Wondering How To Improve Employee Engagement? Remove These 5 Barriers

By Gena Cox, PhD - June 10, 2020

Although managing fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic is currently at the forefront of business leaders’ attention, we all look forward to the day when we can to return to some sense of normalcy. Many of the observations in the following article are applicable to employee listening strategies during the pandemic, but if you are interested in learning more about organizational response specific to COVID-19, there are several articles on our blog with insights about helping employees navigate this unprecedented situation.


The internet is awash with articles and listicles of ideas about how to improve employee engagement. Engagement is a hot topic—every organization wants to find methods for driving or improving employee engagement, because it is so closely tied to enhanced employee productivity and retention. Research shows that having a highly engaged workforce translates into higher customer satisfaction, productivity, profit, employee turnover, and fewer accidents. Any organization that can achieve and maintain high levels of employee engagement will have a competitive edge.

Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses are facing new challenges in engaging employees who are working from dispersed locations or dealing with new work processes and safety protocols; these new circumstances will require new ways of building and maintaining connection with employees.

But here’s the thing: well-intentioned organizations sometimes miss the mark when it comes to enhancing the employee experience. The process for creating, improving, or maintaining employee engagement can’t be boiled down to a list of fun activities. As we noted in a previous article, engagement is an outcome of the entire employee experience; it can’t be generated with the occasional virtual happy hour, free pizza lunch, virtual book clubs, ping pong tables in the breakroom, or any other quick fix. Nice perks for employees are no substitute for a fulfilling work experience. (Tweet this!)

In this article, we’ll examine what truly constitutes employee engagement, share ideas for improving employee engagement, and examine the five most common barriers to employee engagement revealed in our research.

How To Improve Employee Engagement: Adopt An Employee Perspective

Any attempt to engage employees needs to start by considering the employee perspective first.

Think about the individual doing his or her job—that person desires certain things from the work experience, both for themself and for their colleagues. The organization is an ecosystem, and each employee within it has to find ways to meet their needs within that ecosystem. Respect, manager relationship, teamwork and collaboration, inclusion, opportunity for growth, and strategic clarity are the currency of employee engagement within an ecosystem. If these are not effectively provided, they will instead become barriers to engagement.

To identify barriers to engagement at your organization, you have to ask the right questions. Develop the right listening strategy for your company with our free guide, Continuous Listening: Developing The Right Strategy For Your Organization.

Removing Barriers: The Best Method Of Improving Employee Engagement

Our perspective is that organizations do not “drive” engagement; employees drive their own engagement—but only when those things that are preventing or limiting engagement—barriers—are removed from their way. We look at engagement as an engine, where employees’ ability to anticipate success leads to their discretionary application of effort, leading to better outcomes and the anticipation of further success. It’s a virtuous cycle that, once set into motion, helps to sustain itself. Our goal is to kick-start that engine to get the virtuous cycle spinning.

A great example of what engagement looks like can be found in the movie Cool Runnings, documenting the experience of the Jamaican national bobsled team that first competed in the 1988 WInter Olympics. The team had a shared goal of competing in the Winter Olympics on behalf of their country, Jamaica. Whether they won or not, and even as certain underdogs, each team member wanted to compete. Each member was enthusiastic about the goal, engaged with the vision, and willing to contribute the discretionary effort needed to support their audacious goal. That is what engagement looks and feels like. The team members also needed respect and recognition from their fans (so they could feel valued), training and coaching so they could improve their skills, resources for training, travel, equipment, etc. Without that support, even though highly engaged, they might not have achieved their goal.

Think about the role organizational leaders play in providing (or not providing) the support that gets wrapped around employee engagement. Employees are usually highly engaged when they join organizations. Their engagement will decline unless managers provide the needed support and remove the barriers to engagement. Any organization can make employees feel as supported as the Jamaiacan bobsledders. The 1988 Jamaican bobsled team did not win any medals at the Winter Olympics, but they succeeded at goal number one: competing, against the odds, in an alpine sport. That outcome was engaging enough to lead to even more engagement and success. We know this because, to this day, Jamaica has a national bobsled team that doggedly continues the pursuit of Olympic gold!

In much the same way as the bobsledders, employees rely on the organization to provide resources and support, and to remove the obstacles to success. The organization’s role is to clear the path and make it easier for employees to achieve the success they desire. While employee engagement is a more complex challenge than can be addressed with quick fixes like pizza and ping pong tables, organizations do have the power to positively impact employee engagement.

In the end, the solution is not “driving” engagement into people, but rather removing barriers that stand in the way of engagement. Not only is this a more effective strategy for enhancing employee engagement, it also puts the employee experience at the center. Through this approach, organizations can help employees see the way forward to success, both for themselves and the organization.

The 5 Top Barriers To Employee Engagement

Since the most effective way to improve engagement is to remove the barriers that keep employees from engaging, identifying those barriers should be the first step in any effort to increase engagement. Several barriers may exist within an organization, and those barriers may have different effects on different employee groups. The way to identify those barriers is by asking employees for their feedback; employee surveys are very effective for this purpose.

From our research, we’ve identified the following as the most common barriers to engagement for employees in all types and sizes of organizations:

  1. The employee’s perception that they are not valued by the organization. Everyone wants to feel like they are valued for their unique contributions. A big part of helping people feel valued is giving them a voice and letting them know their opinions are welcome, are heard, and are used to guide leaders’ decisions. The perception of being heard allows employees to see themselves as partners in building the organization’s future. Surveys can help communicate to employees that their input is valued—but only if leadership demonstrates that they actually listened by taking action to address employee concerns.

    During times of disruption—for example, the current COVID-19 pandemic—it becomes even more important to give employees communication channels for expressing their ideas. This is a great way to reassure employees of their continuing value to the organization, and also enables the organization to benefit from employees’ ideas. By asking for feedback and truly listening, the organization and employees can see their way forward, together, to the new normal beyond the disruption.

  2. A poor relationship with the manager. There is some overlap between the manager relationship and the employee’s need to feel valued. As the most direct connection between the employee and the organization, the manager has a large influence on whether employees feel valued. Managers who show care and concern, who recognize employees’ contributions, and who give timely and constructive performance feedback, are enhancing the employee’s connection to the organization. Employees also look to managers to exhibit and model behaviors that contribute to team success and communicate the expectation of continued success in the future. Employees whose managers fail to exhibit these behaviors are unlikely to be highly engaged.

  3. A lack of teamwork. The way people work together in an organization has a big impact on engagement. Employees want to feel they are working with people who are honest and trustworthy. If an employee routinely fails to get requested support or resources from their co-workers or other departments, the employee will feel disrespected, and ultimately, devalued. When people within the organization don’t treat one another like partners who are working toward a common goal, engagement can be stifled.

  4. A perception of lack of opportunity for growth and development. In order to be engaged, employees have to be able to see the way forward in their own careers and anticipate future professional success. If employees can see the opportunity for training, career development, lateral movements, or promotion—if the organization creates a path that makes professional growth possible— employees are likely to be more engaged.

    If, on the other hand, an employee approaches his or her manager to discuss training or development options, and is told “wait until next year,” or the employee has never seen anyone promoted from within the organization, the perception of a lack of opportunity can be a barrier to engagement. During times of crises, organizations may have to curtail or re-prioritize their talent development activities. This does not necessarily have to result in a decline in employee engagement. In these situations, if organizations explain the reasons why, for example, they are temporarily curtailing promotions or transfers, employees may be disappointed but they can still feel respected. When the crisis passes though, the organization must be sure to re-communicate the new plan so employees who have been waiting will not feel left out. Anything else will become a barrier to trust and ultimately to employee engagement. Engagement can remain strong even when employees cannot have everything they desire in the moment, as long as they trust their leaders.

  5. A lack of trust in leadership. Senior leadership can really impact employee perceptions. If employees understand the vision and strategy for the organization, they will see how their own work supports progress towards success. Leaders who clearly model the organization’s values will also positively impact engagement. If leaders fail to behave ethically, fail to communicate openly, or fail to be inclusive, these leaders will become, through their own behavior, barriers to engagement. Employees are looking for leadership that will take them toward success, and they expect their leaders to demonstrate those behaviors that are required to get them there.

Using Surveys To Identify Barriers To Engagement

Surveys provide organizations with the means to identify the specific barriers standing in the way of engagement across the company, or in particular business units, locations, or departments. It is typical to find that some barriers to engagement are felt by all employees, regardless of where they sit in the organization. It is also true that there could be unique barriers to engagement within certain parts of the organization and within certain employee groups (for example, newer employees versus those with longer tenure).

A continuous listening program with surveys that measure and track employee perceptions about these common and unique issues over time will help the organization understand if these issues are sustained barriers to engagement, or if their negative impact was limited to a certain point in time.

Once the barriers to engagement are clearly identified through the survey, the organization can create and implement differentiated actions to remove them. Tips for removing identified barriers can be found in this previous article.

A comprehensive listening program gives leaders the information they need to see the way forward to increasing employee engagement—and ultimately, to reaping the productivity and profitability benefits of a highly engaged workforce.

See the way forward to higher engagement.

The Perceptyx platform gives you the flexibility to develop a listening strategy that fits the needs of your organization, and identify the barriers blocking engagement. Combined with support from our analytics experts, our platform can help you keep your finger on the pulse of your people’s needs, so you can provide the support they need to become fully engaged. Get in touch to see how we can help your organization increase engagement—and profitability.

Download Now: Continuous Listening: A Guide To Developing The Right Listening Strategy For Your Organization

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