How to Get Started On Employee Engagement

Employee engagement is all the buzz these days. More and more, leaders are recognizing that the more dialed-in their staff is, the better their business results will be. Gallup has run their Q12 analysis for years across multiple industries, and has proven that engaged staff yields better ROI, such as:

  • 12% increase in customer loyalty/engagement
  • 21% increase in profitability
  • 20% increase in productivity


What’s more, Gallup says that high engagement companies have a 70 percent boost over “average” organizations.

Additionally, the Harvard Business Review reports that companies with highly engaged people outperform firms with the most disengaged workers by:

  • 54% increase in employee retention
  • 89% increase in customer satisfaction
  • FOUR TIMES the revenue growth


So, if employee engagement is such a good thing, why do so many leaders think it’s such a difficult thing to accomplish? It’s not all that hard, really…it’s all about heads and hearts. It takes both logic (which we refer to as “head”…getting them to understand the goals), and personal connections (which we call “heart”…understanding what motivates them to buy in to what you’re asking them to do).

Simply put, at its core, it’s not about corporate programs, communication plans, or fancy strategy. It’s just about being real with people, on an individual basis. Those can come later to help strengthen engagement. But first, you have to start one-on-one.

Just this week, I visited a manufacturer with about 30 employees. The CEO had bought the business knowing nothing about it, but hired people based on their drive and desire to do good work. The tour the CEO took me on was unlike any other I’ve experienced in my dealings with other manufacturers. He called every single employee by name. When he came around, they stopped their work, removed their masks/goggles, shook hands with our group, chatted with the CEO, and proudly showed off what they’d just accomplished.

That’s engagement. Without a lot of fancy programs to drive it…just constant, one-on-one daily interaction. That’s the price of entry for starting to build engagement.

Of course, as you grow, it gets more difficult. There’s not enough time for that kind of interaction from the CEO. But maybe it can be driven to their immediate supervisor.

At that point, you also have to keep an eye on it, as well. That means the more formal things like employee engagement surveys, management communications tools, etc.

Problems with unengaged employees

But consider this:
More employees are disengaged than engaged

The 2015 Gallup “State of the Global Workplace” categorizes employee engagement into three categories:

  • Engaged: Where employees work with passion and are connected to their company. These employees drive innovation and move the organization forward.
  • Not Engaged: These employees are “checked out”—the walking dead of the workplace. They do their jobs, but not with energy or passion.
  • Actively Disengaged: These employees are beyond unhappy at work. They go out of their way to undermine what engaged coworkers accomplish.


What is alarming, however, is the poll shows that 70 percent of workers in the United States are not engaged in their jobs. Think about it. Seven out of 10 of your employees are disengaged, or even actively hostile towards the organization.

Bain and Netsurvey analyzed responses from 200,000 employees across 40 companies in 60 countries and found several troubling trends in engagement:

  • Engagement scores decline as employee tenure increases. Employees with the deepest knowledge of the company, and the most experience, typically are the least engaged.
  • Scores decline at the lowest levels of the organization, suggesting that senior executive teams likely underestimate the discontent on the front lines.
  • Engagement levels are lowest in sales and service functions, where most interactions with customers occur.

The problem with engagement programs

Unfortunately, when companies create programs to increase engagement, they often fall under the human resources department. But how is one department supposed to inspire and motivate all employees? To truly engage employees, leaders and line supervisors need to be in charge of engagement.

Additionally, leaders cannot only rely on traditional leadership skills to engage employees, especially with millennials, who want to work because they believe in their company’s mission and values. Millennials are more likely to be defined by learning and engagement than by traditional motivators.

With today’s diverse workforce, leaders have to work harder to keep their workforce engaged. But the payoff is big.

The Hay Group reports that highly engaged and enabled employees are 50 percent more likely to exceed expectations than the least-engaged workers.

What makes these companies succeed?

The organization of your dreams

Research from Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones found six common elements among companies that reported high engagement and called it “the organization of your dreams”:

  • individual differences are nurtured;
  • information is not suppressed nor spun;
  • the company adds value to employees, rather than merely extracting it from them;
  • the organization stands for something meaningful;
  • the work itself is intrinsically rewarding;
  • and there are no stupid rules.

“Creating the Best Workplace On Earth,” Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, Harvard Business Review

No organization fully encompasses all these traits. But high performing organizations embody as many of these traits as possible. There are steps you can take as a leader to start engaging your employees.

1. Tap into the knowledge and talent pool. Organizations with highly engaged employees tap into the full range of people’s knowledge and talents. Think of how this would benefit the older employee who was considered “mentally retired.”

2. Set clear expectations. Communication skills are key in letting employees know what is expected. But strong leaders let individuals decide how they will meet those expectations.

3. Create a common purpose. Define the kind of emotional experience you are trying to create for your customers and use that with employees to give their work meaning.

4. Be customer-centric. This is a no-brainer for front line employees, but many employees are not customer facing. Showing behind-the-scenes workers how they support your customers gives them the purpose they are looking for.

5. Use customers to bring the company vision to life. Seek out stories on how your organization or product has made your customers’ lives better. For example, an orthopedic prosthetic company may tell the story of a Desert Storm veteran who can now walk because of their product. Or a software company can share how their product saved a client company millions.

6. Listen to your employees. Your employees know what’s not working. Watch any segment of Undercover Boss and you’ll see that no organization, no matter how successful, is immune. A leader needs to work with their employees to remove barriers and make their job serving your customers easier. So get in the trenches and truly listen.

7. Let frontline employees be problem solvers. Negative customer experiences often come when the frontline employee isn’t given the freedom to solve the problem. The epitome of customer service, The Ritz-Carlton, gives every employee the discretion to use up to $2,000, per guest, to solve a customer complaint—without checking in with their supervisor.

8. Allow for mistakes. Allowing employees to stretch and approach projects in different ways will lead to innovation and personal growth. Thomas Edison stated, “I haven’t failed. I just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

9. Share the good news, and the bad. By raising difficult issues themselves and encouraging ensuing conversation, leaders can show that hard conversations are not taboo.

Get started with employee engagement

So, once you’re past the one-on-one stage, what to do? Here are a few tips to consider:

  • Not all employees engage in the same way. Recognize that one-size does not fit all. Your boomer, x and millennial employees see engagement differently from one another. Be aware of how each group defines engagement and deliver on those expectations.
  • Make sure new hires are a good fit. Hire based on compatibility to your organization’s core values first, and work-role compatibility second. If they don’t “get it” the day they walk in the door, they most likely won’t get it 20 years later.
  • Match their job to customer satisfaction. No matter what their role in the company, help your people understand how what they do every day leads to a positive experience for the customer…even if they aren’t customer-facing. For example…someone in accounting can have a huge impact on the customer by what they do/don’t say on a collection call, or even on the bill they’re sending out.
  • Results must resonate. Measure employee engagement against customer satisfaction and share the results throughout the company. Let everyone know what they are working toward and how they impact company business.


So the next time an employee seems to have mentally checked out, turn the mirror back on yourself. What else can you do as a leader to rekindle the employee’s passion for his or her job?

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About the author:


Imaginasium helps manufacturing leaders drive profitable growth and change through inside-out marketing—building communication programs that drive culture, draw customers, and deliver a superior customer experience.