What REALLY Engages Employees?

Organizations spend vast amounts of money on consultants, surveys, training, etc. in hopes of uncovering the “secret sauce” that unleashes engagement at work.

But does engagement have a “secret sauce”?

And if it does, does it have more than one ingredient?

Yes. And Yes.

Before getting into that, let me clarify why engagement matters: Companies with engagement cultures create employee ambassadors who stop at nothing to create engaged, loyal customers.

The “soft” side of engagement.

Happiness, appreciation, camaraderie, and fun. Sounds like someone’s going to suggest a group hug any minute now, right? Well, think Zappos!–a company worth over $1.2 billion–and their world-class culture of engagement.

Zappos! isn’t in the shoe business; they’re in the engagement business, engagement that starts on the inside and radiates out. In his book, Delivering Happiness, CEO Tony Hsieh writes about a time he bet a friend that if he wanted anything–even something as weird as finding a late-night pizza delivery restaurant in his town–that he could call the Zappos hotline and the person who answered would take care of him. The friend took that bet. And lost. The customer service rep who answered the phone quickly gave him a list of the five closest pizza restaurants that delivered.

The type of engagement that Hsieh builds within his organization creates engaged, happy people who gladly go the extra mile to promote the business and live the brand. Yeah, not so “soft”-sounding, is it?

The “hard” side of engagement.

When I think of innovation, passion, commitment, and performance, companies like Apple and Google come to mind. Apple has a brilliant marketing campaign: rabid fans. Do you have friends who can’t have a conversation without mentioning “You should go vegan!” or “Try CrossFit!”? Well, I have some friends who can’t talk without trying to convert me to Apple products.

Happy, engaged employees create engaged customers who gladly go the extra mile to promote the business and live the brand. That’s not so “soft” either.

Survey Says…

So the right answer to “Would you like to focus on the soft or the hard side of engagement?” the only correct answer is YES!

Which is pretty much what Boston Consulting Group found last year when they surveyed 200,000 employees across the globe to find out what most directly creates engagement or, as they put it, “most directly leads to you on-the-job happiness.” BCG uncovered 10 parts to the “secret sauce” that creates engagement at work:

  1.   Appreciation for their work
  2.   Good relationships with colleagues
  3.   Good work-life balance
  4.   Good relationships with superiors
  5.   Company’s financial stability
  6.   Learning and career development
  7.   Job security
  8.   Attractive fixed salary
  9.   Interesting job content
  10.   Company values

When leaders think about engagement, they focus on tangible, hard dollar results like EPS, customer satisfaction / retention, increased productivity, lower cost, etc. Maybe that’s why so many leaders convince themselves that what employees need in order to be engaged at work is tangible, hard, cold cash. Or more paid time off. Or lower health care premiums. Or richer year-end bonuses.

Yeah, money is one of the ingredients, making an appearance at #8. Pay people and give them decent benefits, or they will stop showing up no matter how much they love you and the organization.


More telling are the number of so-called “soft” elements that create an engagement culture, elements that cost nothing like appreciation (#1) and a positive relationship with peers (3#) and their boss (#4). 


Pouring money into salaries isn’t a sound engagement and retention strategy. It’s like admitting, “Look, I know it really sucks here. So why don’t I throw a few more bills your way?”

If you’re a leader, think carefully before you spend money on your next employee engagement survey or initiative. Those investment should be saved for organizations that are already doing the free items on the survey. If you’re not doing those, take the money you’d spend on surveys and instead invest in re-training your leaders in the basics of leadership: caring for people. Or hire new leaders.

Create an environment that expects leaders to express appreciation to their employees in a sincere and meaningful way on a regular basis. Hint: once a year at the annual review isn’t expressing appreciation.

Forget about in-chair massages and “Bring-Your-Pet-to-Work Day.” Those sound nice, but why not give people something that cost you nothing and they really crave: respect, kindness, feeling valued, and appreciation for a job well done.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Wendy says:

    This is such a great article. You hit on everything I think about regarding leadership.

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