The Employee Engagement Crisis in Australia



  • *Less than a quarter (24%) of employees in Australia are engaged

  • Employee engagement has not budged in a decade

  • Measuring engagement isn’t sufficient to improve it

Australia has an employee engagement crisis, with serious and potentially lasting repercussions for future innovation and the economy. *Gallup has tracked employee engagement since 2000.

According to Gallup tracking, 24% of employees in Australia are engaged–meaning they are involved in, enthusiastic about and innovating in their work and workplace.

Though companies and leaders worldwide recognize the advantages of engaging employees–and many have instituted surveys to measure engagement — employee engagement has barely budged in well over a decade. Why aren’t the numbers moving?


Technology makes it easy to create an “employee survey” and call it an engagement program, which allows a company to fulfill an apparent organizational need and “check a box.” But metrics on their own don’t drive change or increase performance. Many of these survey-only approaches measure employee perceptions and provide metrics instead of improving workplaces and business outcomes.

In reality, when companies focus exclusively on measuring engagement rather than on improving engagement, they often fail to innovate the necessary changes that will engage employees. These shortcomings include:

  • viewing engagement as a survey or program instead of as an ongoing, disciplined method to achieve higher performance
  • focusing more heavily on survey data or reports than on developing managers and employees
  • defining engagement as a percentage of employees who are not dissatisfied or are merely content with their employer instead of a state of strong employee involvement, commitment and enthusiasm
  • relying on measures that tell leaders and managers what they want to hear — “We’re doing great!” — rather than research-based metrics that set a high bar and uncover organizational or management problems that are hindering engagement and performance
  • feeding the bears,” or measuring workers’ satisfaction or happiness levels and catering to their wants, instead of treating employees as stakeholders of their future and their company’s future

PrintCreating a culture of innovation and engagement requires more than completing an annual employee survey and then hoping managers will learn something from the survey results that will change their daily behavior.

It requires a company to take a close look at the critical engagement elements that align with innovation and with human capital strategy.

CEOs and leaders should keep employee engagement top of mind because every interaction with employees can have an impact on innovation performance.

3 brilliant inventions from a 12-year-old scientist


Peyton Robertson has created a new type of sandbag, to prevent storm flooding in his hometown.

When 12-year-old Peyton Robertson sees a problem, he is going to fix it. So when the young scientist noticed a perennial problem in his hometown of Fort Lauderdale, Florida —flooding during the region’s nasty hurricane season — he set to work building a better sandbag.

Peyton’s sandbag contains an expandable polymer that’s lightweight and easy to transport when dry, but that becomes a dense solution to hold bags firmly in place when it’s wet. He also added a dash of salt — an addition that makes the solution in the bags heavier than approaching seawater. And to eliminate the gaps between sandbags that tend to let some water through, he designed an interlocking fastener system that holds the bags in place as the polymer expands. As the bags dry after the storm, they return to their original state so they can be reused.

The ingenious sandbag (and Peyton’s “commanding delivery, innovative thinking, and sound grasp of the scientific method”) won him first place in the prestigious Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge. He was the youngest winner in the contest’s history. In addition to the $25,000 award and a trip to Costa Rica this summer with the other finalists, he got lots of love from the media, including an adorable spot on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. He’s also filed for an open patent so that others can use and build upon his design.

In fact, he currently has three pending patents. The first, a case to maintain a golf ball’s resting temperature, came to him because he wondered why his golf balls didn’t bounce as far in cold weather. (He was eight at the time.) The second, retractable training wheels, were his creative way to help his sisters learn to ride their bikes. Now bike manufacturers are calling to buy the idea. When Peyton talks about science, his insatiable curiosity about the world around him is evident. He’s not into science for science’s sake — he wants to understand his world and make it better. “I see the world as a really dynamic place that I can change and affect,” he said in his appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. “And I love to use the math and science I’ve learned to help people.”

With so much wild weather afoot, we wanted to hear more from this promising problem solver. We talked with Peyton over email about where to seek inspiration and what’s up next.

Our first question:

How did you become interested in science? Here’s Peyton –

I actually didn’t so much become interested in science as a stand-alone subject as I became interested in the science behind other things I was working on and was curious about. For example, if you love baseball, consider what makes a curve ball curve. If you love movies, consider how special effects work. If you are interested in cooking, think about light waves in a microwave.

So what made you decide to take on the sandbag?

The idea to redesign the sandless sandbag came out of my experience living through hurricanes in South Florida. And the idea of expandable polymer has been around for a long time. It’s been used as fake snow and even in other sandless bags. It takes on water and expands when wet. But the key to my design is the addition of salt to the polymer.

You make it sound so easy. Did you experience any frustrations along the way?

Well, when you add salt to expandable polymer, the polymer swells less. So one of the biggest challenges was to understand, test and calculate the swell rate of the polymer when exposed to 10 percent salt so I could pre-fill the bags with the correct amount of polymer and salt.

What’s the next big project you plan to take on?

In Florida, citrus canker causes trees to drop their fruit early. I’ve been wondering whether it might be possible to reduce citrus canker with something similar to a preventative immunization for trees. I’ve also been thinking about whether it might be possible to combine underwater speaker technology, echolocation and an algorithm to help lead whales like those recently trapped here in the Everglades back to open waters.

It’s great that you have such a strong sense of the local issues in your community. Do you have any advice for other kids who want to get involved in problems affecting their areas?

Start by listing all the problems that affect the area in which you live. Odds are those problems will be more interesting to you, provide more local resources to access, and ultimately prove to be issues with a broad global impact.

What’s one thing you know that you wish everyone knew?

Failure is progress and a normal part of the process. Whether it’s science or life, you have to start, fail and just keep pushing. In a football game, time runs out, and a golf match ends after the last hole. But when you are working on something and it doesn’t work, you just extend the game — and give your experiment or your prototype another go.


Productivity push should focus on frontline managers


By Daryll Hull


Australia has more than two million registered businesses, and at least equally that number of actual places of work. These range from one and two person workplaces to groups of 100 people plus. These work places are the front line in the productivity debate.

The CEO and the operations executives of these businesses may make the big decisions, but the supervisors, coordinators, team leaders and frontline managers are at the sharp end of the game. The face-to-face connection between supervisors and line operators, office workers, nurses, truck drivers, shop assistants and a thousand other occupations is where leadership meets productivity.

It is therefore interesting that in most discussions when “workplace leadership and productivity” is raised we find hundreds of contributions about professional development, mentoring, coaching, and executive courses as they relate to senior managers, engineers, CEOs, and other top line occupations. Learning, education and expensive behavioural “high performance” programs tend to dominate the conversation. Frontline managers are usually relegated to vocational training programs – perhaps a Certificate 4 in Front Line Management if they are lucky.

Management and leadership are equally important

There is nothing wrong with vocational training, by the way. It produces competencies and assessments based on national content and common “packages” that deliver the goods to students via Registered Training Organisations. The question is: why put workplace management and workplace leadership into different categories? Executives head off to universities or overseas programs to learn about workplace leadership. Supervisors usually get to go to TAFE and learn about time management.

More importantly, this simplistic view of leadership as an optional adjunct to supervision, and leadership as a core capability for senior managers, misses the point about productivity in the workplace.

We can talk about labour productivity as a factor in national economic matters, but it’s only when we drill down into actual workplaces that we see the basic truth: improved productivity in Australian workplaces is the outcome of the quality of working relationships on the job – where people actually work.

Those relationships are shaped in part by the capacity of the workplace leader or supervisor to maintain and deepen the quality of the connections between people.

In 2003 the Business Council of Australia commissioned field research conducted by myself and a colleague to actually ask people on the job what they thought were the key characteristics of good workplace leadership. Since that research was published it has been affirmed by other academics, and by managers around in the country.

What makes a good leader?

There are clear qualities of an excellent workplace leader. They are (in no apparent order and in the words of people on the job): being a player/coach, fairness, accessibility, empowering people, ethical, not getting in the way of people, no ambushes, giving recognition where due, building trust, no bullshit, helping in a crisis, being “out there” for the group, honesty, and “walking the talk”.

Now it’s likely that academic commentators will pounce on these descriptors and label them as “broad and ill-defined attributes”. It simply doesn’t matter how you categorise them. What we have as far back as 2003 (and possibly earlier if we include the 1995 Karpin Report and work undertaken by Telstra on cultural factors in workplace productivity in the mid 1990s) is a vivid picture of workplace leadership as seen by the people who show up for work every day. This is where the discussion must start about leadership and productivity in Australia.

Vocational training and a few short courses at TAFE does not cut it for front line managers. Companies and public service agencies should invest in their workplace leaders with the same intensity and commitment they usually give the more highly paid managers in their organisations. It is ironic that the more senior one becomes the more available leadership education becomes. Funding for such education seems a logical “investment” in the business, while funding for front line management education often seems to be a “cost” to the business.

Leadership on the job requires business to take the same care and attention to selection, recruitment and education as they do for the senior positions in a business. The frontline leaders are the cutting edge of any operation. They are usually the first to appreciate when things are going well, and when they are going wrong. Their intervention on the job can save a situation, or make it worse. They can lead groups to excellence, or drive them to desperation. They can keep a business alive, or bring it to its knees.

The Telstra cultural imprint studies (see the Industry and Business Skills Council – IBSA – for a summary report and recent update) in the 1990s implied that there are three kinds of frontline managers in Australian places of work: leaders, bosses and bastards. Leaders at this level are few and far between, there are many bosses (good ones and bad ones); and way too many bastards. Good bosses can become great workplace leaders if they are encouraged and educated. Unfortunately bad bosses are often left to become bastards, and once a bastard – always a bastard!

We can do better. We just need to focus on actual workplace leadership, not just on executive and professional development.

Daryll Hull received funding from the Business Council of Australia for the 2003 research undertaken on Simply The Best Workplaces in Australia.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.  Read the original article.