culture employee engagement

What Really Drives Employee Engagement?

Most of us want to work in organizations where we look forward to going to work and feel a sense of engagement in what we do and who we do it with. The challenge we are hearing from CEO’s across the country is “what is the best approach?”

Satisfaction vs. Engagement

What is the biggest mistake leaders can make? Focusing on employee satisfaction and happiness. This leadership fad will quickly burn itself out as leaders realize that a satisfied employee is not the same as someone who is engaged and productive while at work.

What is the key difference?  Employee satisfaction is an attitude. Employee engagement is a behavior. Engagement predicts future conduct, satisfaction alone does not. A satisfied attitude can change with one negative event or interaction. Employees can be satisfied and yet feel no connection to their work, co-workers, or their employer. A company can get great satisfaction scores with perks, autonomy, and parties, but that does not mean there is any emotional velcro between the person, their leaders, or the mission and vision of the organization.

Leadership Science Drives True Engagement

Rather than build nebulous programs and procedures focused on happiness and satisfaction, senior leaders and managers should instead be relying on what  Leadership Science tells us employees need to truly thrive. Extrinsic motivators like perks and parties will never compare to the outcomes based on intrinsic motivators hard-wired in our brain.

Companies that foster the brain-based conditions allowing employees to thrive at work will find it much easier to retain and recruit top talent, maximize profitability, and improve exemplary employee performance, behaviors, and attitudes.

Of course we all love to have fun, and we certainly need more of it in the workplace. But we don’t wake up in the morning with our brain hardwired to have fun. We wake up with the intrinsic need to connect, be valued members of a team, and work in an environment that is predictable and consistent.

High-performance organizational cultures put a premium on creating the conditions that trigger engaged employees (i.e., employees who freely give exemplary effort in their daily work.)  Employee engagement is about how employees feel. Do they feel safe, valued, and part of something larger than themselves in their daily work? When they do, happiness and satisfaction are powerful outcomes, not precursors.

Engagement Drives Discretionary Effort

The discretionary effort offered by engaged employees is not simply about their volume of work. Engaged employees offer significantly higher levels of innovation, creativity, and initiative. Moreover, organizational leadership cannot incent discretionary effort with punishment and reward. Leaders must first create the conditions that are conducive to employee engagement—predictability, recognition, and empowerment—and create fertile ground for the growth of trusted relationships. Only then will discretionary effort follow in a consistent and sustainable way.

This is important to your company’s bottom line. Research involving more than seven million employees globally shows firms with the highest engagement scores enjoy revenues on average 4.5 times higher than those with the lowest scores.

Our Ancient Need for Connection

The drive for a safe workplace with robust social connections is based in neurological science. Our ancestors survived, and then thrived, because they were simultaneously hyper-vigilant about potential threats, and they were hyper-social, cooperating to achieve a common goal. They were valued members of a tribe that hunted and defended itself together.

We may no longer live in tribes, but our brains still seek tribal connections. The closest approximation is the workplace, the contemporary setting in which we spend the most time awake with other adults. Our brains are no longer coping with hunting mastodons, but we are coping with office drama and politics, how we are seen and valued and the quality of our leaders. The brain finds this much easier when we can load share with others whose behaviors demonstrate that they value mutual success.

Great leaders understand that the future of their organization will be defined primarily by how employees feel when they come to work each day, and less about employee incentives and perfect business strategies.

Action steps to cultivate employee engagement:

  • Begin with understanding the science that drives engagement while eschewing fads and buzzwords.
  • Focus on managers first, then employees, because people join companies but often quit managers.
  • Equip your managers for the complex demands of building a workplace culture that quenches the brain’s most essential desires.

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