Got Employee Engagement Problems?

Employee Engagement

Those words get thrown around like candy at a parade…but I wonder if people really know what they mean.

I refer to employee engagement as the “give a darn factor” and have, for nearly my entire career, been paying attention to those employees who do and who do not give a darn.

I have noticed a rise in clients who are struggling with employee engagement. Their stories are varied but they all have the same theme: individuals or entire teams are complacent or apathetic towards their work.

Gallup recently published its “State of American Workplace” report showing that roughly half of America’s workforce is simply showing up; the employees are not fully engaged. Moreover, only 1/3 of our workforce appears to be fully engaged. The remaining employees? They are, unfortunately, actively engaged with sabotaging or otherwise undermining the work.

Gallup’s survey and subsequent report has been consistent over the past decade, which suggests that businesses have been and continue to struggle with turning this boat around.

Businesses often turn to consulting firms such as ours to “solve this problem” but the fact is, we can only assess it, highlight some obvious problem areas, help develop some strategies and enable their execution, and re-asses it in the future. Because so many business leaders have grown accustomed to quick solutions and/or having people fix things for them, they aren’t pleased with our systematic, sometimes time consuming and always self-reflective approach.

Notwithstanding my insistence that Rome wasn’t built in a day, today I will propose an employee engagement solution that, while it seems cheesy at first, will likely yield an incredible and speedy result.

 The Five Love Languages

(Chapman, Gary. (1992). The Five Love Languages, How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. Chicago, Northfield Publishing)

I love this book. I read the book over a decade ago and it changed my life both personally and professionally. I believe the secret to leadership and employee engagement lies within this book: speak your employees’ language and they will reciprocate with engagement, commitment, and hard work.

Mr. Chapman tells us we have the capacity to speak five different languages when showing love to others. Likewise, we interpret, translate and subsequently infer from the actions and behaviors of others based on the specific language we speak.

Please note, if the thought of “love” in the workplace makes you uncomfortable, relax. Translate, for professional purposes, the word love to appreciation or value.

Below are some examples highlighting how this concept pans out at work and how it may directly affect someone’s engagement.


“Touch” employees appreciate a pat on the back or a good handshake for a job well done. To them, reaching over to touch their hand during a conversation is the same as saying they are an active and relevant part of the discussion. Offering a brief hug to a “touch” employee when you’ve learned he/she has had a difficult day will typically communicate you care and are sorry about the circumstance he/she is in. Employees who feel they are cared for will reciprocate by caring about their work.

Likewise, withholding touch from staff who speak this language, whether intentionally or unintentionally, is equivalent to saying they aren’t valued. Moreover, using touch inappropriately or offensively is twice as damning to a person who speaks this language as it is to someone who doesn’t.

Words of Affirmation

“Words of Affirmation” employees appreciate mindful positive communication, feedback and recognition. They are re-energized with simple “thank yous” and like to know exactly what prompted your recognition. These folks shouldn’t be considered “attention getters”! They aren’t soliciting praise and recognition; they are, however, highly appreciative when they get it, and will almost always continue the behavior and performance that spurred it on.

Using sarcasm or antagonistic communication with these folks will have negative results. They greatly value words so when you use them to cut or hurt them or others, they will become distrustful of you and/or demoralized by you. The result of this is, of course, disengagement.


“Service” employees appreciate small acts of labor or favors of some kind. For example, they feel valued when their leaders take a moment to work alongside them or when teammates offer to pick up the slack or help out during crunch time. They abide by the “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” philosophy and are often re-energized when they have the ability to do someone a favor and/or when they are a recipient of such service.

On the other hand, when leaders or teammates fail to chip in, fail to follow through on a promise to help, or otherwise communicate they are “above” the work, the “service” employee believes the real message is that he/she is not important. This has a de-motivating and demoralizing affect on these types of employees and almost always results in disengagement.

Quality Time

“Quality time” employees appreciate a person’s mindful attention. They like it when their peers and leaders face them, make eye contact and are otherwise truly present during the interaction. They value those who set aside one-on-one time for them and will often do whatever they can to demonstrate their appreciation. The result of this is a loyal, dependable, accountable and engaged employee.

With everyone doing more with less and attempting to multi-task in today’s world, “quality time” employees can often feel left behind and unimportant. Leaders who can’t discipline themselves to put down the phone, turn away from the keyboard, etc., will create a disconnect with “quality time” employees.  Disconnected employees will have little to no motivation to add value and engage with their work.


“Gifts” employees value the offering. This is not to be confused with caring about the value – it’s not a materialistic need or objective. Rather, it’s the thoughtfulness behind the gift that offers the value. A memorable token, a handwritten card of thanks, or a funny poem reminding the employee of a great accomplishment are all incredibly valuable to a “gift” employee. These investments, while not requiring more than a few dollars or few minutes for the giver, will be returned in spades as quality work and engagement.

On the other hand, when “gift” employees receive a generic present such as a mass produced card with an electronic signature of thanks, they quickly assume they aren’t worth much more than the paper it is printed on. Or when someone teases or otherwise pokes fun at a “gifts” employee’s collection of tokens or thoughtful little knickknacks, he/she is inadvertently telling the “gift” employee that these tokens are stupid and worthless, thus communicating that the employee is also not very valuable.

In summary, the Gallup report clearly states our employees are not engaged. It goes on to quantify the effects of disengagement and offers a multitude of additional assessment, activities and strategies leaders can execute to raise the “give a darn” factor. I agree with most everything in this report. However, may I offer you a quicker, more executable and perhaps a more sustainable solution?

Become a linguist!

Read The 5 Love Languages, pay attention to what language your employees are speaking, and adapt your words and behavior accordingly.

About the Author

Heather Kinzie, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, GPHR, serves as the Chief Operating Officer for The Strive Group. With more than 20 years of organizational and workforce performance experience, Kinzie offers consulting, coaching, content development and ltraining to clients. She oversees a team of experts who utilize a broad, systematic approach to problem solving and consultation. Recognizing the critical importance of leadership, communication and effective collaboration among teams, Kinzie is committed to helping clients improve communication, engagement and organizational performance.

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