ATD Blog

The Real World of Employee Engagement

Thursday, March 5, 2020

In 2012, I realized that employee engagement was a paradox. Like many other organizations, we were investing significant time, energy, and money to increase employee engagement yet engagement scores didn’t improve. How could the same smart people who doubled our company’s revenue pour resources into this challenge and not move the dial?

I recently learned the answer to that question.

Are We Using the Correct Definition of Engagement?

Low engagement is a challenge for many companies around the world according to global surveys. Despite billions of dollars invested in well-intentioned engagement programs, the effects are minimal at best. Some leaders have given up, shifting focus toward increasing employee happiness or satisfaction. I think this is a mistake.

My executive coaching work helps me see engagement as a much deeper human experience than happiness or job satisfaction. Other leaders have shifted to employee experience rather than engagement. While employee experience is a good catchphrase, is this really a new concept or just a better definition of employee engagement?

Most leading employee engagement survey tools focus on whether people will work harder, be more productive, or stay at their current organization. Are those things actually engagement or instead organizational benefits of engagement? Is it possible that engagement scores are not increasing because we have not been measuring engagement all this time?

My preferred assessment for engagement is the Utrecht Work Engagement Scale (UWES), the go-to protocol for measuring engagement in academic research. It’s been validated in real-world situations and gets to the heart of what employee engagement truly is: a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind.


UWES asks people simple engagement questions like: “When I wake up in the morning, do I feel like going to work?” What if an employee doesn’t feel like going to work? Do we send a team of people to sneak into their house at 7 a.m. with doughnuts and coffee, proceed to walk them through their daily agenda, and tell them why they should be excited about every meeting? That would be a bizarre experience, and I’m not sure the program would scale well.

UWES sheds light on how employee engagement is a human state of mind, not a corporate benefit. While it provides a better definition, engagement itself is an outcome—and leaders cannot manage outcomes. We can only manage the underlying factors.

Cultivate High Performance to Improve Engagement

I think we have had engagement backward for years. While it is common for leaders to focus on employee engagement to improve performance, our data suggest this process happens in precisely the opposite direction. Cultivating high-performance may be what finally solves the employee engagement paradox.


Our research offers a data-driven, real-world approach in which leaders focus on cultivating a high-performance culture while knowing that employee engagement increases at the same time. The academically validated SupportingLines High-Performance Index shows that engagement increases when leaders cultivate a high-performance culture by helping teams align, collaborate, and grow.

These are leadership behaviors we can manage. Furthermore, when organizations succeed at cultivating a high-performance culture, work engagement increases without any additional attention. We help high-performance organizations set complete goals that are aligned with an inspiring vision. Complete goals require clearly defined, firm commitments of support between teams to ensure critical, cross-functional goals are delivered. These commitments become a core element of an employee’s psychosocial experience, helping people find meaning in their work. If individuals see that they matter to an organization, engagement increases. By enabling collaboration and holding people accountable to their commitments, while providing the mentoring and professional development employees need, engagement comes naturally. We also achieve more of our critical, cross-functional goals.

Involve Your Employees to Cultivate High Performance and Increase Engagement

In our experience, the fastest way to boost engagement is to involve your employees in the process of creating actions to increase employee engagement, while cultivating high performance. Does it not make sense to engage a group of people who are experts in their own engagement during the process of increasing their engagement? It seems so obvious yet few organizations do this in a cohesive way.

Help teams align, help teams collaborate, and help people grow. Cultivate high performance while increasing employee work engagement. It’s time to shift toward the real world of employee engagement and set aside the paradox because it’s possible now more than ever to ensure that everyone on your team feels like going to work today—and every day.

About the Author

Jeff Smith is the founder and CEO of the SupportingLines Institute. He is on a mission to help leaders and teams perform so that people have a better human experience at work. Building on 20 years of diverse leadership experience as a COO, CFO and global head of sales, Jeff created the SupportingLines framework to accelerate leadership development and cultivate high-performance cultures. His mantra, ‘supporting lines, not reporting lines,’ isn’t just a catchphrase. It embodies a comprehensive high-performance framework that delivers tangible results.

Jeff is a member of the Association of Corporate Executive Coaches (ACEC). ACEC’s mission is to elevate recognition of corporate executive coaching as a critical profession and for corporate executive coaches to be seen as transformation catalysts for the 21st century, creating organizations of the future.

He also is a Chartered Professional Accountant, Certified Dharma Yoga Instructor (which earned him the nickname “Chief Yoga Officer”) and past recipient of Business in Vancouver’s prestigious Forty Under 40 award. When he’s not at work he is passionate about family time, practicing & teaching yoga, hockey coaching and personal development.

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If you want engagement and profitable growth, learn from companies who excel at both. Industry leaders like Southwest Airlines, Starbucks, Capital One and many private companies economically engage their employees as trusted partners in the business, driving and participating in the profitable growth of the company. These Forbes and Harvard Business Review articles provide more background:
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