Leading engagement

Sarah Cook looks at the role people developers have in improving employee engagement

Employee engagement has today become the holy grail of many businesses as it has been shown that organisations who score highly in terms of engaged staff deliver better overall sustained business results. Over the past ten years, there has been a growing amount of empirical evidence that employee engagement is key to sustained business success:

  • A study of 23,910 business units compared top quartile and bottom quartile engagement scores and found that those in the top quartile averaged 12 per cent higher profitability. (Source: Gallup Q12 Meta-Analysis, Gallup)
  • Five per cent increase in total employee engagement correlates to a 0.7 per cent increase in operating margin. (Source: Towers Perrin 2004 European Talent Survey: Reconnecting with Employees: Attracting, Retaining, and Engaging, Towers Perrin)
  • Teams classified as in the “high performance zone for engagement” had a 37 per cent Net Promoter Score (NPS) versus 10 per cent Net Promoter Score (NPS) for teams “outside of the high performance zone for engagement.” (Source: Aon Hewitt European Manager Survey 2011,
  • Aon Hewitt)
  • Highly engaged employees were 87 per cent less likely to leave their companies than their disengaged counterparts. (Source: Driving performance and retention through employee engagement, Corporate Leadership Council)
  • A study conducted across 39 organisations indicates that organisations with highly-engaged employees achieve seven times greater five-year total shareholder return (TSR) than organisations whose employees are less engaged. (Source: The Impact of Employee Engagement, Kenexa).

Yet in spite of the business case for high levels of engagement, research also show that the majority of employees in most businesses are not actively engaged.

A definition of engagement

There are many definitions of employee engagement: “An employee’s drive to use all their ingenuity and resources for the benefit of the company”, “aligning corporate agendas with personal motivation”, “commitment to keep the brand promise”. Our preferred definition is “harnessing discretionary effort”. This is because it implies that employees have a choice in how they behave and whether they go out of their way to deliver above and beyond. 

You can tell if an employee is engaged when you deal with them as a customer. As a customer, you can be dealt with in a similar service situation by two different people and experience two different customer interactions. The attitude and approach of each of the two service providers will vary according to whether each individual chooses to deliver a standard, satisfactory service or to go above and beyond. This is his or her personal choice and discretion. An organisation cannot mandate that this should happen (though some command and control type businesses unsuccessfully do). It is up to the employee whether they make the effort to go above and beyond what is expected of them or deliver a standard experience.

How do you create engagement?

The CIPD states there are three dimensions to employee engagement:

  • Intellectual engagement – thinking hard about the job and how to do it better
  • Effective engagement – feeling positively about doing a good job
  • Social engagement – actively taking opportunities to discuss work-related improvements with others at work.

So what encourages employees to go the extra mile? Some people may say that it is just a matter of recruiting the right people. People who are employed with a positive attitude and high energy are most likely to go the extra mile. Clearly recruiting high octane people is important and training them well is essential, but there are examples of employees who display a customer-focused attitude and approach on day one with a company, but six months later are either cynical or withdrawn or indeed overloaded with work and find it difficult to deliver a
great service.

In our experience, the key factors which encourage high levels of employee engagement relate to leadership. Ultimately the person that most impacts and influences whether an individual is willing and committed to spending discretionary effort is the individual’s line manager. The importance of line managers valuing and caring for employees is supported by evidence from global research undertaken by Gallup as part of their extensive employee engagement survey. This identifies employees’ primary needs such as having the right tools for the job and knowing what is expected of them at work.

If you think back to the last time that you left an organisation, you’ll probably find that your decision was very much influenced by your relationship with your boss. People leave managers, not companies. A productive workplace is one in which people feel trusted and safe – safe enough to experiment, to challenge, to share information, to support each other, and where the individual is prepared to give the manager and the organisation the “benefit of the doubt”. None of this can happen if people do not feel cared about as individuals.

Invest in leadership development

So the good news for L&D professionals is that by developing leaders well, this can help improve levels of employee engagement. In addition, providing people across the organisation with development opportunities is a clear motivator.

We’ll focus first on leadership development. There are many different approaches to developing leaders and we are very conscious that each intervention needs to be tailored to the need of the individual group and organisational context. However, when designing leadership development interventions with a view to improving employee engagement, here are some key considerations to factor in to your development for leaders:

Be authentic

To emotionally engage with an individual, he or she needs to feel that you are coming from an authentic place. The individual needs to believe deeply in what you are saying; that you want to involve him or her in what you are doing; that he or she is a valued contributor to this activity and that you demonstrate energy and enthusiasm.  Author Maya Angelou once said: “[pullquote]People will forget what you did, people will forget what you said, but people will never forget how you made them feel[/pullquote].”

Employees quickly see past ‘corporate speak’ and empty words which are not a genuinely held belief or passion. This is the key challenge of leaders – how does each leader, in their own authentic way, create an environment where people want to follow him or her and customers want to engage with his or her people?


The best leaders are those who are approachable and can readily make connections with others. Connectedness is all about our ability as leaders to relate to others. ‘Connectedness’ requires leaders to ‘step into the world’ of others. This allows the leader to truly understand the employee’s concerns, perspectives and agendas. It means being able to genuinely listen and value those ideas and work with them. It involves being genuinely curious about others and seeking to understand their viewpoint rather than pushing your own.

How do you know when your leader genuinely cares about you? This is a question asked of leaders when running leadership workshops over the last few years and the answers are always
the same:

Acknowledge and notice others – for example saying “Good morning, how are you? How was your weekend?”

  • Learning everyone’s names from your direct reports to the most junior people
  • Give the person your undivided attention and maintain eye contact  during conversations
  • Ask others questions and for their opinions and actively listen
  • Provide ongoing feedback
  • Regularly compliment people both publicly and privately
  • Express genuine interest in the personal life of each team member
  • Spend time finding out what is important to others.

This is what staff want with regards to caring from their leaders – it doesn’t seem to matter what level in the hierarchy you direct the question to, the answers are always the same!

When you look at this list, there is nothing here that is challenging or stretching in any of these activities. Some leaders will suggest that time is an issue but of course we all know that if we believe something is important, we will find time to do it. Therefore, it would suggest that leaders do not believe that the activities above are really important to others – yet it is a universal issue – we all value these activities.

Here are some questions for both you and leaders you work with to consider:

  • How much do you know about your team?
  • Do you know the name of their partners and children?
  • Do you know what really matters to them?
  • Do you know what motivates each of them?
  • Do you what they like doing in their spare time?
  • Do you know what would keep them awake at night?

What occasions can you create so that you have time to get to know your people better and recognise them for the contributions they make?  What, for you, would be an authentic way of showing you care and are connected to your team members?

Being connected requires leaders to also question and challenge – if individuals believe they have been truly listened to and their points understood and valued, they are more likely to engage in questions and challenges in the knowledge that everyone is searching for the best outcome, not an opportunity to feed their ego. The nature of the questioning and challenge will appeal to the curiosity of others and the possibilities that might surface, not the criticism that individuals can associate with the word challenge. We recently observed a team leader in a service organisation effectively question a team of employees. The team members had been tasked with reducing the processing time of customer requests from seven to three days, avoiding re-work, errors and delays. The team leader challenged the team to re-consider their three-day target from a customer’s perspective and it was agreed a day’s turnaround was the ideal. As a result of this challenge, the team identified improvements which bought the time down to less than a day.

Feedback and learning

Great leaders are tolerant of others’ one-off mistakes and see them as a way to learn. At toy maker Lego, the organisation has set up a ‘FutureLab’ aimed at inventing new products and experiences for the Lego customer. The aim of the lab is to deliberately disrupt the organisation from within, rather than wait till a competitor disrupts their business. They learn as much about themselves and their customers from failure as they do from success. Their attitude is “How could we have learnt a better way of doing things, if we had never made mistakes?” As Carl Jung said: “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”

Within the organisation, feedback is a great way of creating a learning environment, particularly if it is delivered by an authentic leader who connects well with people and cares about them. When we have respect for a person we are willing to hear whatever feedback they have for us because we know the intent is to help us.

One way of creating a feedback culture is for leaders to invite feedback from others on their performance, their behaviour and its impact on others. By modelling how to receive it, leaders will be encouraging others to do likewise. ‘In the moment’ feedback is what all leaders want to aim for. Being able to offer each other feedback while having a conversation or just after a meeting or an interaction with a team member, shows that the leadership culture is keen to learn and do the best they can for themselves as well as others.

Development opportunities to boost engagement

[pullquote]Ultimately encouraging everyone to learn and offering development opportunities for all is a great way to engage people further[/pullquote]. As an L&D professional, consider if there are some roles or parts of the organisation where development opportunities are limited or non-existent? How does this relate to employee engagement scores in these areas?

We appreciate that learning and development budgets can be tight and that it is often difficult to offer a wide range of learning interventions for all. Nevertheless, it is useful for L&D, OD and HR professionals to correlate engagement scores per function/business area to the amount and type of development on offer. Clearly factors we have discussed already such as caring leadership, having the right tools for the job, being clear about expectations, organisational fit and work contribution are important in driving engagement, but personal development is a prime factor in engagement too. By undertaking a deep dive in to employee engagement survey results in relation to development needs, L&D professionals can identify opportunities to enhance people’s individual development and hence motivation.


The business case for engagement is clear but yet research shows that the majority of employees in most businesses are not actively engaged. We believe that investment in leadership development can have a long lasting positive impact on engagement scores as well as providing appropriate development opportunities for all employees.


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