Drivers of Engagement

But what can be practically done to better engage employees? This is perhaps one of the most common questions that I get asked. In fact, it has arisen in one shape or form on every leadership course that I have ever delivered. So much so that it has become something of a personal quest to try and define what the key drivers of engagement are. For many years, when working with groups of employees I always question them as to what really engages them and unsurprisingly their responses are broadly the same. A sample of the type of comments that come up are shown:

  • • “Having a good relationship with my boss.”
  • • “Interesting and challenging work.”
  • • “Feeling appreciated.”
  • • “Getting results and moving forward.”
  • • “Mentoring and encouragement, trust.”
  • • “Provoking change and seeing it happen.”
  • • “Doing good through intellectually stimulating work.”
  • • “Being able to achieve/contribute to something meaningful.”
  • • “Self-achievement.”
  • • “Believing in what I do.”
  • • “Involvement and inspiration.”
  • • “Empowerment, trust, team spirit.”
  • • “Striving for excellence.”
  • • “Powerful common mission, congruent rules and instructions, fun and cooperation.”
  • • “Reward for creativity and innovation.”

What is so interesting here is that the comments from diverse groups of employees are always comparable. They generally relate to people feeling appreciated for what they do, getting some sense of meaning or challenge out of their job and, always top of the list, having a good relationship w'ith their boss. Note that there is no mention here either of wanting to follow their leader. Equally, when interacting with leaders, or consulting in-company, I have also constantly been on the lookout for what it is that the better leaders and organizations do to maximize engagement.

There is no magic pill of course, but from comparing best practices seen in companies where engagement is high, I have come up with a list of twelve factors that all leaders need to be concerned with to really engage their people.

  • • Leadership. It should be obvious that no one thing will, on its own, fully address the engagement issue, but 1 am convinced that when leadership is strong, engagement levels tend to be higher, so Genuine Leadership is certainly the most critical first step. As well as their own capabilities, to really engage their people, leaders also need to consider the remaining drivers.
  • • Ethos. Ethos, or culture, call it what you will, is intangible at the best of times but it has a major impact on the feel or climate in any organization. While there is no ‘right’ ethos, there are certain environments that build engagement, whereas others have the opposite effect. 1 have seen how the best leaders play an important role in building a culture which draws employees in rather than pushes them away.
  • • Mix. What I mean here is the make-up of teams and all leaders need to pay close attention to how they recruit people into existing teams. Employees do not necessarily all have to like each other, nor will they, but there must be a general ‘fit’ between team members, otherwise it is hard to engage them because who wants to work alongside a bunch of people with whom you have little or nothing in common.
  • • Direction. In this context means ensuring that employees understand both aspirations and expectations. Aspirations relate to the big picture and, as a basic building block of engagement, leaders need to help employees fully understand where the organization is going and how they can contribute to that. Clarity is also required as to what is expected of employees, as nothing will destroy engagement faster than conflicting directions or shifting roles and responsibilities.
  • • Talents. This factor contributes to engagement in several ways. First, most employees that I have met want to build their talents at work, so to increase engagement, leaders need to ensure that there are relevant and regular opportunities for personal development. Equally, all employees should be similarly competent at what they are expected to do. If not, others in the team must take up the slack and this creates resentment, or (worse still) conflict, which can chip away at engagement.
  • • Spirit. It goes without saying that team spirit and levels of cooperation are both a driver of engagement and a reflection of it. When people work well together, they build bonds and trust increases. This in turn improves general engagement levels because most people prefer to work in collaborative environments.
  • • Discipline. Sounds like an old-fashioned concept but controlling how individuals behave within teams is critical to engagement. If certain team members can step out of line without consequence, this serves as a de-motivating factor for engaged employees as they question why they should bother. Equally, too much discipline or control within the work environment stifles engagement because people sense a lack of freedom and autonomy.
  • • Connection. There is not much to be said here. Communication builds connections and is therefore key to the levels of engagement seen. Where communication is regular, open, two-way, and more importantly effective, employees tend to be more connected and engaged in my experience.
  • • Buzz. For most employees having a sense of excitement and challenge in their work is also vital to how engaged they feel with the organization. When work feels repetitive or mundane, employees naturally feel less engaged, so leaders need to find ways to introduce a sense of excitement for employees, to create a buzz about the place.
  • • Conflict. The way that conflict is managed can have a major impact on how engaged employees are likely to be. Constructive conflict, which leads to new ideas and better solutions should be encouraged, but well managed, so that employees feel that they can speak their minds or contribute in an appropriate manner. I am a strong believer that destructive conflict, on the other hand, which adds no value should be dealt with promptly by the leader; a failure to do so will impact engagement levels as most people hate to work in a poisoned atmosphere.
  • • Rewards. In the broadest sense is about people feeling rewarded for the contribution they make. Pay and conditions are of course important elements in this, but it is amazing just how powerful factors like constructive feedback and positive recognition when deserved can be in terms of building engagement.
  • • Change. How change is managed can also impact on the levels of engagement seen. Too little change can result in stagnation which destroys engagement. Yet I have frequently seen how too much of it, or too much meaningless change, can simply frustrate employees and causes them to disengage.

The best leaders, apart from constantly striving to raise their own game in terms of how they engage others, also pay close attention to these factors. They do so because they know that this will not only build engagement levels, but more importantly will in turn lead to greater productivity and ultimately better results. What strikes me about the better leaders that I have met is that they seem to really understand that nothing can ever truly be achieved if employees do not buy into organizational aims and that lifting each individual’s level of engagement, even by a small amount, can make a big difference collectively. They really seem to believe in the value of individual contributions. This belief in the inherent value of the individual was nicely summed up by Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, when she once said, “If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito.”3

The main focus of this book is primarily on individual leader performance but the ability of any leader to positively influence all the key drivers of engagement also plays a major role in determining whether they turn out to be an effective leader or an Impostor.

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