The One Thing to Know about Gallup’s New State of the Workplace Report


[First published Feb 27, 2017]

The just-updated Gallup State of the American Workplace report is out, all 214 pages of it. And we’ll be quoting its employee engagement factoids and workplace trends non-stop as we have with its 2012 predecessor. (Spoiler alert: engagement rate is stagnant from the 2012 report, with still only a third of U.S. employees engaged; 51% indifferent; and 16% actively working against the organization.) It’s a valuable accounting of what matters and works (and doesn’t), and do read it all when you can.

I’ve read the whole thing and was in the process of summarizing it for myself and my clients but realized two things. First, there’s a great executive summary and the report is a well-organized, fairly quick read. My work is done.

But second, and more important:

My big aha is that everything will get better – all aspects of employee engagement and workplace performance – if we treat employees like the human individuals they are. As people first, rather than as heatmap colors, members of cohorts or generations or as dispensable labor units. Of course, no one would intentionally relegate employees to such inhuman status, but as you read the Gallup report, you will see that at the heart of every single success driver is, well, a beating heart that's being underserved. And organizations are doing everything but feeding and nourishing and helping those hearts thrive. Or, the diligent and well-intentioned are shooting themselves in the foot by under- or mis-communicating what they are really offering.

Let me advocate for more heart with a few human-centric examples:

“I want to believe in something worthy of my talent and time, a reason to get up in the morning, and to feel a connection to the people leading me.”
“Data reveal an unsettling pattern in the US workplace. Employees have little belief in their company’s leadership.” Only 22% strongly believe the leadership of their organization has a clear direction for the organization, and only 15% strongly agree their leadership makes them enthusiastic about the future; a paltry 13% strongly agree leadership communicates effectively with the rest of the organization. Wow. Time for leaders to up their game to define and convey a vision worthy of their people, in ways they can understand and believe.

“Help me build a better life.”
Free lunch and puppies and pool tables are nice. But “The benefits and perks that employees truly care about are those that offer them greater flexibility, autonomy and the ability to lead a better life” for themselves and their families. And most companies do offer policies to support work/life balance, benefits contributing to financial security (e.g., 401K) and learning and development opportunities. But the way most HR departments communicate the plethora of benefits is confusing and overwhelming rather than motivating. Companies are underselling the very benefits and perks that mean the most.

“Don’t boss me; coach me.”
It’s an innate part of being human to want to learn, grow, develop. (Think Maslow’s hierarchy.) But most performance management systems and manager-employee conversations focus more on fixing weaknesses than building on the unique strengths of each person. Note that only 21% of employees said their performance is managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work. Good lord. Don’t get me wrong: accountability and achieving targets is critical, but the research confirms better outcomes when performance management shifts to a performance development mindset.

“Tell me again why I should join… or stay?”
The report documents a new level of employee confidence that they have options beyond their current employer. In 2012, 19% of employees said it was a good time to find a quality job; in 2016, that rate jumped to 42%. Indeed, 51% of U.S. employees say they are actively looking for a new job or watching for openings -- and 37% of engaged employees are looking/watching! The risk of losing valuable current employees and attracting the best new candidates is compounded by many organizations being way off target in how they define and communicate their employee value proposition (EVP) and employer brand. (See more in the aptly named “Do Employees Want What Your Workplace Is Selling?” section.)

“More clarity, less complexity, more connection, please.”
Complexity, silos and anonymity are engagement-killers. Note that employee engagement is lowest among the largest companies, at 29%; companies with fewer than 25 employees have the highest engagement at 41%. The 1,000 employee mark seems to be the tipping point for declining engagement within a company. “The larger an organization, the greater the chance of inconsistency and misalignment. Workers may feel like just another number with no understanding of how their role connects to the company’s vision or strategies. In small companies, people are more likely to know each other and the leaders of the organization — they know how all the pieces fit together and understand the value of their role.” This is another place where leadership and manager communication can make a huge difference – if done with employees’ hearts and minds in mind.

The bad news is that since Gallup’s last report in 2012, it’s still true that only a third of American workers are really making a difference for their employers and feeling good at work. The good news is it’s clearer than ever what to do about this productivity-sapping state of affairs -- and how dramatically business performance improves when leaders do take action. It all starts with the most basic concept: treat your employees as the people they truly are and everyone wins.