The Ultimate Guide to Employee Engagement

by Andrew Sumitani on Jul 30, 2018 9:04:17 PM


This guide is about a powerful idea — one that's well known by only some of the elite managers of the world. The funny thing is it's not top-secret information at all. People have researched, written, and spoken about employee engagement for years. And the top managers have practiced and refined it over the last few decades to create tremendous value within their organizations.

For a variety of reasons, though, a vast majority of CEO's, VP's, Directors, and HR professionals still only half-understand it: this guide was created to change this.



Why this Employee Engagement Guide?
My goals for you
How the Employee Engagement Guide works
What is employee engagement?
Why is employee engagement important?
Improve your workplace employee recognition
Use better employee survey practices
The importance of adapting your employee engagement techniques

Why this Employee Engagement Guide?

My goal is for you to understand the fundamental reason the very best managers reach the top and leave everyone else in the dark. I want you to understand how they are able to maximize the talent potential of their teams, regardless of what company they join.

By itself, understanding how the best do it won't make you and your organization awesome. It's a mere thought, after all. If you want to be like the top managers, you need to dedicate many hours of careful collaboration and experimentation with your team, all with the goal of improving employee engagement to drive business performance. Like learning to play an instrument or sport at a high level, you need to understand the steps required to improve, and then you need to practice, practice, practice.

I frequently use an analogy because I think it's super relevant: raising employee engagement is like losing weight.

It's not enough for you to queue up a workout video on YouTube, sit down with a bowl of chips, and expect to shed pounds. The workout video is a helpful tool because it contains the steps that will give you maximum value. The results only come when you commit to doing the work and being consistent about it.

My goals for you:

1. The first goal of this guide is to get you thinking about employee engagement the right way.

We talk to a lot of people about how to increase employee engagement and motivation, and most of them fixate on the wrong things. Then, even if they try to put in the work, they will be unable to succeed because they end up working on the wrong things.

2. The second goal is to motivate you.

If you read this guide and then work with your team to follow the steps in this guide, your organization and its employees can become far more engaged than they are right now. No, you probably won't become the next Sheryl Sandberg or Tony Hsieh. But most managers can create extremely engaged teams if they simply learn the right steps to improve, then put in the work to follow those steps.

I hope this motivates you. You can create an extremely engaged team of employees — significantly more engaged than they are right now — by committing to improving and following the steps in this guide.

Here's how the Employee Engagement Guide works:

This guide is super simple — I'll present three core concepts and show you how to best follow them, along with pitfalls to avoid. The reason for keeping it simple is that employee engagement remains a very loose idea for most people. Applying it correctly can easily get very complicated, so if something seems oversimplified, it's so that you understand the main point clearly.

Along the way, I'll point you to some other resources that will provide more detail and context. However, most of the top-level work in employee engagement is fairly exclusive and gets researched and presented at events like TINYcon and Bersin IMPACT.

The goal of this guide is to provide you some "aha" moments, show you what you may be missing, and start your journey to the top.

Let's begin!




What is employee engagement?

To improve employee engagement, you need to understand what it actually is.

According to Wikipedia, employee engagement is "a property of the relationship between an organization and its employees. An 'engaged employee' is defined as one who is fully absorbed by and enthusiastic about their work and so takes positive action to further the organization's reputation and interests."

Pretty dense stuff, right? Try this instead:

Employee engagement is the level of personal investment a person has in his or her work.

Let me simplify even further:

The more personally invested you are in something, the more it matters to you.

You become a bigger stakeholder in whatever "it" may be, whether it's your kids, your health, or your career. And you'll be far more likely to put more into it if the result is meaningful to you.

The same goes for your employees. The more personally invested they are in their work, the more it matters to them and encourages them to contribute more. Employee engagement is what you have to work on to raise everyone's level of personal investment. That way they increase their positive contributions to the organization.

Why is employee engagement important?

A fast-growing body of research demonstrates that employee engagement is a huge mover of fundamental metrics like retention and revenue. This is why senior executives and CEOs are clamoring to get a grasp and reap the bottom line benefits of employee engagement to the organization. But again, most are focusing on the wrong things and not following the principles in this guide. The problem is that these managers aren't working on how to consistently raise the level of personal investment by their employees.

To understand what motivates personal investment of an employee, you first need to understand how motivation even works: what makes us feel good about work?

(take a brief moment to watch this TedTalk, 'What makes us feel good about our work?' by Dan Ariely)


Now that you have an idea of what motivates people to personally invest more at work, I'll look more in-depth at what employee engagement is capable of doing for your organization.

Most companies guard their detailed performance data, but Gallup did a great job in their report called "The State of the American Workplace" correlating many performance outcomes with higher employee engagement.

Among those outcomes, there are two you should really care about:

1. Making more money

Let's get one thing straight. The financial impact of employee engagement can't be exaggerated: it's massive.

Over the course of a decade, Queen's University School of Business examined over 111,000 employee surveys on employee engagement.

Organizations with the highest levels of employee engagement were consistent with 15% greater employee productivity and up to 30% greater customer satisfaction levels.

Gallup employee engagement statistics indicate that an engaged organization can lead to up to 18% higher revenue per employee.

If dollar amounts interest you, the Workplace Research Foundation has found that a 10% increase in investment in employee engagement can increase profits by $2,400 per employee, per year.

Organizations with high employee engagement also tend to withstand economic downturns and, when the economy picks back up, are able to run circles around their competitors.

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2. Saving more money

In the US only 32% of employees are engaged at work, while only 13% are engaged worldwide.

Together with the fact that companies with lower levels of engagement experience significantly higher costs of absenteeism and turnover, you get the picture as to why employee engagement is important.

It's common wisdom that retaining employees is more cost effective than hiring new ones, so it's easy to see why low levels of engagement are super expensive. If you ever want to make money with your staffing, you should work on getting more employees to stay with the organization for longer.

Don't ignore the financial upsides of employee engagement.

And bonus (3.) -- a successful company culture!

I know I said there were two main benefits, but there's a third benefit that answers the question, "Why is employee engagement important?"

Raising employee engagement builds company culture.

Think about it:

A vast majority of companies still depend on a culture of hyper-competitive, self-serving behavior to drive results. It's a pernicious, but almost universal thought process. It goes something like this: "Competition will drive employees to do better as individuals, so the sum of their results will be better. Let the invisible hand take care of the rest." Unfortunately, this prevents employees from personally investing any more than the minimum that affects them as individuals."

This is a big problem, because employee engagement and company culture go hand in hand. Just take a look at what 400,000 employee survey responses showed about the factors with the highest positive relationship with an employee's experience:



When employees act not only to benefit themselves but the organization at large, they fuel this positive relationship and build culture at the same timeDon't forget: an investment in employee engagement is an investment in culture.


The 2 Key Strategies to increase employee engagement; better recognition, and good employee survey practices


Improve your workplace recognition:


One of the first things you can do to make sure that you’re setting the tone for a highly engaged workforce is bolstering your recognition program.

1. Make Recognition contribution-based

According to Bersin & Associates, 87% of recognition programs focus on tenure—rather than contribution and efforts. Especially with a millennial-heavy workforce, where the average tenure is somewhere between 1 and 3 years, it’s unlikely that your new workforce is feeling the impacts of recognition programs targeting 5-year anniversaries.

Though over $100 billion is being spent annually on incentive programs in the US, 58% of employees responded that their leadership could “give recognition” first, to improve engagement. Having free recognition programs that focus on highlighting exceptional work ethic or output means that you can positively reinforce that awesome behavior, and increase your employee engagement, without extra cost to the company.

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2. Make recognition personal, and avoid competition or gamification

The most successful recognition is highly personal. The value of highly-personalized rewards can’t be understated, even in the case of those tenure-based anniversary gifts.

It’s also a great opportunity to reinforce the value to employees of sticking around that long—while poor rewards like keychains and plaques might demoralize an employee who’s feeling undervalued, a reward which was chosen with them in mind, or which they can look forward to, is a great motivator to keep going during moments of low-morale.

On the other hand, having a recognition system that stacks employees against each other does more harm than good. While competing for points might motivate the top performers to try even harder, it can be demoralizing for those at the bottom of the competition, and even cause employees to act poorly in order to win.

Instead of having employees compete against each other for the most recognition, have them work towards a personal objective. Perhaps recognition can translate to bigger rewards with some accumulation, like free lunch, or some extra pto.

3. Offer peer-to-peer opportunities for recognition

Unfortunately, not enough companies are providing peer-to-peer recognition opportunities, according to our Employee Engagement Report. And peer-to-peer recognition can be one of the easiest ways for employees to feel connected and recognized, without requiring a costly rewards campaign.

That increase in morale translates to end-consumer benefits too. 41% of companies that have peer-to-peer recognition in place have seen positive increases in their customer satisfaction.

Recognition isn’t a difficult value to put some action behind, and it doesn’t need to cost a fortune—but it is important to recognize what your existing programs aren’t doing, and how you can supplement those.


Exercise good employee survey practices: 

1. Learn what matters to employees by surveying them

The main goal of surveying your employees is to start a conversation toward understanding what will raise your employees' level of personal investment at work. Overall, you'll want to survey in a way that will produce the most thoughtful, timely responses.


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Keep the surveys short

Imagine a company with 1,000 employees sending out its annual employee survey. That survey likely has at least twenty questions that every employee is expected to thoughtfully answer. There are two big problems with this seemingly helpful practice: 

  • First, what's alarming is the 20,000 responses that someone else is expected to read and process.
  • Second, the company has the right motives at heart, but the sheer length of survey means lackluster answers, employee apathy, and lower response rates.

surveyquestions-vs-time (2).pngJust look at the results of Cvent's research on the time people spend answering survey questions as the number of questions grows.

The more questions you have, the less time respondents spend answering them. Employees who rush through questions aren't going to give you the most thoughtful or useful answers. 


Make use of frequent pulse surveys

Short, regular surveys are better for both employees and employers. As I showed you above, this is because the small number of questions allows employees to be more thoughtful and respond at a higher rate.

We also asked managers about their problems with annual surveys, and here's a stack-ranking of their complaints: 

top reasons managers dislike traditional surveys


Managers identified many shortcomings of long, infrequent surveys. But the biggest problem managers faced was frequency. It's hard to get and act on good feedback if it happens only once per year. In fact, the majority of managers told us that they want to get employee feedback at least once every two weeks.

how often managers would like to survey

This is a lot to take in, but remember: the main goal is to start a conversation toward understanding what will raise your employees' level of personal investment at work.

This starts by gathering the most thoughtful, timely information which boils down to two guidelines:

  • Keep the surveys short
  • Make use of frequent pulse surveys

If you follow these guidelines as a manager, you'll protect yourself from too much work and a low quality of your employee responses, so that you can move on to Step 2.

That's it, you've just run a simple, effective employee engagement survey.

2. build a habit of transparency and share the results

Note: This is where it gets real. The information in this section is extremely important. Reread it a dozen times if you have to.

Employee engagement isn't just on you as a manager. It's actually on everyone in the organization. Sharing all the data from surveys is a simple way to demonstrate transparency and start engaging employees. 

It demonstrates an openness to tackle even the toughest of questions and address even the most minute employee concern. So be sure to share survey responses with everyone to ensure each member of your team has a vested interest in fostering a positive, collaborative culture.


Make sure senior management takes a central role

Engagement programs initiated by senior management are twice as successful as those not introduced by leadership. So before you jump into the process, make sure you involve decision makers who can initiate positive change. If not, get their buy-in to conduct pulse surveys, review results, acknowledge opportunities, and take action based on feedback.

And if you have the authority to undertake changes based on feedback, make sure you have the time, bandwidth, and dedication to follow through.


The 4-step process for effective survey sharing

Survey feedback will show you the good and the bad in your organization. Though you may want to only share positive responses, you’ll be better off being completely candid about all the feedback you receive by following these four steps:
  1. 1. Prescreen results: Review all data ahead of time to make sure it doesn’t reveal information that’s obviously embarrassing or offensive to another employee.

    2. Set it so you don’t forget it: Make sure to set up a recurring meeting to review survey data when as many participants as possible can gather and discuss the findings.

    3. Transparent conversation: Use the findings to begin healthy discussion of problems, not a jumping-off point for accusations or witch-hunting. One good way to initiate this is to discuss all the positive points highlighted in the feedback.

    4. Determine next steps: Be sure to create an action plan to follow up on issues, which we'll cover in the next section.


Leaders who follow this process may find it challenging at first but will see changes rather quickly. Like changing eating habits or exercise, doing something new feels like a burden at first. But it will keep you honest. Remember, this is you putting in the work, and not just watching the workout video.


Workplace transparency



This is a big one.

As crazy as this sounds, I'd rather you do nothing instead of surveying employees without a plan to act on the results. 

Simply listening, without action, leads to employee disengagement. BlessingWhite, an employee engagement consulting firm, found that nearly a third of all employees become disengaged when employers ask for feedback but do nothing about it.

Fielding a survey without the commitment to act on its findings is a recipe for apathetic employees. Don't do it.

Knowing how to tackle that feedback is key to ensuring employees feel like stakeholders in their organization.


If you field employee surveys, be ready for one of two types of feedback

  • 1. Small, easier challenges: These include concerns like overflowing trash cans or not having the right type of software licenses — concerns that are generally easier to solve.

    2. Big, difficult challenges: The primary issues you’ll have to address here are recurring interpersonal issues, managerial style, or disengagement with job roles.

Acting on one or two smaller challenges immediately is a great way to show your team that you’re following through on their feedback. Because these can be handled quickly, acting on them shows your commitment to change and encourages your employees to continue answering the regular surveys.

Bigger, difficult challenges are harder to address, but will have longer-term impact on your company culture and business results.

From the first moment you get survey feedback, start thinking about how to address these issues. Don’t worry about not knowing how to act immediately. Just don’t forget to continue being transparent about the problems and the action plan for resolving these bigger issues.


Be ultra-consistent in your responses, no matter the outcome

Here's a simple three-step process to make this easy to remember:

1. Thank the respondent: Always show your gratitude for any type of response. Responding to surveys may not be customary for your employees, and saying "thanks" shows that you value that feedback.

2. Acknowledge the feedback: Show that you understand the feedback and that you recognize its value. When you empathize with others, your employees will be more likely to open up about the issue at hand.

3. Ask employees for a solution: Employees know how to fix problems with astonishing efficiency. Asking them how they would fix a problem further captures their feedback and ensures they are part of the solution.

What you should do precisely for every type of response is beyond the range of this guide. But the main point is that fielding a survey and gathering data is only as valuable as the willingness to act. Don’t consume precious time and resources just to satisfy curiosity or check a box in your HR to-do list. Do it because you want to improve your culture, which will lead to improved bottom-line results.


Organizational values


The importance of adapting your employee engagement techniques

So far I've covered a lot — I've introduced you to the winning way to think about employee engagement and shown you some strategies you can apply today. But the reality is that employee engagement gets even more complex with large organizations. Some have multiple offices, and others with distributed workforces. Others have 100% employee turnover to deal with every year. Organizations are fraught with constant change.

But this is the very reason why employee engagement is important — so that organizations can embrace that change continuously. Not just once or twice a year.

When you follow the steps in this guide, you will start creating a culture around employee-led change. By enabling employees to not just bring up challenges but also brainstorm solutions, you empower them to lead and institutionalize the value of proactive action.

One of the best things you can do now is learn how others have raised employee engagement. There's no special magic to developing an employee engagement strategy, and many managers are on the same pathway as you. Many business leaders have written on this topic and refined those ideas.

Reach out to your fellow managers and talk about employee engagement. Talk about the level of personal investment they see in their employees. Ask them what they've done to raise that level of investment.

Chances are they are thinking about it too, and if you continue to learn and think about employee engagement, you'll stay motivated.

5 Useful Employee Engagement Articles


Closing thoughts:


If you haven't experienced issues of employee engagement as a manager, congratulations. You should continue running around high-fiving your colleagues every day. I encourage you not to relax though, for this might not be the case tomorrow. Remember; the best managers can, and do, engage employees wherever they go under any circumstance. Their mastery of this idea allows them to generate incredible value by fully tapping the talent potential of their teams.

Today's managers are measuring and increasing employee engagement to drive business results and build successful company cultures. It's almost not an option anymore for success.

Don't worry if you've already tried to raise employee engagement but it didn't pan out.

Just commit to starting today with this guide.

How has raising employee engagement made a difference for you?


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This post was written by Andrew Sumitani

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