Engaging Employees

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“Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho, it off to work we go” sung Grumpy.

Engaging employees is rightly regarded as amongst the most important of leadership challenges. Global surveys by Korn Ferry and others show that having an engaged workforce correlates directly with profitability, retention, productivity and that elusive aspect of organisational cultural – a ‘happy’ workforce. Of course with ever-increasing levels of diversity making up the workforce, authentically engaging this same workforce is no easy or simple matter!

A 2018 global Gallap survey revealed that the vast majority of companies failed miserably in the task of having an engaged workforce. The survey reported that only 15% of workers around the world felt that they were fully engaged with their work. That figured dropped to 10% for Western Europe and rose to 34% when it came to the USA. All this in spite of the proliferation of leadership development and training programmes (with an estimated per annum spend of $50 billion!) in which ‘employee engagement’ is never too far away from the being the central focus of the agenda.

In Nine Lies About Work (due for publication in April) by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, three things are touted as being the most ‘important’ factors when it comes to employee engagement:

  1. An understanding of what is expected of them
  2. Feeling that they are surrounded by supportive colleagues
  3. A belief that they will be recognised and rewarded for good performance

To be honest, this doesn’t seem like rocket science or anything new really. After all, Mary Parker Follett, a pioneer in the study of leadership and management in corporate America, was saying much the same thing when she spoke and lectured on employee empowerment. Follett died in 1933. I suspect too that trying to implement these three things is a lot more difficult than stating them – certainly if we consider just how long this refrain has been heralded!

I am currently reading a wonderful book that is hot off the printing press, Barbara Kellerman’s Professionalising Leadership. It is a book everyone, and I mean everyone, involved in leadership education, development and training (part of what Kellerman does is help clear up the confusing mess between these three things – education, development and training) needs to read. Kellerman states that she now refuses to talk merely about ‘leadership’ – she has replaced that term with ‘leadership system’ something she defines as the relationship between leaders, followers and their context – how they relate to one another. In other words, Kellerman is offering us a perspective that demands we see the ‘whole’ and an understanding that leadership operates within a system, one that incorporates followers and is something that is relational.

I suspect that grasping this concept is key to a more meaningful and deeper understanding of ‘employee engagement’. If we are to get employee engagement ‘right’ we might have to reboot our entire understanding of leadership and the organisation…the ‘system’.

Maybe this is enough to digest for now. A small bite size on what it will take to engage employees in the 21 Century.

Not satisfactory if you were looking for three to five (there should always be an odd number) quick ‘How to’s’ neatly configured as an acronym or in some sort of first letter alliteration that serves the purpose of making it easier to remember.

No, maybe stopping and considering that if you want better employee engagement you will need to be willing to deconstruct some fundamentals as to how you run your business, is the best place to pause.

The good news is that I know this is possible. Look at Chinese appliance giant Haier (cover story of the Nov / Dec Harvard Business Review) in how they dismantled bureaucracy and what then ensued; next week I am in St. Louis at Boeing’s magnificent Leadership Center, where the emphasis is on enabling leaders to create leaders and inviting the best out of others…just another way of framing ‘employee engagement’. A big company, one with a global reach, is taking this responsibility seriously.

Yes, it can be done. It simply has to be done.


The world needs a new leadership response to a global context of change, complexity and uncertainty. Leadership expert (and author of today’s Tuesday Tip), Keith Coats is passionate about helping audiences around the world to understand what this response looks like and to equip leaders with the tools needed to respond to this changing context.

Keith’s research and global experience of over 20 years has helped him identify the key-defining factors of a successful leader in the 21st century as the ability to learn, grow and be adaptable. It is his great privilege to help leaders access new frameworks and thinking in order to successfully lead into the future. Chat with us if you’de like to explore how he could help your team prepare for the future.

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