Barriers to engagement

Securing high employee engagement is the top priority for UK business – ahead of containing costs – but employers wishing to improve engagement can be uncertain how to enable the conditions for engagement to flourish, often not helped by disengaging practices which act as barriers, including ‘territorial’ and ‘comfort-zone’ issues.

In smaller companies, there may be concern about how to develop effective engagement, how much it might cost, even ‘fear of losing control’ or feeling “the risk of listening is you may hear things you don’t want to hear”. But across the board poor leadership and management play their part, often based on outmoded views that the only motivator of people is pay.

The 2015 Randstad Award report reveals that nearly one in five of people who changed employer in the previous year cited “poor leadership” as one of their top three reasons for leaving. Poor leadership was also the main reason that 40% of 45–65-year-olds decided to look for a new career opportunity.


One survey reported that only 3% of UK employees thought managers treated them as key parts of an organisation, and no fewer than 60% felt they were treated as just another organisational asset to be managed. Engage for Success founder and co-author of Engaging for Success, David MacLeod, pulls no punches.

“This joint and consequential failure of leadership and management is the main cause of poor employee engagement,” he writes, referring to “unwillingness to talk the talk and truly relinquish command and control

styles of leadership in favour of a relationship based on mutuality”. One of the biggest barriers to increasing employee involvement is middle management buy-in, probably because performance measurements for middle managers are often based on team outcomes rather than employee morale. Engagement expert John Oliver goes further. “Ninety-nine per cent of failure to engage staff is down to management behaviour,” he says, noting that the introduction of management by objectives and KPIs changed the way people think about good management.

This raises the uncomfortable but unavoidable question of whether middle managers have the competencies to increase employee involvement and engagement, and emphasises the need to ensure that organisational commitment to communication and participation is reflected in performance measurements and line manager training.

For while there are no quick-fix, one-size-fits-all solutions, fully engaged leadership and managers are the crucial ingredient for successful employee engagement. Research shows that UK organisations spend less per manager on management development than any other European country, and that 80% of the variation in engagement levels is down to line managers, reminding us that people join organisations but leave managers. Further details can be found at