Recently, I’ve been doing radio interviews discussing employee engagement. This topic was sparked by a recent Gallup survey that revealed only 33% of employees in the private sector are engaged in their work. It’s even worse for the public sector, where Gallup found the same metric at 29%. Whose fault, is it? Who’s responsible for this dismal result?

This is not a new problem. So, it’s easy to say this is a two-way street and drop the discussion. Having been both an employer and employee during my career, I have some thoughts about “employee engagement” that go against the grain of the “two-way street” argument and, perhaps, even conventional wisdom.

Before we jump into that discussion, however; I want to set the stage on terminology. First, the terms “employee” and “employer” are legal terms. These terms define a legal arrangement, not a human relationship. So, the first problem is we have dehumanized the discussion of employee engagement by restricting ourselves to these legal terms. Let’s dispense with this legal scenario and adopt the terms organization and organization member instead.

Why this terminology? The root of the word “organization” is organism, a living thing. An organization is a living entity, exhibiting all of the aspects of something that’s alive. The term organizational member follows for the same reasons. If we take the human body as an example, your lungs are members of the organism known as your body.  Try living without those members. Your lungs are engaged!

What is engagement in the organizational context? Simply put, it’s an emotional commitment. It’s a partnership. It’s not a coincidence that the term engagement is most often identified with marriage, which is a committed human relationship. Yes, I am employed by an organization. But, I don’t have a meaningful human relationship with the “organization”, my human relationships extend to the people with whom I work and to whom I report.

This is why multiple studies conducted over many years have consistently shown that people leave managers and leaders not organizations. My experience in both business and higher education mirror those study results. How often have you heard someone say, “I love my job and the company, but I simply can’t work for my manager or leader anymore.” I hear it frequently. So, what’s the answer?

The answer is simple—it’s organizational culture. And, it begins at the top, meaning the board of directors and the CEO. Organizational culture is a Gestalt consisting of several interlocking and interrelated components. It’s not complicated or difficult to understand. But, it’s beyond the scope of this short work. Here, I want to focus on the foundation of organizational culture—purpose.

Remember, organizational member engagement is a matter of the heart, not the head. I may have substantial knowledge about something. If that knowledge is not so infused with passion that it becomes a belief, I may or may not be moved to action. Believing in something or someone engages us and moves us to act. This is how we engage organizational members.

Every organization exists for a reason. It has a purpose. That purpose is what drives vision and mission. In my experience, many vision and mission statements are crafted for public relations reasons. The content of these statements is driven more by a desire to make the organization “look good” to the public, show social responsibility, or serve some other politically correct function.

This is not what drives a right-thinking-right-acting culture—an R2 culture. What drives an R2 culture is a meaningful purpose statement from which vision and mission and organizational values flow. This purposeful alignment is what engages organizational members. It translates into a belief that energizes and excites organizational members. It also informs managerial and leadership behavior.

If I understand and believe in the purpose of my organization, I am more likely involved in doing my part in helping achieve that purpose. But, that’s not enough. I have to see that purpose and the resulting vision living within the organizational culture. That means my manager or leader must reflect that purpose and cultural values in their behavior. There must be values alignment from top to bottom.

This is how we get engagement. We have to remember that engagement is a human endeavor based on meaningful human relationships. Engagement is a matter of the heart!

So, whose fault, is it? I place it squarely at the feet of organizational leadership. It’s our job, as managers and leaders, to make sure we give organizational members a reason to join the organization and do an excellent job in furthering the organization’s purpose. Yes, organizational members have a responsibility to add value to the organization and to its stakeholders. But, before that can happen there must be some There, there.