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The Public Manager Magazine Article

What Drives Employee Engagement? It's All About the "I"

Employees decide if they want to be engaged. But employee engagement also involves a rational component. What is the manager’s influence?

By and

Fri Mar 14 2014


Employees decide if they want to be engaged. But employee engagement also involves a rational component. What is the manager's influence?

What Drives Employee Engagement? It's All About the "I"-1839d1f10b4281025ee4bd5113e838f56bb32a5ea3d42cd86d428deaac23b82c

Employee engagement is a business's backbone. It is the result of the psychological contract plus the experience that exists between employee and employer. The foundation of employee engagement is respect, trust, and performance. Engagement is dynamic because it changes over the course of an employee's tenure at a workplace and overall career as a consequence of multiple events and factors.


Engagement is intrinsic and individual. In conclusion, engagement is all about "I." It is a voluntary connection to the business and to its purpose; it includes an emotional component to the workplace in order to achieve its desired outcomes.

Employees decide if they want to be engaged. Thus, even though employee engagement entails an emotional connection, it also involves a rational component as the employee decides whether or not to be engaged given her individual circumstances. We have concluded that, even though many workplaces may seem to be similar, they are as unique as the individuals who belong to them, which in turn affects what it means for employees to be engaged with the organization.

As you may expect, the definitions and explanations of employee engagement are as varied as the authors who have proposed them; however, they have some similarities. These definitions include emotional, rational, and practical features that are connected to engagement's impact on businesses as well as on employees. In general, these definitions refer to engagement as voluntary. Each well-known definition includes these important components; in addition, there are other factors that contribute to move employee engagement in a particular direction. These factors are typically known as drivers of engagement.

Drivers of Engagement

We have found different types of drivers of engagement. As a manager, you will use some of these drivers to influence your employees' engagement. The impact of these drivers does not happen in isolation; the company's context and culture will mitigate or compound their impact on employee engagement.

Manager-Employee Relationship

The manager-employee relationship is the most important driver of employee engagement; this relationship has been tied to employees' satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their work or workplace and their subsequent decision of whether to stay in the workplace or go elsewhere. How you communicate with your employees and what you communicate to them are central issues in the relationship that lies at the heart of the psychological contract we mentioned in our definition of engagement. Therefore, you as a manager have the interesting challenge of forming genuine yet professional relationships with your employees that will benefit the company, the employee, and you.


We have already established that employee engagement has a solid emotional component because engagement is all about "I" (me) and my circumstances. Therefore, employees need to acquire a strong sense of purpose and autonomy in their work even when they may not control the final decision, product, or outcome. This sense of purpose and autonomy is directly tied to their ownership of their work.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation, defined by Kenneth Thomas in his second book on motivation at work, What Really Drives Employee Engagement (2009), is "a sense of meaningfulness and of progress" that will lead the employee to find value in what he does and to establish that emotional connection without depending on external factors, such as many mentioned in this section. In our work we have found several examples of employees who remain engaged with their workplaces or managers mainly as a result of their strong intrinsic motivation that often takes them through otherwise challenging times.


Leadership has different meanings in different companies. Leadership is an important driver of engagement that goes beyond job titles, because not all managers are leaders and not all leaders are managers. A manager, such as yourself (and others in the company at all levels), has an important responsibility to foster employee engagement. This responsibility comes through in how you enable your employees to do their work, how you conduct yourself, and how you, as a role model, convey messages through different channels.

Our interpretation of a leader is someone who drives people to a common purpose and brings confidence to her team, with the point to make things happen beyond herself. You do not need a title to be a leader.

Performance Management

Performance management is an area related to management that affects employee engagement. For us, performance management includes goals and objectives, as well as how work is distributed to meet company goals. It is an ongoing process that starts when an employee is hired and ends when he leaves the company.


As an ongoing process, performance management serves as the company's platform to align the employee's actions and behaviors to meet those company goals. Performance management comprises resource allocation, workplace flexibility, and work-life balance, as well as measures of an employee's progress in achieving the desired results. In addition, how high- and low-performing employees are managed, as well employees' perceptions of equity and justice, are included in this driver.

Career Development

Career development is another driver of engagement. Even though most employees, especially those who belong to the younger generations, will have several positions at several companies throughout their work lives, those changes are career development. Its meaning may have changed for different groups, but long-term career potential and promotion opportunities are still as relevant today as they were many years ago. These issues are important because they relate to an employee's intent to stay in the workplace and the resulting decision will have an impact on the business.

An employee who finds opportunities for growth and development within a company will acquire a stronger sense of loyalty to that company and to you as a manager for facilitating those opportunities. This employee will be more likely to stay in the company for a longer period of time and to dedicate that additional time and effort that is often needed to obtain results.

Therefore, you as a manager must pay particular attention to the career development needs of your employees and help them to set realistic expectations for their future. At the same time, you should ensure that you match the right employee with the right opportunity at the right time. Don't be afraid of losing your best employees to other departments or divisions, because if they do not find what they need working with you, they will be more likely to leave your workplace altogether to go somewhere else. Minimize your losses. Keep the big picture of engagement in mind.

Financial and External Incentives

Even though employee engagement extends beyond financial and external incentives, these are still important drivers and need to be considered. Base pay, incentive pay, and total rewards are particularly significant in the current (and recent) economic climate where companies have had to implement tighter controls on costs, including pay and benefits, to survive.

Total rewards, defined by the not-for-profit World at Work as "the programs, practices, elements, and dimensions that collectively define an organization's strategy to attract, motivate, and retain employees" also will play a key role. Employees still focus considerable attention to their compensation and benefits packages when they make a decision to stay in a company or to go elsewhere.

Organizational Image

Shifting our discussion to external components of engagement, we look at organizational image. The view that employees and the outside world have in their minds about an organization and how they feel about an organization becomes the organizational image.

In today's work environment, employees are particularly aware of a company's image and reputation. The emotional connection that employees feel with their company is composed of how others see it from the outside and how employees see it from the inside.

As individuals seek a place to work, they are very much aware of its reputation and how others perceive it because, by joining the company, they are overtly endorsing what it stands for. Let's look at these examples.

Pablo is very environmentally conscious. He would be attracted to a company known for implementing green programs. Pablo would be very pleased in a paperless environment.

Danielle is very structured and formal; she would be drawn to hierarchical workplaces where roles and responsibilities are clearly defined. Danielle would feel more comfortable in an environment with a strict business dress code.

Steven is focused on creating new ideas that could become profitable products. He would be interested in a company that values results more than processes and procedures and where no one pays particular attention to his choice of attire. Steven would be happy wearing jeans or even shorts, weather permitting, every day.

Each of these individuals, with their varying personalities, would likely choose a different organization to join.

Brand Alignment

Brand alignment is another driver related to organizational image. With today's availability of information through multiple channels, often accessed simultaneously, it is very easy for an employee to find out if the company is acting consistently with its brand, or what makes it unique among its competitors.

For example, a company that prides itself on its community orientation and service would be initially appealing to an employee who likes to spend time working for the common good. Any contradiction between what the company says it would do and what it actually does would have a negative impact on that employee's engagement.

In this example, if the company's real connection with the community is limited to only collecting funds for nonprofit groups, the service-oriented employee will feel disappointed and will, very likely, begin to feel disengaged after joining the company.

Brand alignment ensures that people know and understand an organization's brand and purpose and that they demonstrate that they "live the brand" in everything that they do, everywhere that they do it, and every time that they do it.

Develop Relationships

Where do you start when you want to move employee engagement in a particular direction? If you had to select only one driver to address, focus on developing relationships with your employees.

By knowing your employees as individuals, you will be better positioned to decide which other drivers are more meaningful for each one of them and in which order to address them.

After all, engagement is all about the "I."

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