What if I told you that one new initiative could increase employee productivity and almost immediately put money back into company coffers? Does that sound too good to be true?

Employee engagement is the answer – and you hold the key. Your direct leadership can inspire employees and make my promise a reality. If you’re balking right now, well, I did not say it would be easy.

Before you consider clicking away, let me urge you to contemplate new data from Gallup that backs up my personal experience working with hundreds of leaders and executive leadership groups across the globe: Your teams are not engaged – that’s troubling – but the “actively disengaged” are costing you a lot of money. In the United States, that loss is to the tune of $1.9 trillion each year.

If the “trillion” figure isn’t bad enough, the lack of employee engagement is startling. A slim 32% of employees are engaged in the U.S. and just 23% of employees worldwide. How many trillions of dollars is that costing businesses? More importantly, what’s your share of that total?

Where does this hurt your pocketbook the most? According to Gallup, “engaged employees produce better business outcomes than other employees – across industry, company size, and nationality, and in good economic times and bad.” Not only is two-thirds of your workforce not “engaged,” but think about the demands that fall on the minority who are. They are forced to carry the load and pick up the slack for teammates and colleagues each and every day.

Like I said – not an easy task. As a leader, you’re confronting a situation in which the ratio of “engaged to actively disengaged workers in the U.S. is 2.1-to-1.” Simultaneously (or perhaps despite this fact), your responsibility as CEO is to nurture a workplace culture where every employee feels valued, heard, and empowered to contribute their best work.

Quite a conundrum.

My goal is not only to alert you to the challenge leaders are facing regarding employee engagement, but also to share my CEO cheat code to build a better culture through actionable steps you can implement right away. In addition, The Diversity Movement is hosting an Employee Engagement Workshop on Tuesday, March 26, at noon ET, featuring Kurt Merriweather, my co-author of The Inclusive Leadership Handbook: Balancing People and Performance for Sustainable Growth.

What is expected of me?

Given the multitude of challenges we all have been experiencing in the long wake of the global pandemic, it is no real surprise that employees are feeling anxious and stressed. However, the magnitude of the issues may surprise many of you.

According to Gallup’s research, nearly half (44%) of employees said they “experienced a lot of stress the previous day.” Of course, the era we live in is part of the problem. People have generally decided to live their lives through screens and fill every waking moment with sound, images and information – much of it troubling and designed to be divisive (at least in America, if not most countries).

It might be convenient to attribute most of employee anxiety to the general chaos of the times, but Gallup’s team found that “managers play an outsized role in the stress workers feel on the job, which influences their daily stress overall.” At the heart of that turbulence is not “knowing what is expected of you” as an employee. According to the researchers, that lack of understanding leads directly to drops in “productivity, employee retention, safety, customer engagement and employee wellbeing.”

As senior leaders it seems that we could work with our teams to ensure that clarity, especially around expectations and roles, so they are tied back to overall organizational strategies and objectives. If communication is a key to overcoming the most pressing employee challenge, then those of us at the executive level should set the standard through our leadership teams and then reach deeper into the organization to create unity of purpose.

C-Suite cheat code for employee engagement

CEOs are tasked with fostering cohesive teams, aligning compensation with cultural competency and building trust across virtual and physical environments. This multifaceted approach is essential for cultivating sustainable employee engagement, which lies at the heart of organizational success.

Below is my cheat code, derived from extensive research on inclusive leadership principles and discussions with leaders around the world on how to create culture-centric organizations.

Talk to Your People: Gallup states it as straightforward as possible: “Having one meaningful conversation per week with each team member develops high-performance relationships more than any other leadership activity.” Clear communication is the key to engagement.

Flexible Work Arrangements: Create a clear, meaningful work environment that makes sense to the organization and employees. If they feel “left out” of the discussion, they will be on the path to disengagement. CEOs must embrace this idea to ensure the organization can attract and retain top talent in a global setting.

Leading Change on a Global Stage: A leader’s positive impact on employee performance and engagement transcends cultures. Adapt your approach to embrace regional nuances, which will unlock engagement across traditional boundaries.

Emphasis on Well-being: Employees want to work in inclusive workplaces where their mental, physical and emotional health is a priority. Individual leaders do not have to have all the answers, but they should set the culture tone for the organization and do their best to ensure that employees understand the full range of providers available.

Technology Integration: Although technology can seem to limit communication, there are many tools and systems to streamline collaboration and workflow. As organizations engage globally, these tools may enhance productivity and efficiency, while also eliminating barriers between employees from different backgrounds, perspectives and physical locales.

Continued Focus on Psychological Safety: Culture-based initiatives will remain a top priority for CEOs. Demonstrating an authentic focus on creating inclusive cultures, where all employees feel valued and empowered to succeed, is paramount to sustainable success.

The value of a CEO is encapsulated within the responsibility to protect and care for the people they lead. The leader’s influence is in creating the culture that fulfills this obligation.

Here are some questions I ask about culture that you can use in evaluating your own work.

  • Do you have an environment where people feel like they can win at work?
  • Do they feel welcome?
  • And – even in times when they may have not done the work in the way that it should – do they get a chance to fix it? Can they improve?

The effort to raise employee engagement is not going to be easy, because most leaders are walking into environments where morale is already low. However, by creating a standard for how people should be treated, as well as a measure for winning in the workplace, you create a culture where engagement can thrive. There isn’t one single roadmap, but following the action items I outlined above will point you and your leadership team in the right direction.

Sign up for “The Employee Engagement Workshop: Trends & Strategies for Growth in 2024,” Tuesday, March 26, at noon ET. This free webinar will address key trends affecting employee engagement, our model for growth, and specific strategies to boost employee engagement. For more on inclusive leadership, pre-order my next book, The Inclusive Leadership Handbook: Balancing People and Performance for Sustainable Growth (co-authored with Kurt Merriweather).

About Donald Thompson

Donald Thompson, EY Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2023 SE Award winner, founded The Diversity Movement (TDM) to fundamentally transform the modern workplace through diversity-led culture change. TDM was recently acquired by Workplace Options, which brings holistic wellbeing services to more than 80 million people in more than 200 countries and territories across the globe. Recognized by Inc., Fast Company and Forbes, Thompson is author of Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success, hosts the podcast “High Octane Leadership in an Empathetic World” and has published widely on leadership and the executive mindset. As a leadership and executive coach, Thompson has created a culture-centric ethos for winning in the marketplace by balancing empathy and economics.

Follow him on LinkedIn for updates on news, events and his podcast, or contact him at info@donaldthompson.com for executive coaching, speaking engagements or DEI-related content. TDM has created LeaderView, a leadership assessment tool that uses cultural competency as a driver for improving whole team performance. To further explore DEI content and issues impacting your work and life, visit TDM Library, a multimedia resource hub that gives leaders a trusted source of DEI content.