Sustaining a Culture of Engagement with Behavioral Science

If you manage a team or hold a leadership role in an organization, you may already know the benefits of maintaining high engagement. Highly engaged teams are correlated with lower rates of attrition, improved collaboration, innovation, safety, quality, and productivity. You may also know that maintaining engagement is no simple feat. I recently heard an executive describe the experience of trying to maintain engagement as feeling like Sisyphus, rolling a boulder uphill, knowing it will inevitably come tumbling back down (hopefully not taking you with it.) 

Engagement on the decline

Unfortunately, what was already a difficult endeavor is only getting harder as employee engagement levels continue to fall. Nationwide, engagement levels have declined since the height of the pandemic in 2020. Gallup polling found that by the end of the first quarter of 2024, only 30% of employees reported being highly engaged at work. That’s down from 33% at the end of 2023. The survey data indicate that the decrease in engagement was particularly pronounced among remote, hybrid, and younger workers. 

Signs and symptoms of disengagement

The engagement survey data are supported by anecdotes and work trends. I’m sure many readers are familiar with the quiet quitting phenomenon – if not, you can read up here. Now the discourse has shifted to quiet vacationing. That conversation was ignited by a Harris Poll which found that 28% of respondents admitted to taking time off without communicating it to their manager/employer. The practice was most prevalent among millennial workers, with 37% admitting they’ve been out of the office without it being “official.” 

In addition to quiet quitting and vacationing, workers also admit to other forms of productivity theatre. In the same Harris poll referenced earlier, 31% of workers admit to having moved their mouse to maintain online status, and 37% say that they’ve scheduled a message to send outside of regular hours to give the impression they’re working late. There are whole social media accounts that encourage and enable folks to use sneaky tactics like these to deceive employers by providing rationalizations, tips, and resources. 

Stay engaged…or else 

Leaders have taken several different approaches while reacting to low engagement or active disengagement in the workplace. One common approach is to step up employee surveillance efforts and dole out negative consequences when employees are caught idling or attempting to game the system. Notably, Wells Fargo disclosed that the company terminated over a dozen employees last month after an internal investigation revealed the use of mouse jigglers to create the impression of active work. 

Alternatively, managers may end up disengaging themselves in response. In fact, Gallup insights found that managers reported being less engaged themselves than non-managers. Many managers cite experiencing increased responsibilities, tighter budgets, and newer teams over the past few years as factors contributing to their disengagement. The conditions have led many to quit and leave or quit and stay – both costly scenarios from a business standpoint. 

We can do better

Some organizations stand out as having maintained or increased engagement following the pandemic. These organizations exist across industries and have as high as 70% of employees reporting that they are highly engaged. As you may have guessed, this doesn’t happen by accident. It’s the result of deliberate planning and execution by leadership to create an environment that people actually enjoy – an environment that makes them want to give more than the bare minimum. Given the steady overall engagement slump and the costs that come along with it, here are some more positive and sustainable alternatives to cracking down that are worth exploring. 

Seek understanding before reacting

If you’re experiencing the negative effects of a disengaged culture, it can be tempting to take swift action without pausing to fully take stock of the situation. But acting without a nuanced appreciation of the likely impact of your actions can exacerbate the problem. Take the Wells Fargo mouse jiggler case as an example. Common sense might tell you that cracking down on the use of surveillance workarounds is the most straightforward path to keeping people on task. In reality, it’s likely to be a temporary “solution” at best. Sure, you’ve stopped the undesired behavior of the people that were caught, but what message does that send to the rest of the team? To them, the message is “Stay engaged…or else.” That “do it or else” approach to management is what behavioral scientists call negative reinforcement – the use of fear and intimidation to force compliance. It’s the same management strategy that cost the company $3 billion to settle probes into fraudulent sales practices driven by leadership coercion. This “hair of the dog” approach may mask the symptoms temporarily but will only exacerbate the underlying engagement problems that result from leading with negative reinforcement. 

Measure engagement and eliminate barriers 

If you aren’t experiencing any engagement issues and think your team is already highly engaged, you might want to rethink that assumption. There is a notable disconnect between employer perceptions and what employees really think. One survey found that 83% of responding leaders believed their workforce was fully engaged, while only 48% of employees categorized themselves the same way. Despite this gap in perceptions of engagement, fewer than half of employers report conducting an engagement survey in the past two years. An annual survey can help bridge that gap while also supplying leaders with valuable insight into what factors employees believe inhibit them from bringing their best every day. Leaders can then take steps to remove barriers and demonstrate through meaningful action that their employees’ voices matter.

Clarify expectations

Gallup polling found that across all age groups, the percentage of workers who know what is expected of them at work has declined by at least four points since March 2020. This indicates a widespread lack of clarity and alignment. A good first step toward building a more engaged workforce is to define, or pinpoint, exactly what “good” looks and sounds like. In broad terms, engagement might be defined as individuals going above and beyond the minimum requirements of the job. Ask yourself – What behaviors would you expect to see or hear more often (or at all) that would tell you that people are highly engaged in their work? When I pose this question to leaders, I often get single word responses like communication, problem-solving, ownership, etc. That’s a start, but not quite the level of specificity needed to truly drive change. High-level descriptions of behavior leave plenty of grey area for interpretation. This invites assumptions, misinterpretations, frustration, and ultimately disengagement. 

Focus on what you want

Once you’ve clearly defined what “engaged” looks like, focus on encouraging those desired behaviors. Many leaders fall into the trap of doing the opposite – recognizing what they don’t want and taking steps to decrease or punish those behaviors without encouraging the desired alternative. For example, you could spend months trying to build a professional work environment by critiquing an employee’s subpar customer interactions, teamwork, communication style. You may gain some ground but also run the risk of damaging your relationship with that individual along the way, prompting disengagement. Ultimately, you cannot punish your way to excellence.  

To tackle the issue, many companies have pinpointed expectations around professionalism and offered workplace etiquette training. These courses can provide a common understanding of professionalism and specify expectations around writing professional emails, appropriate in-office banter, and dressing for a professional environment. Just remember, even the best training will jumpstart behaviors but not necessarily sustain them. Leaders should also be trained to be effective coaches that help employees transfer what they learned in training to their daily work. 

The bottom line

It’s evident that maintaining engagement at work is hard, and it’s only getting harder. As companies reactively attempt to tighten their grip, more employees may jump ship or mentally check out. When surveillance and coercion are the go-to people management strategies, the expectation of maintaining a highly engaged workforce can feel absurd. Organizations must equip leaders to become architects and drivers of a culture that intentionally promotes engagement. There are many ways to get there, but leveraging a science-based approach can help ensure that you stay there. 

Posted by Brian Molina, Ph.D.

Brian has been in the field of Behavioral Science for over 8 years. He has helped organizations improve their operations and service delivery by assessing performance and implementing learning and performance solutions to drive desired outcomes. He has broad experience partnering with business, non-profit, and public sector entities.