The 5 behaviors that define highly engaged employees

The most important factor that distinguishes them from their peers: They take responsibility for their engagement.

How do you learn about employee engagement from someone who’s disengaged?

You don’t. That’s like trying to learn French from a Spanish teacher. People simply can’t teach you what they don’t know.

I decided the key to understanding employee engagement was to study highly engaged employees. I studied 150 highly engaged employees in 13 industries and 50 organizations ranging from aerospace and health care to technology and media.

Do these employees behave in consistent ways? The answer is a resounding yes.

Here is what I found:

1. Highly engaged employees take responsibility for their engagement.

Ninety-nine percent of highly engaged employees report taking personal and primary responsibility for their engagement. It’s a stunning and largely ignored fact. Highly engaged employees expect the organization to play a support role in their engagement, while highly disengaged employees expect the organization to play a primary role.

While most highly engaged employees embrace an employee-centered model of engagement (“I own it; it’s up to me; I’m responsible for my own engagement”), most disengaged employees follow an employer-centered model (“It’s my manager’s or the organization’s job to keep me engaged”).

Highly engaged employees don’t wait for their organization to engage them. They take deliberate steps to engage themselves.

2. Highly engaged employees don’t feel entitled.

Highly engaged employees understand they must manage their employability. They are far less predisposed to worry about what the organization owes them. They believe high performance speaks for itself, and will be recognized in any setting.

It’s rather stunning, but most of the highly engaged individuals I studied think a secure job is a silly concept. They look at others who believe in it as foolhardy. It’s not that we are going to become a world of temp workers, but a simple acknowledgment that no individual or organization has the power to grant true job security.

3. Highly engaged employees engage customers.

Highly engaged employees can’t help but reveal themselves to customers. They infect customers with the contagion of their own engagement. Unfortunately, the opposite is true of disengaged employees.

Ultimately, employees keep or break a brand’s promise. Employees are the real and ultimate face of a company. Highly engaged employees make the customer experience, and disengaged employees break it. Whatever is inside the employee is sure to influence the customer.

4. Highly engaged employees remain highly engaged wherever they are.

I found highly engaged people in all kinds of organizational environments: corporations, governments, hospitals, schools and nonprofits. It didn’t matter; they demonstrate agility and adaptability, and recognize organizational conditions are subject to market conditions and the business cycle. Their engagement is portable; they take it with them. It’s both a mindset and a skill. They create their own weather.

5. Highly engaged employees apply six behavioral drivers.

Individuals who take personal and primary responsibility for their engagement consistently apply six behavioral drivers: connecting, shaping, learning, stretching, achieving and contributing. The ongoing process of applying these drivers allows them to sustain high levels of engagement over time.

Highly engaged employees must take the lead

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying leaders and organizations shouldn’t help engage their employees. They should!

Extrinsic motivators help drive engagement, and leaders play a vital role in fostering conditions that boost engagement, such as creating a dynamic culture, developing good leadership, creating a compelling strategy and vision, aligning reward and recognition systems and providing ample resources.

I am saying that highly engaged employees must take primary responsibility. They must take the lead.

As an individual, you’re responsible for enabling behavior. If both elements come together, the result is a highly engaged individual. It’s important to understand both factors and how they reinforce each other.

The employee’s role is primary

It’s critical to recognize a significant finding from our research about highly engaged employees: Even in poorly performing organizations with lousy work conditions, limited resources and few opportunities, those who are highly engaged still take responsibility for their engagement.

Here’s the principle: Organizational conditions that create extrinsic motivation are important, but never enough. The employee’s role is primary. The organization’s role is secondary.

To maintain high engagement, you’ve got to take action. You’ve got to apply the six drivers and create your own engagement.

This article is an excerpt from “The Employee Engagement Mindset by Timothy Clark . © 2012, McGraw-Hill Professional. It is reprinted with permission from the publisher.

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