Actionable Impact: Getting Employee Engagement Right

Many organizations are failing today when it comes to getting line managers to take employee engagement seriously. Unfortunately, organizations are doing what comes naturally rather than what is required to produce change.

There are several problems faced. One is that their message is overly complicated and doesn't connect with time-starved managers who may have short attention spans. A second problem is that they focus on rational messages rather than a combination of rational and emotional messages that connect with the hearts and minds of managers. A third problem is they don’t measure employee engagement, hold managers accountable, or coach them to improve.


The first objective of an employee engagement effort must be to make it simple and easy for managers to adopt. The rational case for employee engagement is made by presenting compelling quantitative and qualitative research, simple diagrams, and intuitive models to help managers understand employee engagement and encourage leadership team development.

For example, we’ve found the following simple messages are effective:

  • Research has proven that employee engagement affects results. Engaged employees have been found to be 20 percent more productive than the average employee.
  • Research has established that approximately 75 percent of employees today are not engaged.They show up for the paycheck but don’t give their best efforts or align their behavior with organizational goals.
  • The root of the problem is that leaders focus only on achieving task excellence and devote little time and attention to developing relationship excellence that engages employees.
  • Sustainable superior performance requires developing both task and relationship excellence as shown in the model:
    Task Excellence + Relationship Excellence = Sustainable Superior Performance
  • Relationship Excellence is developed from the "connection" people feel when they experience Vision + Value + Voice.

Three Keys to Relationship Excellence

exists when people are motivated by the mission, united by the core values and proud of the reputation.

Value exists when people understand human needs, appreciate the positive unique contributions of others, and help them achieve their potential.

exists when people seek the ideas of others, share their opinions and ideas honestly and safeguard relational connections.

Rational + Emotional Messages

In addition to presenting the rational case, organizations need to reach managers emotionally by inspiring them with case studies, examples and stories during leadership activities. Here are a few examples from our book and recent articles we’ve written:

Vision: During World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt traveled to Seattle, Washington, to meet with 18,000 aircraft workers at Boeing Corporation. FDR brought with him a young airplane pilot named Hewitt Wheless from Texas. The pilot explained to those present that he had escaped death thanks to the resilience of the bullet-riddled B-17 plane he flew out of harm’s way. His plane had been built at that very Boeing plant. Do you think seeing and hearing that young pilot thank them for saving his life connected them to a common cause, a "Vision" that motivated them? You bet it did. It transformed those welders and riveters into freedom fighters. From 1941 until 1945 American aircraft companies out-produced the Nazis three-to-one and built nearly 300,000 airplanes.

Value: The members of the rock band U2 have now been together for more than 35 years and they’ve been awarded more Grammy Awards than any band in history. One reason is that each member of the band and their longtime manager are valued by the other band members. They split the band’s profits in five equal ways. They praise one another publicly. Bono, the lead singer, frequently says he’s not a great guitar player or keyboards player but his talented band mates are brilliant and help bring the music he hears in his head to life. They have been there for one another through the difficult seasons in life. When Larry Mullen Jr.’s mother died in a car accident a year after the band came together, Bono was there to help him get through it. When the A&M records offered U2 its first recording contract if it dropped Larry Mullen Jr., the other band members told A&M to forget it. When Edge went through a divorce, the guys were there for him. When Adam Clayton developed an alcohol addiction, the guys helped him get over it. When the band received a death threat aimed at Bono if it played the song "Pride (In the Name of Love)" during one concert, Adam surprised Bono by standing in front of him to shield Bono from harm. Wouldn’t you feel valued if you were a member of U2 and your colleagues treated you like that?

Voice: In 2000, Anne Mulcahy became CEO of Xerox and immediately announced that the company’s business model was unsustainable. She went on to share what she thought with employees and ask them their opinions and ideas. She implemented the best ideas and it lead to a phenomenal turnaround of Xerox.

These are just a few examples. To be effective, you need many stories that provide examples and inspire managers to want to change. The stories need to be from different contexts such as business, sports and the social sector. When sharing these stories, give managers time to think about their own experiences and have them share their experiences in small groups with other managers. Make sure each small group has a leader who is strong at engaging employees so they model how an engaging manager interacts with others.

Measure and Coach
Leadership Team Development

If you are involved with employee engagement at your organization, here are three questions you need to ask and answer:

  1. Are we keeping the employee engagement messaging simple for time-starved managers with short attention spans?
  2. Are we employing both rational and emotional messages that effectively reach managers’ hearts and minds so that they understand employee engagement and are motivated to improve it?
  3. Are we measuring employee engagement and holding managers accountable? Are we providing the leadership team development and coaching necessary to help them change.

Finally, organizations must measure employee engagement at least annually and hold managers accountable. As managers’ blind spots are identified, train and coach them to improve. Peer mentoring leadership activities should be considered first to keep costs down. If necessary, bring in a coach from outside your organization.

Employee engagement is an ongoing process that must be consistently developed and measured within the organization. Although it is not something that can be achieved overnight, those organizations that take it seriously will see a marked impact on productivity and will eventually cultivate a desirable organizational culture that will attract and retain talent.