Employee Engagement is Not What You Think

Employee Engagement is Not What You Think

Leaders and human resource professionals spend a lot of time thinking and talking about employee engagement. An annual ritual in many companies is the employee survey where senior leadership waits anxiously to see what their employee base thinks. Some organizations use Gallup’s famed Q12 survey to give them a pulse on their organization.

Employee engagement, however, is not about the survey or people’s opinions. Employees become engaged or disengaged daily depending on how you, as their leader, work with them.

Engagement means productivity, reduced turnover cost and greater acceptance of changing circumstances.

Noted management researcher and theorist Frederick Herzberg published a landmark article in 1968 titled “One More Time, How Do You Motivate Employees?” It is one of the most reprinted articles from Harvard Business Review and Herzberg’s observations still hold true today.

Herzberg put forth a model for job satisfaction called the Motivation-Hygiene theory that illustrated a continuum from job satisfaction to job dissatisfaction. Lest you think Herzberg was referring to employee cleanliness, “hygiene” in this context refers to what he considered “maintenance” factors such as job security, salary, benefits, vacation, insurance and working conditions (which today includes free food, pool tables and nap pods in some workplaces). By contrast, Herzberg gave the term “motivation” to factors such as challenge, recognition, involvement in decision-making, opportunity, and sense of importance of the work among others.

Herzberg’s research identified that the “hygiene” factors had no impact on creating job satisfaction. They only served to prevent job dissatisfaction. On the other hand, the “motivation” factors were strongly correlated to satisfaction among employees.

So, creating a motivated, engaged and satisfied work force requires providing challenging work, opportunities for achievement, participation, recognition, meaningful work and clarity of purpose and impact.

Which of these motivation factors are the strongest ones for you personally? Which are less important? Chances are that one or two of these hit the top of your list. The same is true of your staff.

We all operate day-to-day based on a set of core needs that are personal to us. When these core needs are being met, we are energized, productive and feel good about ourselves. If these core needs are not being met, we feel de-energized, de-motivated and dissatisfied. Our productivity and performance sinks.

For example, if you are energized by challenge and accomplishment and you have not had a great project to ‘sink your teeth into” lately, you likely feel bored, impatient and begin thinking about finding an opportunity that gives you the aggressive challenge you seek. Or, if you have a core need for connection and teamwork and based on company changes you now office-at-home, it won’t be long before you are climbing the walls. We all can sustain short periods of not having our “gas tanks” of core needs filled up. But over time, if we do not get certain needs met, we become frustrated, burned out and unengaged.

How much do you know about the exact core needs of your direct reports? How much do they know about their own  teams?

You can easily figure out an employee’s core needs by asking them some simple appreciative questions:

  1. Think about a great work experience you have had either here or at another organization. What was important to you about your work in that situation?
  2. When you look back on a day (or week), what are things you consider positive or exciting?
  3. What aspects of your work give you the most satisfaction?
  4. What is important to you about how you and I work together?
  5. If there were one thing you would change for the better about your job, what would it be? Why?

You can “make or break” employee engagement every day by knowing your employees’ core needs and providing opportunities for them to fulfill them. Remember that their core needs may be very different from your own.

It may take some creativity to identify a way in your work environment and with your constraints to find a way for the employee to meet certain needs. However, you really don’t have a choice. Harnessing the motivating factors is not an option if you want productivity, performance, reduced cost and high agility. It is up to you as a leader to create the opportunities and conditions for your employees to thrive.

How effectively are you leading your employees in a way that engages and motivates them?

Jonathan E. ‘Jeb” Bates PCC, MSOD

How Do You Ready Your Best Senior Leaders For Top Leadership Roles?



Thomas Morgan, Senior VP of Human Resources for the captive financing division of a global vehicle and heavy equipment manufacturer.


Designing a new premier leadership development program for Senior Vice Presidents, Country Managers, Managing Directors and Functional Leaders to prepare them to assume top roles to lead the global organization.


Radical changes to the financial system (including blockchain and new financing models) and technological advances (including driverless vehicles) caused massive disruption to their business model in markets across the world.


With 20 years’ experience at the company and having risen from Manager of Organizational Effectiveness to the Senior VP of Human Resources, Thom could foresee that their senior leadership tier would be challenged by the requirements of the new market conditions.

The company had made limited investments in leadership development in recent years for the two levels below the C-Suite. The succession candidates for those roles, although capable and promising, had not been developed thus far to lead at the needed level of executive capability.

With his organization development background, Thom knew that their leaders needed not only to build key new competencies and strategic thinking but also to develop themselves personally and professionally to be well-rounded, resilient, adaptable leaders driving innovation.

Thom wanted to bring innovation to the new program to move beyond the staid programs at his company’s 100-year-old parent. He wanted the focus to be leading edge topics and strategies and provide coaching for all leaders to ensure their success.

To accomplish this, Thom decided to bring together three vendor partners whose signature programs he found inspirational, effective and relevant to collaborate in forging a new program with the best of all worlds.

He invited Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), the Conscious Leadership Institute and ThoughtAction to build a new program combining core elements of each organization’s key offerings.

From this collaboration emerged a global leadership program featuring week-long residential programs in South America, Europe and Asia. The program design featured modules from across CCL’s Leading the Enterprise curriculum, expert global speakers on leading-edge topics from Center for Conscious Leadership’s GLP Program and individual development plans, 360° feedback, Results Accelerator™ and executive coaching from ThoughtAction to tie it all together. The result – a seamless integration of these premier offerings into a coherent, best-of-breed development experience for the executives.


Having been well prepared for volatile, changing conditions, the cohort of leaders who graduated from the program led the organization through the challenges of 2020 with great success and record revenues. Since that time, over 50% have been promoted to new leadership roles.