What drives employee engagement? There’s no single answer

Just as cultures and missions vary by organization and even industry, so do the ways of inspiring workers to immerse themselves in those cultures and live those objectives.

Speaker after speaker at a recent conference declared, “We know that the most important driver of employee engagement is…” as if revealing a universal truth to the audience.

The first said the most important driver was culture, the second said it was compensation, and the third said the person’s manager was most essential. Clearly, they can’t all be correct.

If you search for “the No. 1 driver of employee engagement” using Google, what you’ll find reinforces how little agreement exists about this topic. The top 10 results include nine different “No. 1 drivers,” as follows:

  1. Empowerment
  2. Leadership
  3. Recognition (twice)
  4. Employee well-being
  5. Ability to grow and develop
  6. Strong developmental relationship between a leader and their direct reports
  7. Managers
  8. Senior management’s interest in employee well-being
  9. Trust

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Common knowledge

People who make broad claims about the most important driver of employee engagement run into several issues.

First, these claims typically represent an enormously diverse set of data collected from one survey at one point in time (usually from a respected engagement consulting firm).

Next, these claims downplay the importance of multiple drivers of engagement and how they affect one another.

Last, these claims too often are driven by corporate self-interest: “Experts” select survey data that back up whatever service or solution they’re offering. In such cases, it may be more accurate for them to say, “The most important driver of employee engagement is the one that gets you to buy my solution.”

Unfortunately, blanket statements such as, “People don’t quit companies, they quit their managers,” and, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” have frequently taken the place of educated discussions about employee engagement and retention. Though there is truth to these statements, broad management maxims fail to provide the solid foundation necessary for building a workforce engagement strategy.

Workplace dynamics differ at every organization, and executives in each workplace must consider the staff composition to understand how to drive employee engagement there.

Different strokes

Employee engagement drivers vary enormously across a spectrum of attributes, from location to industry to job function, and each has a different relative impact. Fulfilling work and supportive managers may be key drivers for someone beginning his or her career at a nonprofit, for example, whereas pay and independence may be far more important for a veteran account executive at a financial firm.

A sense of purpose is the most important driver here at Glint, and this makes sense for us as an entrepreneurial company. Other organizations may find leadership, culture or the company’s future prospects as their top drivers. On top of that, the impact of each driver can change over a period of months or even days, depending on a large number of factors both inside and outside the organization.

Your unique engagement profile

It’s crucial for human resources and executive leadership to understand their organization’s unique drivers of engagement-and, by extension, employee retention. Each organization and team is different, so managers and leaders must remain aware of which engagement drivers are making the biggest impact on their people at any given time. More important, they should know which of these top drivers their people see as weaknesses, so they can act to reverse the trend.

The relative impact of each driver can change quickly, which means organizations must get more frequent feedback from employees than the annual engagement survey offers. Statistical analysis of the data is also highly important in helping leaders to understand different groups and their unique engagement drivers.

Leaders can’t afford to wait for a consulting firm or statistician to deliver this analysis. It has to be available quickly, in real time, so the organization can act to improve employee engagement rather than maintaining a reactive approach.

Today’s fast-moving organizations need better, more specific guidance than broad industry research and yearly, one-size-fits-all recommendations can provide.

Frequent pulses of employee sentiment paired with automatic analytics empower organizations to understand what drives engagement for their people and their teams. This formula can help leaders to bring fast, data-driven insight to people operations, adding an element of science to the art of fostering an engaged workforce.

Jim Barnett is CEO and co-founder of Glint.


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