress
  • are happier with their personal lives

In How Our Brains Decide When to Trust, Zak details his research in extensively measuring neurotransmitter activity and blood hormone levels during the strategic decision-making battery developed for use in laboratory settings by Vernon Smith, Nobel Prize laureate in Economics. Zak applied the same framework to field research in actual business situations. Compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies reported: 74 percent less stress, 106 percent more energy at work, 50 percent higher productivity, 13 percent fewer sick days, 76 percent more engagement, 29 percent more satisfied with their lives, and 40 percent less burnout.


These are positive statistics for the folks at high-trust companies, but we just pointed out that most engagement efforts flop. How do we establish trust and engage our people?

By finally understanding the neurobiological indicators of our psychological makeup when we are inclined to trust, Zak was able to isolate the signals in employees' brains when their managers and leaders engaged in behaviors that increased trust. In other words, this research was able to pinpoint in real-time exactly what managers should be doing to foster trust. And what managers do that erodes it.

There are eight factors that are essentially a playbook for building trusting relationships with your people: 

  • Recognizing excellence
  • Challenging people
  • Granting work discretion
  • Allowing job crafting
  • Broad transparency of information
  • Intentional relationship building
  • Facilitating whole-person growth
  • Showing vulnerability

Approaches to building these eight dimensions of trust and engagement vary so widely that it can be difficult for leaders to know who to trust. Here is ours:

Recognizing excellence.

This one needs no biological explanation. Celebrating wins, even little ones, is incredibly important to fostering a performance culture. Making a very big deal about the right behaviors and efforts on a frequent and predictable basis is an excellent way to place the values of an organization on display for all of your employees. It is a demonstration of leadership “putting their money where their mouth is” and aligning words with actions. This builds trust.

Challenging people.

We all have an innate need to achieve. Meeting goals triggers trust-building neurobiological responses for all involved. Rather than micromanaging performance results, set clear expectations for your workforce at the onset of an effort. The expectations you lay out for your employees should challenge them to rally around an attainable and unambiguous goal--even better if it requires that the team work together; this is an extraordinarily effective way to engage them. To do this, we must move away from vague demands like “productivity,” “performance,” “throughput,” and other non-specific achievements. If a goal is vague or too difficult to achieve, people will give up before they even start.


Granting work discretion.

Challenging our people to achieve goals is only the beginning. The key to strong engagement is allowing employees the autonomy to decide their own methods. Set the expectation for the outcome in conjunction with them, then let go. Experienced professionals will generally find the best way to do something without your help. As Steve Jobs said, “Hire intelligent people, then get out of their way.” If expectations aren’t met, leaders can then re-engage with their people and provide input on methods before stepping away again. We think you’ll be surprised at the results you’ll see when you give your employees some choice in the way they work.


Another advantage of this approach is that it fosters innovation. Controlling work methods stifles creativity. Some of us might remember Stanley, the autonomous vehicle that completed the DARPA Mojave desert challenge. After several years and substantial investment in a tightly controlled contract with major automakers to design an autonomous vehicle that could perform in combat environments, the Department of Defense ended the contract and started a contest. It offered a large financial reward to anyone who could accomplish a clear set of expectations for the autonomous vehicle. A short time later, a team of Stanford University students accomplished the objective.

Allowing job crafting.

The highly defined roles found in today’s corporate environments are fallout from the Industrial Revolution: employees were slotted into very narrow and repetitive functions in environments like assembly lines. Coupled with the annual performance review--based on a rigid set of responsibilities within an employee’s function--the Human Resources thinking of past decades hasn’t quite let go of something that tends to do more harm than good to company results.

Pivoting our thinking about the roles within our organization away from a set of responsibilities and toward accountability for outcomes allows our people to contribute in a way that is extremely valuable to them: designing their own role. If they agree with the organization’s direction, accountability for certain tangible outcomes, and what they’re responsible for keeping on track for the organization, what’s left for a leader to do other than let the employee design how they want to accomplish that?

Broad transparency of information.

Even high-trust organizations can struggle with communication and transparency. With a full plate of accountability for other items, it can be difficult for leaders and organizations in general to dedicate themselves to maintaining the daily share-out of information that employees need and expect.

Building 360-degree communication practices into the beginning, middle, and end of every decision, initiative, or project is how organizations become effective at transparency. These practices must extend beyond the “need-to-knows” and embrace the assertion that every employee is a stakeholder in everything the organization is doing. Assume every employee wants to be as informed as you are as the leader.


At the team level, Gallup surveyed 2.5 million manager-led teams, and their feedback was overwhelming: employees expect daily one-on-one communication with the manager they report to. This is where we should seek to set the bar.

Intentional relationship building.

Here’s where we really upend traditional workplace relationship ideology: the stronger the social connections among employees in your organization, the more productive they become. This flies in the face of the traditional supervisory mantra, “You’re here to work, not to make friends.” And it’s not just lab research that bears this out. In 2006, Google brought in Laszlo Bock as Chief People Operations Officer, and under his leadership, the People Ops department launched Project Oxygen, a study of manager effectiveness. The study found, among other insights, that teams led by managers who routinely “express interest in and concern for team members’ personal lives and well-being” outperformed teams where the manager did not.

Similarly, a study of Silicon Valley technical engineers by Adam Grant, a top professor at The Wharton School, showed that engineers who built strong social connections with their co-workers were not only more likely to contribute more in collaborative projects but were more productive as individuals as well.


The takeaway here is that when an organization makes frequent and genuine efforts to foster social connections between its employees, it has an extremely positive impact on business performance.

Facilitating whole-person growth.

We’ve written elsewhere about the importance of approaching employees as whole persons. The other seven categories here are not entirely distinct from this. Daily conversations with reports, intentionally building personal relationships and recognizing employees for contributions go a long way toward supporting the whole person. Ensuring that you develop knowledge and genuine interest in the personal growth of your people is key.


Likewise, treating your people as individuals with aspirations, career goals, and learning needs beyond their current role is also important. Managers should avoid boxing a whole human being into the narrow definition of what they contribute to the company based only on a job description. Would you like to be viewed only through the lens of your supervisory role? A healthy dose of the golden rule is really all it takes for a manager to start being effective in this dimension.

Showing vulnerability.

One of the most difficult and non-traditional items on this list for leadership is showing vulnerability. A good place to start is to practice asking for help from employees rather than giving direction. Identify an outcome you’d like to pursue and spark their desire to collaborate with you on the effort.


Another powerful display of vulnerability is to openly acknowledge the truth: you don’t know everything. Hierarchy or title doesn’t make us the expert in all things. We should engage with the people closest to the work--the real experts--and openly defer to their expertise. At best, managers who fear being perceived as anything other than the top expert are doomed to lose respect and trust from their frontline employees who often have far more specialized (or at least fresher) knowledge. At worst, managers giving direction from this place of fear are oblivious to their own blind spots, which can damage the business or even jeopardize the safety of employees.

Building a strong foundation.

Creating and maintaining practices along these eight dimensions into the day-to-day fabric of your organization will show performance improvements swiftly and consistently. It should be clear at this point that these items are building blocks; they are interdependent and build upon the other seven. It is difficult to remove one from the rest. That said, PwC’s research revealed that the worst-performing organizations typically had the lowest scores on recognition and transparency. So, if you are looking for a place to start building--those may be the best two areas.

Do you have questions about employee engagement or lack thereof? We can help get your building blocks set up. To learn more, schedule a consult with Wayforward today.

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