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To Cultivate Employee Engagement, You Must First Define It


Research has already established that strong employee engagement is crucial due to its relation to reducing the costs of employee churn, as well as driving strong customer loyalty. The term is commonly referenced, and the mandate to improve “employee engagement” is the call heard around global C-suites.

There is often confusion, though, about how to define employee engagement. Is it ping-pong tables, care-free dress codes, and open kitchens with fridges stocked with favorite beers and snacks? No. But you’d be surprised by how often that interpretation comes to mind.

Nor is the definition simply ensuring that employees are content with their jobs, their compensation, and their work-life balance. Many employees are satisfied with these aspects of their employment and will happily put in their forty hours to meet the base requirements of their jobs in return for these necessities, but that certainly doesn’t qualify them as “engaged.”

If asked, would your C-Level team agree on the characteristics that define an engaged employee? Without understanding what engagement actually entails, it can be a fruitless endeavor to try to measure and improve it. So, the first step to gauging your company’s level of employee engagement, and isolating any root causes that may be hampering it, should be to identify the distinct characteristics of an engaged employee for your particular business or industry.

Defining Employee Engagement in Your Organization

For starters, according to, employee engagement is defined as the “emotional connection an employee feels toward his or her employment organization, which tends to influence his or her behaviors and level of effort in work-related activities.” In other words, an engaged employee isn’t just in it for the pay package or career stature, but they actually care about the organization and its goals, and thus will choose to go above and beyond their job requirements in order to see the organization succeed. More simply defined, an engaged employee is an emotionally vested one.

Appreciating the definition of what employee engagement is and is not then leads to the next challenge of realizing how it is cultivated. The following five characteristics are typically exhibited by those employees who are most engaged and underscore the necessary ingredients for fostering a truly engaged workforce.

They possess a sense of pride, belonging, and purpose:

Employees want to be proud of the company they work for, feel connected to the people they work with, and care about the company’s overall purpose and mission. Furthermore, they seek self-esteem through responsibility and means of achieving personal success and enhancing their reputation.

Engaged employees align themselves to the company’s mission, realize how they can uniquely contribute to it, and recognize that the mission holds promise for their own personal future. And they are best able to do this when they are inspired by their personal relationships with their direct manager and co-workers. Employees are loyal to people, not companies – thus, disengagement at the top can have tremendous ripple effects throughout an organization.

At all levels, disengaged managers, or managers with poor leadership skills in general, will likely neglect to enlighten, inspire, and coach, which is a surefire way to hamper loyalty. Conversely, skilled and engaged managers are adept at motivating employees by assuring them that their ideas, opinions, and efforts have meaning and impact, and at reinforcing the conviction that everyone’s personal efforts are connected to the overall success of the company.

Engaged employees feel a strong personal fit:

Employees want to gain a sense of personal accomplishment from their work – they want to be stimulated, challenged, and feel as though they are constantly learning – but not at the expense of their self-esteem. If they are in the wrong role given their skill set, the challenges will be insurmountable and demoralizing, which is particularly debilitating for naturally competitive employees.

Thus, when considering an employee’s performance and how to position an employee for success, it is incumbent on managers to ensure that first and foremost, employees are in roles that are well-aligned with their skills and abilities. When managers maintain a strong connection with employees, and work closely to ensure a strong personal fit between the role itself and the employee, stronger engagement ensues.

Engaged employees have confidence in leadership:

To support the sense of pride, belonging, and purpose that is necessary for engagement is the foundation of a strong leadership team, one which earns the respect and loyalty of employees through its integrity, acumen, transparency, and example-setting. Alignment on core values is paramount.

Engaged employees have faith that the company is being well-managed, are inspired by the behavior of executives, and believe that leadership endeavors to make well-informed decisions. When cracks start to form in this foundation, the support for strong employee engagement can start to erode rapidly.

They feel rewarded and recognized:

While employees seek to earn fair compensation, compensation alone does not drive stronger employee engagement. From the start, employees have an expectation that the organization will match pay to performance because ultimately that’s what employees seek most – overall compensation that recognizes performance and is determined fairly.

Employees want more than just good compensation packages, however. They want to have faith that higher compensation and promotions are generally given to the most deserving employees – that the playing field is fair and that the game isn’t rigged. They also want to be valued for their contributions to the organization, appreciated for their collaborative behavior, and acknowledged for a job well done.

Quite simply, they want to participate in the growth they work so hard to create. Thus, not compensation alone, but overall recognition and reward practices, is a key driver of stronger employee engagement. And to be effective, such practices should be personal, relevant, timely, and unpredictable. And they should comprise a mix of both personal and public forums. Employees that feel appropriately rewarded and recognized, and witness the same of their co-workers, are more apt to consistently out-perform and produce results above expectations.

They see career growth opportunities for themselves:

Personal growth and fulfillment are important to all individuals and employment is one of many important avenues to satisfy this need. If employees feel that their future with the company is destined to be stagnant, so then will be their effort.

Visibly attainable career paths, and the consistent and direct support of management in developing its people to their full potential, are vital components of building a vibrant and engaged workforce. When employees trust that leadership is committed to retaining its most talented people and grooming the next generation of talent for future leadership roles, an extremely strong and loyal bond is formed.

The Benefit of Engaged Employees

If your goal is to shape a high-performance culture and deliver measurably improved business outcomes, then understanding what it is and what it takes to improve employee engagement are crucial steps. Appreciating the true nature of what it means to be engaged then paves the way to find appropriate diagnostic, measurement, and tracking tools to baseline your efforts, implement employee-related initiatives as necessary, and monitor aspects related to employee sentiment and loyalty over time.

And the payoff when employee engagement grows stronger? Along with increased trust, pride, and camaraderie among employees, companies experience stronger financial performance, increased innovation, increased customer loyalty, lower absenteeism, and higher retention of top talentBut for this goal to be successful, you’ll need to define it, and then ensure the organization is dedicated to planning for the necessary training, coaching, and rewarding of employees on a habitual basis.