What is meant by engagement and what can we do to boost it?

Hello there,

I started to do some research and studying on “engagement” since that appears to be one of the main concerns for HR and also for people working in various development positions. Keeping people engaged is essential for maintaining good performance levels and also retaining company’s top talents and other key contributors. In the most demanding businesses it is the people asset that would deserve more attention from the senior leadership.

The term engagement seems to be fairly loosely defined so I wanted to give this topic a go and look for some brilliant definitions first. In the latter part of my post I’ll share some of my thoughts how we can increase employee engagement via L&D operations. I will also share the list of my source materials from where I copied some of the definitions and examples for my conclusions. Many thanks to original writers for brilliant articles!

Defining engagement (borrowing here some clever definitions, I’ll share the original links in the end)

Definition 1:

Employee engagement is the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals. This emotional commitment means engaged employees actually care about their work and their company. They don’t work just for a paycheck, or just for the next promotion, but work on behalf of the organization’s goals. When employees care—when they are engaged—they use discretionary effort.

Employee engagement does not mean employee happiness. Someone might be happy at work, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are working hard, productively on behalf of the organization. While company game rooms, free massages and Friday keg parties are fun–and may be beneficial for other reasons–making employees happy is different from making them engaged. 

Employee engagement doesn’t mean employee satisfaction. Many companies have “employee satisfaction” surveys and executives talk about “employee satisfaction”, but the bar is set too low. A satisfied employee might show up for her daily 9-to-5 without complaint. But that same “satisfied” employee might not go the extra effort on her own, and she’ll probably take the headhunter’s call luring her away with a 10% bump in pay. Satisfied isn’t enough.

Definition 2: 

‘a positive attitude held by the employee towards the organisation and its values. An engaged employee is aware of business context, and works with colleagues to improve performance within the job for the benefit of the organisation. The organisation must work to develop and nurture engagement, which requires a two-way relationship between employer and employee.’

The behaviours demonstrated by the engaged employee are:

  • belief in the organisation
  • desire to work to make things better
  • understanding of business context and the ‘bigger picture’
  • respectful of, and helpful to, colleagues
  • willingness to ‘go the extra mile’
  • keeping up to date with developments in the field.

NOTE! Engagement is two-way: organisations must work to engage the employee, who in turn has a choice about the level of engagement to offer the employer.

Definition 3: 

There are two types of employee engagement—emotional commitment and rational commitment —with emotional commitment being four times more powerful than rational commitment in driving employee effort. Employees stay with their organizations when they believe it is in their self-interest (rational commitment). But they exert discretionary effort when they believe in the value of their job, their team, and their organization (emotional commitment). Some of the common elements of the many definitions of employee en­gagement fall into the following categories:

  • Social: Is this an organization where I feel involved, part of a good team; is my organization serving the community?
  • Intellectual: Am I able to grow? Is my job stretching and interesting? Do I know what’s happening? Do my opinions count?
  • Emotional: Do I care about the organization and feel I belong? Am I valued?

Definition 4: 

Employers want employees who will do their best work or ‘go the extra mile’. Employees want jobs that are worthwhile and that inspire them. More and more organisations are looking for a win-win solution that meets their needs and those of their employees. What they increasingly say they are looking for is an engaged workforce.

So what is employee engagement? It can be seen as a combination of commitment to the organisation and its values and a willingness to help out colleagues (organisational citizenship). It goes beyond job satisfaction and is not simply motivation. Engagement is something the employee has to offer: it cannot be ‘required’ as part of the employment contract.

Why organisations are interested in employee engagement

Employers want engaged employees because they deliver improved business performance. Research has repeatedly demonstrated the links between the way people are managed, employee attitudes and business performance.

When employers deliver on their commitments (when by their actions they fulfil employees’ expectations) they reinforce employees’ sense of fairness and trust in the organisation and generate a positive psychological contract between employer and employee. 

The high performance or ‘black box’ model produced by Bath University builds on the psychological contract but emphasises the role of line managers in creating conditions under which employees will offer ‘discretionary behaviour’. The model recognises that employees have choices and can decide what level of engagement to offer the employer.

Organisations increasingly recognise the importance of their ‘brand’. Engaged employees will help promote the brand and protect the employer from the risks associated with poor service levels or product quality. Similarly a strong employer brand will help in attracting and retaining employees.

The easy ways to destroy engagement – the drivers of dissatisfaction

These are the basics. If these areas are not sufficiently met, employees will most likely be looking for another job.

  • Compensation
  • Poor leadership
  • Job Security
  • Safety
  • Fair Policies
  • Personal development opportunities (career progression, learning & development opportunities, on the job development opportunities)

How to build employee engagement – the drivers of satisfaction, effectiveness and engagement

These factors will satisfy employees but don’t necessarily make them effective. Employees who are only satisfied “do what it takes to get by.”

  • Relationships (manager, co-workers)
  • Interesting Work
  • Recognition
  • Opportunities to Grow

These items are critical if an employee is going to be able to provide a high level of contribution. These factors remove the limits that may hold employees back from giving their all.

  • Clearly Communicated Direction
  • Pride in the Work
  • Access to Information and Resources
  • Authority to Make Decisions
  • Personal and Professional Renewal

These drivers influence the discretionary effort given by employees. When these factors are met, employees choose to give their all in their work responsibilities.

  • Fit with strengths
  • Accountability
  • Values Alignment
  • Great Leadership
  • Stimulating Work Environment/Team

Profile of a Fully Engaged Employee So what does a fully engaged employee look like? These items represent some of the most common characteristics of those who are engaged. They…

  • Do their very best
  • Constantly learn and take calculated risks
  • Feel stretched beyond their comfort zone
  • Take personal satisfaction in their quality of work
  • Find work can be stressful at times but also rewarding and fun
  • Love their job!

Boosting employee engagement

Here are a few recommendations on how to increase employee engagement.

  • Make sure employees are in the right job where their strengths can be maximized.
  • Focus on management behavior. Many employees quit their manager, not their job.
  • Provide opportunities for advancement and communicate them regularly.
  • Measure it, communicate the results, and create action plans to improve it.

Please be aware that not every employee will “transform” into a fully engaged employee. With this in mind, focus on employees in positions that are most critical for success for your organization. Look at the factors that influence their engagement and find ways to make improvements. 

The ROI of engagement 

The ROI of engagement comes from what I (= Kevin Kruse) call the Engagement-Profit Chain:

Engaged Employees lead to

  • higher service, quality, and productivity, which leads to…
  • higher customer satisfaction, which leads to…

  • increased sales (repeat business and referrals), which leads to…
  • higher levels of profit, which leads to…
  • higher shareholder returns (i.e., stock price)

As former Campbell’s Soup CEO, Doug Conant, once said,

“To win in the marketplace you must first win in the workplace.”


How can company address engagement issues – the right kind of leadership

The MacLeod report summarized the main drivers of employee engage­ment and related leadership practices as follows (MacLeod and Clarke, 2009: 75):

Engaging leadership: “Ensures a strong, transparent, and explicit organizational culture that gives employees a line of sight between their job and the vision and aims of the organization.” Such leaders are strategic, anticipatory, proactive, and people focused. They provide a clear strategic narrative about where the organization is going and why, in a way that gives employees information and insight for their own job.

Engaging managers: Are more critical in driving effort on a day-to-­day basis. “They offer clarity about what is expected from individual members of staff, what involves some stretch, and much appreciation and feedback/coaching and training. They also treat people as individuals, with fairness and respect and with a concern for employees’ well-being. They also ensure work is designed efficiently and effectively.” In companies that do this well, managers treat people as individuals, as full human beings. In Standard Chartered Retail Bank, for example, the task of managers in engaging employees is summarized as “Know me, focus me, value me.”

Employee voice: “Employees feel able to voice their ideas and be listened to, both about how to do their job and in decision-making in their own department, with joint sharing of problems and challenges and a commitment to arrive at joint solutions.” In companies that do this well, there is a constant free flow of ideas up and down and across the organization. That requires managers who are willing to listen to people and are not afraid of relinquishing control.

Organization lives the values: “A belief among employees that the organization lives the values, and that espoused behavioral norms are adhered to, resulting in trust and a sense of integrity.” In organizations that do this well, values and behaviors are aligned, creating integrity and trust. Any gap between these creates distrust and cynicism.

Organizational purpose: In particular, the nature of the organization’s purpose may have a differen­tiating effect on levels of engagement. Research by Holbeche and Springett (2004) into how people experience meaning at work found that an organ­izational purpose that focuses intensely on customers is more likely to engage staff than those focused on shareholders, profits, or a mix of stake­holder needs. However, it is essential that there is a clear line of sight to this purpose in people’s day jobs if the motivational effect is to be achieved. Bureaucracy and inconsistent behaviors, policies, and practices act as barriers and lead to cynicism and disengagement.

The HR/ OD response to engagement issues

The employee engagement agenda is a joint priority for line managers and HR. In particular, HR can help line managers by:

  • Coaching line managers
  • Implementing effective policies for work-life balance, well-being, and diversity
  • Developing inclusive employee voice mechanisms
  • Helping line managers to manage workloads and design roles and work to ensure that people have line of sight to the organization’s purpose and goals

In addition HR must:

Act on employee engagement survey findings. HR brings a method and structure to the system-level data from engagement surveys and other sources such as exit interviews, but the challenge is to individualize this so as not to take a one-size-fits-all approach. So, cut the data based on different groups who share the same (but different from others’) values and needs. Make sure employees know managers take their views seriously, and act on at least the most critical pieces of feedback. This builds trust and shows employees their views are heard and taken seriously.

Challenge poor practice. HR needs to ensure the company values are reflected in the standards set, and that these apply to everyone, including the executive team and the board. HR must have the courage of its convictions in tackling poor standards, especially where there are clear gaps between rhetoric and prac­tice on values.

Develop engaging management and leadership. Focus on building great leadership and engaging management culture. Address the key topics in talent management and building the company culture. Many organizations are facing potential talent shortages in years to come when global economy is recovering. Company needs to be focused on both retention and on building the talent and leadership pipeline. What helps is that the company is known to be a good employer with great leadership. There needs to be a compelling story on how company is looking after it’s top talent and how committed the company is to developing the top talents and ensuring career progression within the company and supporting other personal development aspirations.   

As the organizations gear up to deal with today’s more challenging economic conditions, there is growing recognition that the organization culture and the nature of management and leadership need to change to be more nimble and cost effective while retaining its focus on quality, customer, and innovation.

A shift is needed away from command-and-control management styles to leadership styles that are more focused on getting results through people. Employee surveys and straw polls indicate this, as well. With more limited resources, attempting to carry out the company imperatives without a change of management style is likely to be problematic. “We should be using the intelligence of many, not just the few. We need to create a highly engaged work environment and build the competence of our managers to create that work environment.”

How should HRD or L&D folks contribute to building employee engagement 

Quite a lot has already being said and many of the topics to address should jointly be looked after by line management, senior leadership, HR partners and HR development folks. However with limited resources at hand the companies need to prioritize where to focus on and what to do to address the engagement issues.

I do not wish to point a finger nor blame anyone but when stress levels are high, the urgency is there and something needs to be delivered right now people tend to look close to home… And guess what… The list of actions to boost engagement level looks very similar to overall development agenda we have seen before (but now we emphasize engagement)…

Let me take a pick of actions majority of organisations choose to address engagement issues (and they are doing the right thing of course but are still reinventing the wheel to some extent…):

  • focus on developing management & leadership to be more engaging
  • focus on performance issues
  • focus on more effective employee communication (instead of listening) 
  • focus on employee opinion surveys, pulse surveys and other metrics to get data how employees feel
  • focus on value discussions and behavioral indicators
  • focus on building the company culture (“the company X Way”)
  • some daring ones may even open up a dialogue with employees by using internal social media and blogging 

As I said these are all fine and justified actions but since I am a very development oriented guy I notice that one very important aspect is quite often missing from the list of actions. The reasons may vary from being very resource constrainted to cost savings but it seems many of the companies fail to address the individuals and development needs of the individuals. For obvious reasons many actions are designed to address the masses.

One important engagement driver that is often not recognised or addressed properly is the opportunity to develop one’s skills & competencies, the opportunity to grow & develop holistically and the opportunity for career progression. Many of the organisations reserve the opportunity only for top talents or for managers & leaders.

Why is it neglected? The need to develop & grow is listed in many of the definitions for engagement however in different ways:

  • Keeping up to date with developments in the field
  • Am I able to grow? Is my job stretching and interesting? Do I know what’s happening?
  • Recognition (e.g. being nominated for a development program?) and Opportunities to Grow on the job
  • Personal and Professional Renewal
  • Constantly learn and take calculated risks
  • Provide opportunities for advancement and communicate them regularly etc.

Of course those can be intepreted and handled in many ways. The most holistic framework for development opportunities is 70/20/10 model which addresses development in many desirable ways:

  • 70 – on the job development and learning (stretch assignments, action learning, problem solving, discussions and coaching with more senior (or junior) colleague, job rotations, shadowing assignments etc.
  • 20 – learning from verbal & written feedback (manager, coaches & colleagues alike), coaching & mentoring,  assessments, tests, self-assessments, certifications etc.
  • 10 – traditional learning (instructor lead classroom courses, seminars, interactive workshops, e-learnings, self study materials, study groups etc.) 

With 70/20/10 model it should be fairly easy to offer development opportunities for broader employee base that just selected top talents and people on the leadership track.

Of course that is just the traditional approach for L&D. In broader sense we should be talking about “employee growth paths” (e.g. Technical Expert Growth Path) which are combinations of functional career ladder, job profile- and role based learning paths and certain transitional development interventions designed to boost career progression and support career advancement by offering needed development opportunities. I’ll write a post on these growth paths later.

Another great and tested example of more modern and more inclusive L&D approaches are these Learning 2.0 thinking based facilitated/ managed online learning communities. Those can be open for anyone and can support variety of business critical development needs. These learning communities are very good tools for building engagement in the organization for many reasons. For one they bring together many aspects and drivers of employee engagement and can holistically support boosting the engagement in the organisation.

Facilitated online learning communities (utilising Web 2.0 and social media features internally) allow:

  • involving a whole company workforce into a open dialogue about important topics
  • possibility to get real time information and comms materials about company plans (e.g. strategy)
  • possibility to continue strategy dialogue and drill-in deeper with examples and Q&A
  • a channel for senior management to share their views and initiate an open dialogue with employees
  • building trust and transparency by providing equal access to materials and discussion
  • possibility to build and facilitate content rich learning streams with interactive parts
  • possibility to join forces, find like minded people and to do joint development online
  • cost efficient, measurable, effective and rapid deployment of business critical development interventions  
  • collection of employee opinions by surveys, polling, quizzing and educational gaming
  • possibility for every employee to get their voice heard 
  • possibility for every employee to “chip in” and proactively advance the personally important topics 
  • identification of change agents, key opinion leaders and other influencers based on activity levels
  • possibility to build/ renew company culture and nurture values 
  • etc.  

I will write another post of this facilitated online learning communities topic too.

There are many possibilities to drive engagement through personal development opportunities so those should not be neglected either. The use of these facilitated online learning communities offers a unique and rich opportunity to boost performance and engagement across the whole workforce.

The problem – it appears these Growth Paths, Learning 2.0 methods and facilitated online learning communities are not yet in HR playbook or in HR toolbox for driving renewal, change initiatives or boosting employee engagement. But they will come… 

As always your views and comments would be more than welcome!



And those promised source materials links and original articles – again many thanks to original writers who deserve the credit:




About sleppane

Experienced human resource development professional who has a passion for innovation and development in Learning & Development arena. Passionate about Learning 2.0 - integrating Web 2.0 and more with pedagogical aspects. Keen on developing workplaces, practices and processes if they enable more satisfied workforce. Service Manager @ Sovelto for Learning 2.0 concept
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