Matt Tenney, Author of Serve to Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom
Employee engagement is one of the hottest topics in leadership today, and for good reason.
Employee engagement is tied for first place (along with an effective strategy) as the most important element of success for an organization.
A great business strategy is only truly useful if it can be effectively executed, and employee engagement is the primary indicator of whether or not a great strategy will be effectively executed.
Unfortunately, most organizations have few engaged employees.
On average, in the US, roughly only 1 out of 3 employees are engaged at work.
Outside the US, engagement is even worse.
The data suggests that most of the employee engagement strategies that organizations implement fail to make any lasting impact on employee engagement.
In this article, you’ll learn how to avoid the mistakes made by so many organizations and discover 18 employee engagement strategies that work quickly, and make a significant and lasting impact on employee engagement.
Employee Engagement vs Employee Satisfaction
One of the reasons so few employee engagement strategies actually work is that the strategies tend to be more focused on employee satisfaction vs employee engagement.
While employee engagement and employee satisfaction are related, they are certainly not the same thing.
Employees could be very satisfied with their work environment and their job, but not be engaged at work.
A lot of organizations focus their employee engagement strategies on perks like a foosball table in the office, or bringing pets to work, or having ice cream socials.
These perks can definitely result in high levels of employee satisfaction.
However, having a large number of satisfied employees who are not engaged is actually detrimental to the organization, as I explain further in this article on the downsides to high employee retention.
When there are a lot of employees who are satisfied but not engaged, a lot of low-performing employees tend to stick around a long time because they are so satisfied.
Engaged employees, however, are emotionally invested in their work and in the organization.
Engaged employees are the ones who give discretionary effort and will go the extra mile to serve customers both internal and external to the organization.
When organizations have large numbers of engaged employees, they realize incredible business results.
Research from Gallup routinely finds that organizations measuring in the top 25% for employee engagement outperform organizations in the bottom 25% by huge margins.
For instance, organizations in the top 25% realize the following outcomes compared to those in the bottom 25%:
- Around 40% lower absenteeism
- Around 50% better employee retention
- 10-20% better customer ratings
- Around 20% better sales
- Around 20% higher profit
What is an Employee Engagement Strategy?
Most leaders (if not all leaders) are aware that employee engagement is the most important driver of success (tied with strategy) for their organization.
However, it seems that very few organizations have been able to improve and consistently maintain high levels of employee engagement.
Some compelling evidence for this is the fact that employee engagement in the workforce in general hasn’t improved to any significant degree in the last 20 years, despite massive investment in trying to improve it.
One of the main reasons for this is that organizations approach employee engagement with more of a tactical approach, aimed at creating quick wins, instead of formulating a long-term strategy for improving and maintaining high levels of employee engagement.
An employee engagement strategy is a long-term approach to creating the conditions for consistently high levels of employee engagement.
In this article, you’re going to discover the most effective high-level employee engagement strategy, as well as a number of detailed employee engagement strategies that support the high-level strategy.
18 Employee Engagement Strategies That Create Scalable, Lasting Success
1. Focus on Meeting Legitimate Needs Instead of Quick Fixes
This high-level employee engagement strategy is the key to quickly improving and sustaining higher levels of employee engagement.
Let’s start by providing some context for why this approach is so effective.
Most, if not all, leaders know how important employee engagement is.
So when they discover that employees in their organization are not as engaged as they’d like them to be, they look for ways to improve things as quickly as possible.
Because employee engagement is often thought of as an “HR thing,” the leadership team often delegates improving employee engagement to HR as a sort of “project.”
Most, if not all, HR professionals know that roughly 75% of employee engagement is driven by the direct supervisors of employees.
So, they know that the most effective way to improve employee engagement is to provide managers with the training they need to effectively drive employee engagement and retention.
But because leadership development takes a long time to plan and can often be very expensive, leadership teams often ask HR to make some changes at the organizational level in the hopes of improving employee engagement.
Some of these changes can be effective, but very often they are not.
As mentioned above, the lowest-hanging fruits are tactics like creating employee engagement activities or nice perks.
And, although those efforts can affect employee engagement to some degree, they have much more to do with employee satisfaction.
The most effective high-level strategy for improving employee engagement and retention is to identify and meet the 14 universal core needs that people have for thriving at work, starting with how direct supervisors can meet those needs.
By helping direct supervisors meet the legitimate core needs that people have for thriving at work, your organization can measurably improve employee engagement very quickly.
This is due to 2 factors:
- Again, as mentioned above, roughly 75% of employee engagement is driven by direct supervisors
- With the right approach and the right tools it can be much faster and much less expensive to help direct supervisors meet the core needs of employees than fixing organization-wide issues
Fortunately, the core needs that people have for thriving at work are well-known with decades of research showing that they are very tightly correlated with employee engagement and retention.
Also, these needs are essentially universal, which means almost everyone shares these needs for thriving at work.
In the paragraphs that follow, you’re going to discover the universal core needs people have for thriving at work that are most correlated with employee engagement and retention.
You’re also going to discover how you can help the managers in your organization to quickly start meeting these needs and driving higher levels of employee engagement.
2. Facilitate Excellence
Often, when leaders first hear about the idea of meeting the needs of employees, they tend to think about coddling employees with nice perks.
Thus, many leaders immediately discount the idea of meeting the legitimate needs of employees because they don’t see how it’s connected to creating a high-performance culture and drives successful business outcomes.
However, as mentioned above, employee engagement is the most important factor for organizational success (tied with strategy).
And, meeting the legitimate needs of employees is the simple secret to driving consistently high levels of employee engagement.
In fact, fortunately for employers, one of the core needs people have for thriving at work, and in life in general, is to be excellent.
Deep down, everyone wants to be great at what they do. We all want to make a contribution.
Being mediocre, or not contributing to success, significantly reduces one’s satisfaction in life and can even lead to depression.
Unfortunately, many people have bad habits that get in the way of them being excellent.
Many other people are actually perfectly ready to be excellent, but are hindered by bureaucracy, poor processes, or other obstacles that get in their way at work.
Great leaders see themselves as a coach whose primary job is to inspire greatness in their team and to help team members be the best versions of themselves.
The most effective leaders help people to be excellent, not for selfish reasons or purely for the benefit of the organization, but because that’s what’s best for the team member.
They realize that being excellent is a core need and they serve as a coach who helps people to be their best.
3. Provide Clear Expectations
A lack of clarity is a significant source of anxiety and frustration for nearly all human beings.
In the workplace, employees need to know what is expected of them.
People who are consistently anxious or frustrated will not be engaged long, if they ever were.
Research from Gallup has found that employees who strongly agree that their job description aligns with the work they do are 2.5 times more likely than other employees to be engaged.
Managers need to ensure that team members know what is expected of them in terms of job performance, as well as how they should behave while doing their work.
Great managers also provide context for those expectations by letting team members know how meeting those expectations help the team member to make an impact that helps their team members, the organization as a whole, the external customer, and perhaps even the local or global community.
4. Make Sure Team Members Have the Tools Required to Do Their Job Well
Another significant source of anxiety and frustration for most people is lacking the tools that one requires to do one’s job.
In fact, research has found that lacking the tools to do one’s job is the strongest predictor of job stress.
A core need people have for thriving at work is to have attainable goals and the tools they need to achieve those goals.
Great managers who drive high levels of employee engagement set realistic goals for team members so that team members don’t think their goals are “impossible,” which immediately creates the perception that one does not have the tools required to do the job.
Also, great managers frequently check in with employees to ask them about what they need to do great work and what obstacles might be getting in their way, and quickly take action to resolve those issues.
5. Help Team Members Do Work That They Enjoy and That Leverage Their Strengths
Fortunately for employers, a core need people have for thriving at work is to be engaged at work.
When we’re engaged in our work, it no longer seems like something we “have to do,” but rather something we “get to do.”
Being fully engaged at work results in spending a lot of time in what’s known as flow state, which is strongly correlated with satisfaction in life.
People are most likely to enter into flow state when they’re doing work that is challenging but not overwhelming, and that makes good use of their inherent strengths.
Research from Gallup suggests that doing work that one enjoys and that leverages their strength is the number one factor people look for when seeking a new job, and that the absence of those qualities is one of the primary factors people cite when leaving their current job.
Effective managers seek to understand the core strengths of employees and what they enjoy most, and they work to come up with creative approaches for helping employees do as much work as possible that aligns with their strengths.
6. Appreciate People
Nearly everyone, whether they readily admit it or not, needs to feel appreciated for the work that they do.
Research from Gallup has found that high performers who don’t feel appreciated are two-to-three times as likely to leave an organization within a year.
Unfortunately, most employees say that they rarely receive appreciation for what they do.
One reason for this, obviously, is that some managers just simply fail to regularly appreciate people for what they do.
However, many managers do regularly share appreciation, they just fail to share it in a way that is most likely to be internalized by the team member.
In these cases, the manager might be verbally saying “Thank you,” on a weekly basis, but because certain team members process information visually instead of through the auditory sense, they don’t process the appreciation and they report that they are not being appreciated.
Good managers build simple habits for catching people doing things right on a daily basis and providing timely, specific appreciation for the work that they do.
Great managers go a step beyond that and customize their appreciation in the ways that they know will make the greatest impact for each team member.
7. Help People Grow
Continuous growth is not only a core need for thriving at work, it is among the most basic human needs.
Research from Gallup has found that a lack of development and career growth is the number one reason employees leave a job.
Great leaders seek to understand the goals of their team members and work with team members to help them develop in the ways necessary to get to where they want to go.
They also help people to develop mastery of their current role.
There is a large body of research, as highlighted by Dan Pink in his book Drive, that suggests developing mastery is one of the key drivers of engagement in the workplace.
8. Ensure People Feel Heard
Although not everyone acts on this core need, we all need to feel as though we are contributing.
As mentioned above in the paragraph on excellence, sometimes bad habits simply get in the way of us contributing in the way we’d like to.
In addition to contributing by doing great work and being excellent, people also like to contribute by sharing ideas that add value.
This may be the easiest way to contribute because it doesn’t require anything other than sharing an idea.
In order for people to feel as though their ideas are making a contribution, they need to feel heard.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that their ideas need to be acted on.
It means that people need to feel that their ideas are at least considered.
Great leaders frequently seek out ideas from team members and make it easy for team members to share ideas without feeling that there could be negative repercussions for sharing those ideas.
Whether those ideas are acted upon or not, these leaders share appreciation for the team member sharing ideas, and they let them know why action was or was not taken on the idea.
9. Help Employees Realize Meaning at Work
Another universal core need that applies both at work and in life in general is the need to realize meaning in our lives.
Research published in the Harvard Business review by Shawn Achor and his colleagues demonstrates what a powerful need this is.
His team surveyed 2,285 American professionals, across 26 industries and a range of pay levels, company sizes, and demographics.
They found that nine out of 10 people would give up a percentage of their income to have greater meaning at work, and that the average person would give up 23% of their income to have a job that was always meaningful.
Great leaders help connect the jobs and tasks that people have to how their work makes an impact for the organization, and in the lives of others.
They help ensure that team members understand the mission, and the strategy for realizing that mission, for both the team and the organization.
And, they help team members understand how their work plays a role in the strategy and realizing the mission.
Also, great leaders take time to regularly find and share with team members examples of how people’s lives have been positively impacted by the work they do.
This can be as simple as sharing a story via email, or it could be as elaborate as inviting the person impacted to share their story live via video conference or in person.
10. Help People Feel Like They Belong
Another universal core need that applies in both our personal and professional lives is the need to feel like we belong to a group where we fit in.
Although many people find this surprising, research from Gallup has found that one of the strongest predictors of engagement is having a good friend at work.
Great leaders build teams of people who are inspired by the vision and mission of the organization and who share the same core values.
They also create opportunities for team members to socialize and develop meaningful relationships with each other.
The expectation is not that everyone will be friends.
The goal is for people to feel like they belong to the group, and to create the conditions for friendships to arise naturally.
11. Provide Regular, Helpful Feedback
Although most managers are high achievers who crave feedback to help them grow, we often forget that everyone on our team has this need, too.
As a result, feedback often isn’t provided to team members with nearly enough frequency.
Studies suggest that 60-70% of employees say they don’t receive feedback often enough.
In some cases, team members don’t get any feedback until an annual review.
But feedback at an annual review shouldn’t be new. There should be no surprises.
When leaders wait until an annual or bi-annual review to give feedback, the feedback isn’t about coaching someone to be their best.
Imagine a quarterback in the NFL who throws 3 interceptions the first game of the year, and no one provides any feedback.
Every game for the rest of the year, he throws 2 or 3 interceptions.
Then, when the season is over, the coach says to the quarterback, “You’ve had a pretty bad season. We’re going to have to let you go. Oh, by the way, when you run to the right and throw, your elbow flares out too much, which is causing you to throw poorly.”
This sounds absolutely ridiculous in the context of sports.
But a vacuum of feedback like this is pretty common in business.
Gallup research has found that only 26% of employees say that the feedback they receive is helpful.
The primary reason they cite for this is that feedback tends to be a one-way conversation, and it feels like criticism or judgment.
Great leaders don’t criticize or judge because that’s not helpful.
Research suggests that one-way feedback only improves performance about ⅓ of the time, and actually makes it worse ⅓ of the time.
Great leaders coach. They turn feedback conversations into coaching conversations.
Coaches ask a lot of questions, and spend less time speaking than the person they are coaching.
12. Give Team Members as Much Autonomy as Possible
A basic core need that human beings have is the need to have control over as many aspects of our lives as possible.
This certainly seems to apply in the workplace as well.
In Dan Pink’s groundbreaking book, Drive, he made a compelling case for why autonomy is a better motivator than financial incentives.
Pink’s theory is drawn from the research of psychologists Harry Harlow and Edward Deci, who discovered that rewards can fail to improve people’s engagement with tasks, and may even damage it.
Great leaders help ensure that team members understand the strategy of the team and the organization.
They help team members create their own goals for making an impact on the successful execution of the team strategy and the organization’s strategy.
People are much more excited about accomplishing goals that they set for themselves then they are about goals that are forced upon them.
Great leaders also give team members as much freedom as possible regarding how they do their work, when they do their work, and where they do their work.
13. Build Trust
In order for team members to be fully engaged in their work, they can’t be expending mental energy worrying about whether they can truly trust the people around them.
In the absence of trust, engagement is almost impossible to find.
There are a number of ways that great leaders build trust with their team members and facilitate trust between team members.
A simple, first step is to extend trust.
Great leaders do whatever they can to extend trust to team members.
People seem to be much more likely to trust a person who trusts them.
Great leaders are also as transparent as possible with information.
They do whatever they can to avoid creating the perception that they’re withholding any type of information.
Great leaders also quickly take the blame for any type of failure the team experiences.
And, great leaders work to create an environment of emotional safety and healthy communication that is motivated by the aspiration to be helpful.
14. Prioritize Wellbeing
This particular core need is so obvious it almost seems silly to put it in writing.
In order to thrive in the workplace, team members should certainly not work in an environment that has a negative impact on their physical or psychological well-being.
Unfortunately, it seems that the majority of workplaces in the United States and around the world fail to meet this very basic need.
Going to work is literally making people sick both physically and psychologically.
Great leaders know that for members to thrive and be fully engaged in their work, especially over the long term, the workplace must go beyond avoiding having a negative impact on well-being.
The workplace should actually enhance well-being.
The best leaders make the well-being of team members a top priority and refuse to sacrifice the well-being of team members for short-term financial gain.
They filter every decision they make through the impact it will have on the well-being of team members, and think long and hard about any course of action that would negatively impact a team member or a group of team members.
15. Show People That You Truly Care About Them
This may be the most important core need of all.
People need to feel that their supervisor truly cares about them as a person.
Research from Gallup suggests that this is one of the five key drivers of employee engagement.
Great leaders know that in almost every circumstance doing what’s best for the team member over the long term is also what’s best for the organization.
Their first thought with every decision is whether or not the course of action is best for the team member over the long term.
The goal, although lofty, should be to help team members feel as though their supervisors care as much or more about them as human beings than they do about the value team members are providing to the organization.
It’s counterintuitive, but this is when we see team members who are fully engaged and will go the extra mile by giving discretionary effort.
It’s much like in our personal relationships.
What should we do if we want our significant others to love us better?
The answer is simple: We should love them better.
The ability to help team members feel as though their supervisors care as much or more about them as a human being then they do about the value they are providing to the organization is not something that comes naturally, and it won’t be developed overnight.
However, by having frequent reminders of the power of this mindset, and developing simple habits to lead in this way, any leader who is healthy mentally can develop this ability over time.
16. Get Regular Feedback on How Well Managers are Meeting the Universal Core Needs of Team Members, and Give Them Training on How to Improve
In order to ensure that the managers in your organization are consistently meeting the universal core needs of team members that drive high levels of employee engagement, it’s essential to get regular feedback from the direct reports of team members.
The most effective way to do this is to use frequent, short, anonymous surveys that are focused on just one of the core needs.
Also, it’s very important that you provide training to help managers improve their abilities to meet the needs of team members as soon as possible after the surveys close.
Ideally, training should be ready to go before the surveys even go out.
By doing this, you create virtuous cycles that build confidence and trust with team members.
Team members regularly feel heard and see action being taken on the feedback they provide.
This alone can significantly improve employee engagement.
Research from Gallup published in the book It’s The Manager found that employee engagement is nearly three times higher when employees strongly agree with the statement, “My organization acts upon the results of surveys I complete.”
Also, by having each training session focused on meeting just one core need, managers are much more likely to take action on what they learn and build habits that they can actually stick with.
17. Get Regular Feedback on How Well the Organization is Meeting the Universal Core Needs of Team Members
After spending 6-12 months getting regular feedback from employees on how well their direct supervisors are meeting their needs, and taking action on that feedback immediately, you can start to get regular feedback on how well the organization as a whole is meeting the core needs of team members.
You will have built trust with team members.
They will have seen 10-20 virtuous cycles of giving feedback, feeling heard, and seeing action being taken on their feedback in a matter of days.
Thus, when you ask questions about what the organization could be doing to better meet their needs, you’ll get a higher response rate and better answers.
Nevertheless, I recommend that instead of asking about many needs at once you focus on just one core need at a time.
It will still generally take longer for senior leadership to respond to these organization-wide issues, but by focusing on just one need at a time, the response will be much, much faster, and help maintain or further build trust with employees.
18. Focus on Impact
When organizations start asking employees about how well the organization is meeting the core needs of team members, a great first question to ask on the topic of whether or not the vision or mission of the organization makes their work meaningful.
This is one area where the c-suite can make a huge impact.
In order to ensure team members find meaning in the work, your organization needs to have a compelling purpose clearly expressed in a vision and mission statement.
Most organizations miss the mark here, and they’re missing a huge opportunity.
The vision or mission statements of most organizations focus on how they’re going to win in the marketplace, or simply describe what the organization does.
This is not inspiring to team members. It doesn’t make work meaningful.
Organizations should instead focus on the impact they’re making on the lives of customers (mission statement) and how the world will be better off as a result of their work (vision statement).
To take this a step further, senior leaders should spend less time speaking about competitors and more time speaking about the impact the organization is making.
This is inspiring.
This helps team members realize meaning in their work.
And, this is one of the most important steps the c-suite can take to meet a universal core need of team members, help team members thrive, and drive consistently high levels of employee engagement and performance.
Matt Tenney is an active CEO who aspires to create the best workplace culture in the world. Matt is also the author of Serve To Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom, and The Mindfulness Edge: How to Rewire Your Brain for Leadership and Personal Excellence. Matt is frequently invited to present keynote speeches at leadership conferences and meetings. His TEDx Talk has been viewed over 1,000,000 times since January, 2020.