How To Get Employee Engagement Right

One of the most valuable assets for today’s competitive organisation is an engaged workforce. That is because engaged employees have been proven to lead to reduced staff turnover, improved safety performance, increased production and efficiency, lower absenteeism and better customer relationships.

So, how can your business achieve this kind of change in your organisation? First off, it is important to understand clearly what employee engagement means.

Defining employee engagement

While there has been a great deal of interest in the topic, there is still no universally accepted definition of the term employee engagement. William Khan coined the term a mere 29 years ago in his study Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work (1990). Khan defined personal engagement as “the harnessing of organisational members’ selves to their work roles; in engagement, people employ and express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally during role performances”.

According to Khan’s definition, engagement requires the employee to be psychologically and emotionally involved in their work role and use this in a discretionary effort (an employee’s willingness to go above minimal job responsibilities [Lloyd, 2008]) to achieve the organisation’s goal. This concept of the ‘discretionary effort’ is what sets employee engagement apart from concepts such as job satisfaction.

Job satisfaction refers primarily to the emotional connection an employee feels – how happy they are in their work – and is typically influenced by issues such as salary, benefits, team dynamics, access to resources, etc. Whereas employee engagement goes beyond the emotional response and includes the cognitive state and physical discretionary effort. While a satisfied employee may have positive emotions about their job, unlike engaged employees it would not necessarily translate into higher performance.

What does an engaged employee look like?

Perhaps employee engagement can be best understood by looking at what traits an engaged employee would exhibit.


Engaged employees will go beyond just doing their jobs. They have a deep understanding of how their work contributes to the success of the business and will actively seek out challenges and new and smarter ways of doing their jobs that will benefit the business.

The drivers of Employee Engagement

So, how can your business reap the powerful benefits of employee engagement? The one thing that is clear is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. There are as many approaches to Employee Engagement as there are definitions, but a study of the literature on this topic, reveals some common drivers that almost all experts agree on.

1. Employee well-being

In view of the processes involved in an employee’s decision to engage (i.e. at cognitive, emotional and behavioural level) it is understandable that personal well-being would play an important role in employee engagement. When a person feels healthy and happy, it affects their energy levels, cognitive abilities and emotional intelligence.

However, well-being should be managed on a holistic basis if it is to impact on the levels of engagement. Global analytics and advice firm Gallup base their research on the correlation between well-being and employee engagement on five elements of well-being:

Purpose (Career Well-being): liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals

Social: having supportive relationships and love in your life

Financial: managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security

Community: liking where you live, feeling safe and having pride in your community

Physical: having good health and enough energy to get things done daily

The key here is to not only focus on physical well-being, but to take into consideration all of the factors that could affect your employees’ well-being and, consequently, their ability to connect with the organisation.

What Your Organisation Can Do:
  • Focus on all aspects of well-being. The above-mentioned elements are interrelated, so focusing on only one aspect at the expense of the other elements will not get you the results you seek.
  • Connect employees’ roles to the overall business goals so that they can clearly see the higher purpose of what they do.
  • Provide opportunities for employees to develop social relationships – whether through team days off, special events or social clubs. Encourage your employees to connect with one another socially and build relationships.
  • Ensure that salaries are fair and equitable across the board.
  • Invest in financial literacy training for workers.
  • Sponsor sporting events or offer incentives for healthy lifestyles
  • Support the communities in which employees live and actively encourage them to take part in community upliftment projects
  • Protect employees’ mental well-being by reducing stressors, preventing job overload, role confusion, negative conflict and burnout.

2. Leadership

Next to employee well-being, leadership has a profound effect on employee engagement. According to Hart & McCleod in their Engage for Success Report, Accenture’s internal research revealed that up to 80% of the variation in engagement levels was due to line management. Research by Gallup also supports the important impact of leadership of engagement – it estimates that managers account for at least 70% of variance in employee engagement scores.

The huge impact of leadership on engagement is because the employee’s primary relationship at work is with their direct line manager. While senior executives and Human Resources departments may have the best of intentions, ultimately it will count for little if it is not supported in the day-to-day operations of the business.

Leadership is essential in promoting employee well-being by structuring work to be more meaningful, communicating and modelling the vision and values of the company, creating a line of sight between the employee’s role and the company’s goals, providing challenging projects, supporting development and growth, ensuring adequate resources are assigned, giving an employees a voice in the workplace and encouraging innovation.

What Your Organisation Can Do:
  • Share the results of employee engagement surveys with line managers. This will help them uncover areas that need improvement and give them the chance to increase their own engagement efforts
  • Start from the top and model the required leadership behaviour to the next level of leadership. When senior management actively works to engage their line management, the chances are good that they will in turn do the same for their teams.
  • Focus on the importance of face-to-face communication. Again, start from the top and practice face-to-communication with your line leadership. Then allow and support them in communicating the message in the same way to their employees.
  • Educate your line management on the benefits of employee engagement and empower them with the knowledge to recognise the warning signs of a disengaged employee.
  • Empower them with the necessary engagement skills such as communication, interpersonal skills, awareness, coaching, change management, conflict management and effective listening.
  • Ensure that your line leadership understand the company’s vision, values and goals and that they are able to effectively communicate and model these to their teams.
  • Develop an Employee Engagement Management Competency Framework for your organisation.

3. Role clarity & Purpose

To fully engage with the business, employees need to know how their work connects to the bigger picture. They need to find the higher meaning in what they do and know that their work is both valued by and valuable to the organisation. Without this clarity and purpose, employees can become despondent, confused and disengaged from their roles.

It is important to note at this point that role clarity requires more than just a job description. It extends beyond the list of job specifications to provide employees with clear goals and priorities within their roles. Not only do they understand their own role, but also how it fits with what everyone else is doing. So, as the business grows and changes, they will know how expectations of their role will also change.

Research by Gallup showed that groups who scored high on the question “I know what is expected of me at work” were more productive, more profitable, more creative, had happier customers and fewer on-the-job accidents.

What Your Organisation Can Do:
  • Consider developing job expectations in collaboration with employees. Doing this will promote a sense of ownership by employees.
  • Implement a knowledge transfer system from experienced employees to new employees, as well as on-going coaching and feedback at an individual and team level.
  • Ensure that there is no doubt as to what is expected from an employee. Discuss everything openly and honestly and work towards mutual understanding of the role.
  • Use task maps to make the connection between the employee’s role and the organisation’s objectives and how their role fits in with other roles in the organisation.
  • Focus on the top performance elements, rather than the minimum job requirements. Inspire employees to reach for the top by basing expectations on best-in-class behaviours.

4. Communication

It might have become evident by now how important effective communication is in employee engagement. It comes up in nearly every driver and has a big influence on how well received all your engagement efforts are. It is essential to sustaining healthy relationships and promoting trust in the business and its leadership.

Research has consistently shown that employees place a high value on communication from their manager – not just in terms of their work, but also what happens in their lives outside of work. A Gallup study found that employees who feel that their manager truly cares about them and is invested in them as people are more likely to be engaged and that engagement is highest among employees who have some form (face-to-face, phone or digital) of daily communication with their managers.

Employees also need to feel that they have a voice in the business and that their opinions and concerns matter. This reinforces a sense of belonging and that their actions have an impact.

In terms of communication content, the focus should be on creating engaging messages that evoke action or emotion from employees. Your content should grab your employees’ attention and connect with them on all levels of engagement. Also take into account that people differ widely in terms of what communication channel they prefer or are able to access.

What Your Organisation Can Do:
  • Ensure that your managers have the necessary communication and people skills to communicate effectively.
  • Ensure that your behaviour and actions are consistent with your stated values and vision.
  • Be open and transparent in all your communication efforts.
  • Create employee feedback platforms and respond timeously and honestly to their opinions, inputs and concerns.
  • Create engaging content aimed at evoking emotion and action from your employees.
  • Use a multi-channel approach when communicating messages.
  • Invest in new technologies and innovative communication channels, such as gamification, employee communication apps, real-time information tools, instant messaging and employee intranet portals.

5. Growth & Development

Research by Gaertner and Nollen (1989) found that commitment was related to employees’ perceptions of the business’ efforts to provide them with training. Similar research by the Institute of Employee Studies (IES) supports the relationship between training and development opportunities and increased levels of commitment and job satisfaction.

Furthermore, the ever-changing climate of work and nature of work roles means that employees who have the opportunity to continuously develop their skills and competencies can increase their value to the business and their personal contribution to its success.

To get the most out of employees’ potential, Gallup also suggests focusing on developing employees’ performance-driven mindsets. This type of development is based more on teaching employees how to think rather than what to do. In order to tackle the challenges of the future, employees must be empowered with the mindsets to help them thrive regardless of what they encounter.

What Your Organisation Can Do:
  • Implement a company-wide learning and development programme that is aligned with your organisation’s goals.
  • Encourage your managers to become actively engaged in learning and development initiatives.
  • Invest in development that promotes performance-driven mindsets.
  • Tailor individual training and development plans to each employees’ personal strengths and career goals.
  • Offer a variety of learning formats – from formal, classroom type to on-the-job coaching and mentoring.
  • Actively encourage and incentivise learning and development and reward top performers.
  • Track employees’ progress with regard to their development plan.

6. Reward & Recognition

Research conducted by BambooHR (2016) found a strong correlation between recognition and employee satisfaction. In fact, as much as 94% of employees who receive positive recognition on a daily basis say they are satisfied or very satisfied with their company. In its 2018 Report, Achievers found that 72% of companies identified recognition as having the greatest impact on employee engagement.

To be recognised and rewarded for a job well done or for their level of commitment shows employees that they are valued and appreciated. Moreover, that the company sees them and the work that they do.

Recognition also helps the business in directing employees toward the desired behaviours. What you recognise and reward sends a strong message to employees about what the business values. It influences the company culture and, when done right, creates a positive relationship between employees and the company.

While a formal reward and recognition programme will yield positive results, sometimes a simple thank you can go a long way in making an employee feel valued. Gallup’s research has revealed that the most effective recognition is honest, authentic and individualised. The key is to know and understand what motivates each individual and what would make it memorable to them.

What Your Organisation Can Do:
  • Give frequent rewards that are linked to the company values and vision.
  • Give recognition as immediately as possible, instead of waiting for quarterly reviews or monthly awards.
  • Makes sure your recognition and reward system is open to all employees and that everyone has an equal opportunity to receive recognition and rewards.
  • Consider using a points system where employees can collect “points” for positive behaviours or outcomes. These points can then be exchanged for gifts or rewards of their choice.
  • Open the recognition system up so that peers can recognise peers.
  • Make gratitude a part of your everyday operations, thanking employees regularly and sincerely.

What is noticeable about all of the drivers mentioned above is how interdependent they are. Neglecting one driver will have an adverse effect on several other drivers. If an organisation therefore wants to successfully engage employees, it would need a collaborative approach between HR, Communications, Management, Logistics, Training & Development, Finance and Remuneration at the very least. In the South African context, involving the relevant employee representative structures would be very important.

Engagement cannot be approached as a once-off intervention. To reap the full benefits of an engaged workforce, employee engagement needs to be a daily, sustained effort that is an integral part of the company culture. It calls for an authentic and honest approach to empower employees and to create a more human workplace. Remember, that engaged employees will willingly give discretionary effort if you get the basics right and create an environment in which they can reach their full potential.


Mohammed, Omar & Ababneh, Omar. (2015). The meaning and measurement of employee engagement: A review of the literature. NZJHRM. 2015. 1-35.

Accenture Point of View on Employee Engagement. ¥. What It is, Why It Matters, How You Can Change It« (unpublished), cited in MacLeod and Clarke (2009).

Lewis, R, Donaldson-Feilder, E. & Tharani, T. Management Competencies for Enhancing Employee Engagement. CIPD, 2011. 1-26.

Gaertner K, Nollen S (1989), ‘Career experiences, perceptions of employment practices, and psychological commitment to the organisation’, Human Relations, Vol. 42, pp. 975-991 cited in


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