9 Keys to Improving Employee Engagement

THE BIG IDEA: Improving employee engagement is a chief responsibility of executive leaders. Below are 9 strategies that can move your people to do their best work.


How do you evaluate your effectiveness as a leader?

Sure, if you’ve been at the helm of your organization for over a decade, your company’s metrics probably don’t lie.

But on a day-to-day basis, do you have a way of assessing your influence? Can you look around the office and get a sense of how your presence is influencing your organization?

Employee engagement is perhaps your most accurate litmus test.

Engagement is a heightened emotional connection employees feel to their organization that leads to intrinsic motivation. That is, when an employee feels good about their job, they are driven to do their best work without needing external reward.

How Engaged is Your Workforce?

A Gallup Poll found that in the United States and Canada, 54% of employees are not engaged with their work while 18% are actively disengaged.

A mere 29% of employees in North America are engaged. (The figure drops to 13% if you add in the other 140 countries included in the study.)

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how strong your growth strategy or marketing plan is if the majority of your organization is checked out.

How Do You Measure Engagement?

James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner developed the Positive Workplace Attitudes Scale to determine the level of emotional connection employees have to their work.

The scale evaluates ten dimensions of the employee’s work experience:

  1. Team spirit
  2. Pride in the organization
  3. Commitment to organizational success
  4. Work ethic (willingness to work hard)
  5. Productivity
  6. Clear expectations (knowing what is expected of an employee)
  7. Feeling valued by the organization
  8. Effectiveness at meeting demands of the job
  9. Trust in management
  10. Making a difference in the organization

All of these dimensions are important to an employee’s mental and emotional well being in the workplace.

Want a quick test? In The Great Workplace, Michael Burchell and Jennifer Robin report that when you ask engaged employees to describe what it’s like to work in their organization, a smile comes to their face. They talk about how excited they are about their work. They find that the work day breezes by too quickly.

How Do You Improve Employee Engagement?

For outperforming leaders, this is a question that is perpetually top of mind. There will always be ways to strengthen employee engagement, and the more you do, the stronger your organization will become.

Here are nine strategies for cultivating engagement:

Create a Vision for Your Culture

A cohesive company culture doesn’t happen by accident. It is important to establish a clear vision for an environment where people want to be at work. The leadership at Southwest Airlines, Zappos, and many other Cult Brands want their employees to feel like they are part of a family.

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly suggests leaders “model the culture: spending time with employees, treating people with respect, having fun, being there for them personally and professionally, and putting people first—with empathy, kindness and compassion.”

Establish and Enliven Core Values

Core values set the desired behaviors every member of the organization is expected to follow. When these behaviors are personified by leadership and rewarded by management, they help foster a distinct corporate culture that drives individuals toward better versions of themselves.

These values then serve to elevate individuals and drive higher performance throughout the organization, which gives everyone more pride in their work.

Invest in Supporting Higher Level Needs

This underlies virtually all effort towards cultivating employee engagement. Abraham Maslow foretold that organizations that push beyond supporting basic needs (paycheck, clean bathrooms, etc.) to encouraging higher level needs will have an unprecedented competitive advantage.

Higher level needs include the quest for knowledge, beauty, personal growth, and self transcendence (spiritual values). Compared to most organizations, Zappos does an exemplary job at this, offering their own in-house library and personal coaching to all of its employees.

Foster a Culture of Creativity and Innovation

When employees feel their ideas are valued, they will be more engaged. When they feel that their job is to merely follow their boss’s orders, they will disengage.

Brainstorming is an art. Start by acknowledging that everyone on your team has great ideas. Then, accept that it’s your responsibility to create an environment where these ideas can come forth openly and willingly without judgement, attack, or defense.

Establish and Reinforce an Inspiring Corporate Vision

An inspiring vision that moves people emotionally and provides them with a sense of purpose and direction helps unify the organization.

Confusion and distraction sap mental and emotional energy. Lower energy translates to disengagement. When your employees feel they have clear direction and clarity of purpose, their energy can be focused toward more productive work.

Support Recovery and Renewal

Cultures that place unreasonable demands on a person’s internal resources ultimately drain the energy of employees and create resentment toward management. Certainly, there are time-sensitive projects that demand a lot on an employee, but these projects should be followed up by periods of rest and recovery.

Organizations that expect immediate responses to email and text messages, for example, have unconsciously established cultures that foster distraction and prioritize immediacy over value creation.

Create Outstanding Products and Services

This might seem obvious, but it’s an important reminder: When employees feel pride about their organization and the products and services it provides, they are more likely to feel compelled to make their own unique contributions.

Encourage Self Leadership

Autonomy is one of the most powerful forces that motivates high performance. We all have an innate need to direct our own lives. When employees feel like they matter and that they have the freedom to contribute, there is no end to the extraordinary magic that can unfold.

Show that You Genuinely Care

All of the above support demonstrating care. But ultimately, on a one-to-one level, showing you care is an expression of your emotional intelligence. Greater emotional awareness enables you to have empathy and compassion for your people.

When your people feel like you and the organization care about them—that they matter as human beings—they will certainly reciprocate with inspiration and good work.

Ready for Your Leadership Challenge?

The purpose of your business is to create customers. To fulfill this purpose better than your competitors requires you to foster an organization of inspired, talented people who are engaged in their work.

How can you improve employee engagement in your organization? What immediate steps can you take this coming week?

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