Last Updated on 2023/08/25

Have you ever stood outside of a large office building in the morning and observed the body language of people as they start their work day? How about the end of the day? How many of them actually WANT to be at work?

If you believe the many surveys on employee engagement, the number is about 20%. The others are either “not engaged,” which basically means “not happy to be at work” or “actively disengaged,” which means “often behaving like a terrorist in the office.”

Have you ever heard the term “employee engagement” and wondered what it really means? Is it job satisfaction? Employee motivation? Or something else?

Engagement is a hot topic in the leadership development world. Our clients want us to help them figure out how to improve engagement. So over the past year or so, I’ve done a lot of reading on this topic, and asked questions of a lot people smarter than I am.


Defining Engagement






Kevin Kruse, not smiling

I’ve learned that people can be satisfied with their jobs without being engaged. This means they won’t quit, but it doesn’t mean they’ll care a lot about going beyond the minimum requirements of the job. They won’t care about the company’s financial health beyond what might be needed to get a good bonus this year. I’ve also learned that motivation is more of an individual thing. A person can be highly motivated to achieve personal goals, but not too concerned about larger team or company goals as long as there is no impact on them personally.


Kevin Kruse is one of my favorite authors on the subject of engagement, probably because he never writes more than is necessary to get the point across. In 2012, he published a book called Employee Engagement 2.0: How to Motivate Your Team for High Performance.

Here is what he wrote about the definition of Employee Engagement 

“Employee engagement is the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals.”

He went on to explain that the emotional commitment he mentions means people actually care about their work and the company.

Why Engage Employees?

If you lead people and right now you’re thinking“Wait a minute True. Engagement is up to the employee,” you’re both right and wrong.

You’re right because no matter what you do, there are some people who simply refused to be engaged. The might view work as something that must be done in order to make a living, but it does not occur to them work could be something more than this. No matter how enlightened you are, you aren’t going to be able to win a fight against established beliefs and values.

Others are not engaged because they are too distracted by personal issues to ever really focus on work. Others still might be a bad fit for most office environments, and would be better off following some artistic or educational passion.

However, there are also a lot of ways you can develop individuals and teams that are highly engaged. Of the dozens of books and articles I’ve read and the many conversations I’ve had on this subject with my HR and senior leader pals, I will still defer to Kevin Kruse on the reasons why we might want to take action to increase engagement.

He cites a Towers Perrin study that shows a 6% higher net profit margin for companies with engaged employees. He goes on to write about a Kenexa study that shows shareholder returns five times higher for companies with engaged employees than for companies that do not. He developed a simple model called the ROI Chain of Engagement that looks like this:

ow to Increase Engagement

If you’ve read this far, you are probably thinking about how you might take action to increase engagement levels for those employees who are actually “engage-able.”

It might be easier to think of all of the things that kill engagement, since you’ve probably experienced every one of them in your career. Things like lying or hiding the truth. Change with no explanation and for no apparent reason. Leaders who ignore you most of the time, especially when you’ve done something good, but who are on the phone right away when you’re a bit behind on a KPI or a project. Passive-aggressive behavior, bit surprises on the annual review, not getting what you were promised. This stuff pops the engagement balloon immediately and burns scars into the memory banks.

So let’s keep it positive here at the end. Here are my Five Favorite Ideas for Increasing Engagement, from a manager/leader point of view. I hope you find them helpful.


An obvious one, but the problem is we don’t do it well or often enough. Our people are busy. We are busy. So the very important but not urgent activity ofsitting down with our team members to connect personally, ask them how things are going, and find out how we might support them for a few minutes each week gets postponed. The majority of our communication comes in the form of hurried instructions, orders, or quick progress checks (“Are you going to get that done on time?”). It’s hard to put everything else aside, ask some good questions, and really listen to your people when there is so much to do, but this is a vital activity for detecting current or future problems and for building positive working relationships. Make time for it.


ENGAGEMENT IDEA #2: Give Feedback.

Managers who engage employees have figured out thatit is best to give balanced, objective feedback and to give it regularly. As one charismatic leader at conference I attended recently said: “There should be NO surprises in the annual performance review.” Because of fears about how the feedback will be received and misunderstandings about how to give feedback, many managers wait until they are really upset before giving feedback, or only talk about things that need to improve, i.e. mistakes their people make.

This kills engagement and undoes a lot of the good work a manager may have done to improve engagement in the past. Learn how to give constructive feedback (hint—it’s largely about adapting your style to make sure the receiver is able to understand and benefit from what you are saying), and give it often.

ENGAGEMENT IDEA #3.Build Trust. 

Building trust is another popular topic among our clients recently, and for good reason. There is a long list of characteristics, habits, and attitudes that build trust. To highlight a few, managers who build trust:

● Live the values they communicate to others.
● Care about more than just themselves.
● Learn when to be hands-off, and when to be hands-on.
● Don’t need to do everything themselves.
● Are transparent with most things.

Building trust is one of the best ways to engage employees, but it takes focus and awareness to do it well.

ENGAGEMENT IDEA #4: Care about Growth.

Ambitious people, the kind you want on your time, need to feel like they are making progress in their careers. This includes the opportunity to learn new things. The best practice for a manager is to schedule regular career discussions instead of waiting until the annual performance review, when the focus is not so much on employee development as it is on achievement, reward, and planning for the next year.If you don’t care about your people’s development almost as much as they do, you’re going to lose your good ones.

ENGAGEMENT IDEA #5:Give Your Support.

A team of researchers at McKinsey published a study in Jan 2015 showing thatthe people who are best at building high performing teams are supportive. This means that leaders understand and sense how other people feel (also known as empathy). Supportive leaders are authentic and have a sincere interest in those around them. They look for opportunities to build trust and to help people solve problems. The come from a place of sincerity in the way they interact with their subordinates and peers.

There are several other factors we might add to the list: Team cohesion, driving results, delegating, the physical work environment, etc., but these five factors form the core of what drives greater employee engagement in my mind.

I should also mention that there is considerable evidence that there are generational, job function, and gender differences in engagement and how you might increase a person’s engagement. Right now at True Development, we are developing an educational piece and training program content on the subject of engaging different generations. If you’d like to see what we come up with, drop me (  a note.

Yours in learning,

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