All Articles Leadership Management Employee engagement: One size can't fit all

Employee engagement: One size can’t fit all

7 min read


Employee engagement was one of the most discussed and written-about leadership topics of 2013.  And it will likely continue to be in the year to come — with good cause. Engagement has been positively correlated with employee retention, customer service/satisfaction, productivity, and profitability.

But, have you ever wondered about all of the information that exists on the subject? It seems that daily there’s a new study or report with the latest research-based suggestion about how to capture the hearts and minds of those who work for you.

How do you reconcile the frequently competing directives?

  • Is it purpose or perks?
  • Meaning or money?
  • Connections or career opportunities?
  • Free time or friends at work?

Think about it. Motivation is as unique as each individual. Just as there are countless combinations of physical traits that make us all appear differently, there are countless combinations of psychological, emotional, and spiritual traits that shape our motivation and engagement.

Understanding the vast diversity of engagement triggers and motivators is the first step. But what becomes even more challenging is developing a customized approach that matches the available tools and strategies to what matters most to each employee. It all comes down to trading in the one-size-fits-all mono-dimensional approach for a menu mindset.

Here are 15 different research-based engagement drivers. Which resonate with you?  Which might resonate with those who work for you?

Autonomy: The work of Richard M. Ryan, Edward Deci, and others confirms the key role of control in tapping intrinsic motivation and engagement. Making choices about and having influence over one’s work is a powerful psychological need that employees bring to the workplace.  So try this: Clearly outline the outcomes and quality standards required, then allow others to determine the best way to accomplish them.

Career opportunities: Right Management maps the breadcrumbs from career opportunities to engagement to bottom-line results in “Developing Talent: How Career Opportunities Drive Business Performance.” So try this: Help employees understand the possibilities that exist for them to develop and grow within the organization — even if it might be right in the roles they currently occupy

Flexible working conditions: Corporate Voices for Working Families makes a strong business case for flexibility, finding that it drives not only engagement but also financial performance. So try this: Ask employees about the conditions that would support their optimal performance in all aspects of their lives and look for where you can flex within your organization’s guidelines.

Goals: According to SHRM’s 2012 Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement Report, the top dimension of engagement is determination to accomplish work goals and confidence in one’s ability to meet them. So try this: When you set goals and expectations with employees, explore how appetizing, enticing, exciting, and achievable they are, then work collaboratively to make the adjustments necessary to build commitment and confidence.

Learning, development, and training: Towers Watson touts learning as one of two elements that have a particularly strong influence on engagement in “Closing the Engagement Gap: A Road Map for Driving Superior Business Performance.” So try this: Ask each employee to identify one or two skills that might make them more effective or make their work easier, then create a development plan. (Don’t forget that learning isn’t reserved for a classroom; in fact, you can achieve multiple objectives by turning real work that needs to be done into on-the-job development opportunities.)

Management transparency: According to research conducted by TINYpulse last year, management transparency is the No. 1 factor contributing to employee happiness. Regular open, honest communication about what’s happening builds trust, inspires credibility and is tremendously engaging. So try this: Ask employees what they want to know more about or understand better, then share the information or bring in others who can.

Meaning: In an HBR blog post, Tammy Erickson summarizes her research in five powerful words: Meaning is the new money. Depending upon the person, meaning can involve a clear sense of shared values, alignment with purpose, and the ability to make a difference.  So try this: Paint employees into the big picture by connecting the dots between what they do, the organization’s mission, and how it ultimately serves others. Make their work personal by painting a face on the customer and creating an inspiring narrative.

Money: Despite a new focus on meaning, according to G&A Partners, money still matters and “it continues to be essential that employees feel they are paid fairly for the work they perform.” So try this: Although you might not be able to influence your organization’s compensation policy, you certainly can gain an understanding of the role money plays in each employee’s overall motivational mix and find compensating engagement strategies as necessary.

Opportunities to use skills/talents: Blessing White’s Employee Engagement Research Update confirms that this is a significant satisfaction and engagement driver in all regions of the world. So try this: Ask each employee to share the one skill or talent they’d like to use more at work, then find ways to enable their use.

Pride: Research conducted by Dale Carnegie Training and MSW Research finds that pride in working for the company is one of three key drivers of engagement. So try this: Start each team or department meeting with one positive story about the organization, one achievement or one customer success story.

Relationships with co-workers: Gallup’s now-famous item 10 (“I have a best friend at work”) highlights the importance of peer relationships to employee satisfaction and engagement, as does the work of Dale Carnegie, SHRM and many others. So try this: Facilitate connections among employees. Support collaboration. Encourage individuals to help and seek help from each other.

Relationship with supervisor: Also according to SHRM’s 2012 Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement Report, the relationship between the employee and immediate supervisor is one of the top five defining dimensions of engagement.  So try this: Assess your relationship with each employee and identify one unique step you could take with each to build a stronger, more productive connection.

Recognition/appreciation: More Towers Watson research published in Turbocharging Employee Engagement: The Power of Recognition from Managers underscores how recognition boosts engagement by as much as 60%. So try this: Catch people doing things right and immediately draw attention to them. Look for ways employees are living the company’s values, serving the customer and delivering results, and then take even just a minute to express your sincere thanks.

Work/life balance: This is among the top three drivers of employee engagement according to Kenexa’s Beyond Engagement white paper. So try this: Although there will always be work peaks and valleys, keep a keen eye out for sustained periods of long hours and stressful conditions and take immediate corrective action.

Work itself: SHRM’s 2011 Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement Survey reveals that the work itself is a key engagement condition. Challenging and interesting work keeps employees on their toes and motivated.  So try this: Explore each employee’s relationship with work with simple questions like:

  • How would you describe your work?
  • When was the last time you felt really excited about what you were doing?
  • What were you doing?
  • What would you like to do more of/less of?

When it comes to employee engagement, the research confirms that there’s not one right answer. And the magic is in the mix — identifying a unique blend of strategies that will align with what matters most to each individual. Leaders who commit to doing this will be well rewarded with greater retention of talent, enhanced effort, loyalty, fewer errors and accidents, and greater productivity, all flowing from employees who’ll flourish in a custom-designed engagement environment.

Julie Winkle Giulioni is the author of “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want,” with Bev Kaye. Giulioni has spent the past 25 years improving performance through learning. She consults with organizations to develop and deploy innovative instructional designs and training worldwide. You can learn more about her consulting, speaking and blog at