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Why Engagement Efforts Sometimes Fail and What You Can Do About It — Part II


Part I explored the origins of employee engagement efforts, and identified some pioneering companies that enjoyed early successes. However, some early adopters of engagement practices have since shrunk or disappeared entirely. The first part identified three major causes of employee engagement failures at the organization-wide level – bad strategy, poor integration, and the inability to transfer learning. In Part II, we look at three fundamental sources of employee engagement failure at the work team level and suggest some remedies.

While many engagement efforts fail at the company level, successful employee involvement also requires healthy work teams.  Employee engagement fails to take hold or deteriorates within a team for a variety of reasons, but if we look for commonalities and patterns, we really find just three fundamental sources of engagement failure:

  • A failure of team leadership — lack of support, consistent direction, vision, budget, or resources
  • A failure of team focus — lack of clarity about team purpose, roles, responsibilities, strategies, and goals
  • A failure of team capability — lack of critical skill sets, knowledge, ongoing learning, and development
This model is helpful in quickly diagnosing the cause of the problem (and/or anticipating possible issues that could hurt an engagement effort), and it helps pinpoint the means for corrective action. In a problem related to leadership, for example, the target is usually the leader, and the solution often involves providing coaching, personal development, or succession planning. A failure of focus is typically linked to improving communication and clarifying goals, responsibilities, and expectations. A failure of capability can often be overcome by focused development or bringing in new skills and knowledge to the team.

Consider the following examples of actions that hurt employee engagement and some possible remedies: 

Change in leadership

Situation: A new leader with a very different philosophy and approach stunts the team’s development and is seen as a source of great angst among team members, especially as he or she begins to micromanage activities.

Remedy: Engage team members in helping with the selection process of team leaders. Include an orientation process whereby new leaders become familiar with how the team has operated, its existing operating guidelines, and team member expectations of the team leader.

Lack of vision and overall direction

Situation: The team leader has not articulated—or cannot articulate—a clear picture of where the team needs to be in the future. Given the tremendous potential they can see, team members are becoming frustrated by the lack of clarity about where the team is headed.

Remedy: As the team leader, gain broad team involvement in describing a desired future. Define a process whereby team members are able to provide input into the team vision and are involved in establishing the action plans for achieving it.  

Team lacks clarity of direction

Situation: Team members are unclear about the team’s purpose and expend tremendous energy and time engaging in discussions and activities that do not relate to key performance goals.

Remedy: Have the team clearly define its charter. Include a clear definition of team purpose, team membership, performance expectations, and critical timelines.

Lack of role clarity

Situation: Team members lack clarity about how they can best contribute to the team. Some members feel they do not have a meaningful role and cannot make meaningful contributions.

Remedy: A process is defined in which the team defines its goals and links each team member’s roles and responsibilities to the achievement of those goals. Team members leave the session with clarity about what they individually and collectively need to focus on to help the team be successful. 

Varied team member contributions

Situation: A few team members do a disproportionate amount of work. The lack of work balance is affecting team member morale.

Remedy: Highlight the need for a better work balance. Ensure all team members have the necessary job skills, and provide training and development if they do not. Where applicable, begin cross-training on jobs to broaden overall team capability.

Poor teamwork habits

Situation: Team meetings are poorly run, and the team has difficulty making decisions and solving problems.

Remedy: Provide training and development in the basics of team effectiveness, including running effective meetings, defining a decision-making process and applying it, and employing a disciplined problem-solving methodology.


Without question, engagement will continue to be a central part of the modern manager’s competitive arsenal. Committed and involved people achieve a stunning performance advantage. But any engagement process is only as good as the foundation on which it is built. That foundation includes effective leadership, clarity of focus, and strong capability. Without these fundamentals, a team could find itself trapped in underperformance and team member frustration.  

© 2015 by Rayner & Associates, Inc. Used by Overland Resource Group with permission.

Steven R. Rayner is an author/co-author of seven books on topics related to high-performance work systems, change leadership, and culture change and is a leading consultant on these same topics. He is founder of Rayner & Associates, Inc. Steve can be reached at: 

Topics: Collaboration Labor Management Leadership