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ATD Blog

Check the Real Motivators for Employee Engagement

Tuesday, April 4, 2023

We’ve all heard stories of disengaged employees disillusioned at work. During the past several years, the COVID-19 pandemic caused workplace disruptions, creating damaging levels of workforce stress and frustration. And the pain continues. Gallup’s most recent engagement surveys indicate that 2022 showed the lowest ratio of engaged-to-actively disengaged employees in the U.S. since 2013. Less than one-third (32 percent) of employees were counted as engaged in their work and workplace, and 18 percent were actively disengaged.

Even more challenging: The highest average for U.S. employee engagement that Gallup ever recorded since they started these surveys in 2000 is only 36 percent. Nearly two-thirds of employees identifying as needing to be more engaged leaves room for improvement.

Engagement matters

Engaged employees involved in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace are, according to Gallup’s research, linked to higher profitability, productivity, customer engagement, retention, safety, and well-being (see articles by Jim Harter 2018, 2023). Actively disengaged employees who are disgruntled and disloyal because their workplace needs are unmet, however, can have a decidedly negative effect on the above factors.

Companies have spent money hiring smart consultants who often tell their clients that people need a shared sense of mission, a vision of success, and a compelling picture of the future. This helps, but it is woefully insufficient for dealing with the root cause of disillusionment–people feeling like their question of “what’s in it for me” (WIIFM) is not sufficiently addressed. The motivation that energizes the can-do spirit comes from within an individual, and the individual decides whether their work connects with their WIIFM.

Drawing on Frederick Herzberg’s two-factor theory of motivation, it is important to understand that the deep motivators that can be the true source of an employee’s engagement at work are not necessarily activated by addressing an employee’s expressed sources of dissatisfaction. For example, an employee may complain that with a hybrid work schedule, they’re not receiving the clarity of expectations from their manager that they once got. Let’s say the manager hears this and starts doing a better job of laying out expectations. The communication failure is no longer a source of dissatisfaction. But whether the employee now finds their job truly motivating will likely depend on those stated expectations. Do the employee’s key motivators at work align with the workplace expectations?


Addressing sources of dissatisfaction—including those associated with pandemic changes—doesn’t necessarily get at the real motivators for can-do spirit engagement.

Do a can-do spirit VITALS checkup

Based on our extensive research and hands-on experience, we found that with performing and learning, we can find the true source for feeling the can-do spirit at work in the VITALS motivation profile. The VITALS acronym, which stands for values, interests, talents, ambitions, longings, and style, can be an easy-to-remember mental checklist that helps managers connect the dots between these factors and the work people do in ways that unleash their can-do spirit. Extensive social science literature is associated with each of the six dimensions represented by the VITALS acronym. So, the science is there.


Our book, Becoming a Can-Do Leader: A Guide for the Busy Manager has a short can-do spirit VITALS checkup profiler. But you don’t have to have someone take this profiler to become more aware of their key motivators. To get a handle on someone’s VITALS, you can observe their reactions to different situations and assignments. And use the VITALS acronym to remind you of the full range of possible key motivators to ask them about.

Next month’s blog will focus on a three-step process managers can use to unleash the can-do spirit in their workforce and how TD professionals can help.

Want to learn how you can best help managers energize their workforce? Please join us at the ATD 2023 International Conference & EXPO for the session, The Secret to Unleashing the Can-Do Spirit of Your Workforce.

About the Author

Dr. Frank Satterthwaite is a professor of organizational leadership and a past director of the MBA program at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. Frank, who has contributed numerous blogs to ATD’s Community of Practice, is co-author of Becoming a Can-Do Leader: A Guide for the Busy Manager (ATD Press). He is also the senior author of The Career Portfolio Workbook: Using the Newest Tool in Your Job-Hunting Arsenal to Impress Employers and Land a Great Job (McGraw-Hill), a bestselling career book that was selected as an “Editor’s Choice” at the Wall Street Journal. In addition to his cover story for TD Magazine, “The Delegation Conundrum,” his articles have appeared in national magazines, including Esquire. He has appeared on nationally broadcast radio and TV programs in the United States and Canada, and is currently doing webcasts for ATD. Frank also has a management consulting practice in which he helps managers become Can-Do Leaders. He studied psychology at Princeton and received his Ph.D. in organizational behavior from Yale. Earlier in his career Frank was a member of the U.S. national men’s squash team. Frank and his architect wife, Martha Werenfels, live in Rhode Island and are proud parents of their two sons, Peter and Toby.

About the Author

Jamie Millard, co-author of Becoming a Can-Do Leader: A Guide for the Busy Manager (ATD Press), is the executive partner and co-founder of Lexington Leadership Partners, an executive coaching and customized leadership development and training firm focused on developing can-do leaders who demonstrate commitment, competence, and courage. He formerly led the national organization change management practice at CSC Consulting. Prior to that, Millard was a partner at Harbridge House, where he led the continuous improvement and project management customized training and consulting practices. He holds a bachelor of science degree from the US Military Academy at West Point and an MBA from the University of Rhode Island. He is a proud veteran and member of the Global Educator Network with Duke Corporate Education.

1 Comment
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Thank you. These short points help me as I consider taking on a new role where I will be required to motivate people in many different roles. These points support thoughts I have had about worker engagement. The VITALS checklist is great. I wrote it down and will look into the book.
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