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Three Strategies for Making Employee Engagement Stick
Business Journal

Three Strategies for Making Employee Engagement Stick

Simple ways to integrate engagement into your company's culture so it lasts

by Mary Knight

Companies that want to boost employee engagement sometimes can't make their efforts stick. These businesses seek the benefits that come from increased engagement -- improved productivity, profitability, safety, retention, and customer focus, among others -- but they don't feel that employee engagement is becoming integrated into the company's culture.

The ultimate goal of any engagement effort must be to transform the culture.

As a consultant who works with executives and teams to increase employee engagement through Gallup's 12 elements of great managing, I often hear this lament: "Our team has been working on impact plans for three years, but we're still not seeing an increase in our employee engagement scores. Why don't our latest scores reflect our impact-planning efforts? What are we doing wrong?"

My answer is: Creating an exercise schedule won't get you in shape; you still have to do the hard work of exercising regularly. In much the same way, creating an impact plan alone won't increase a team's engagement. You must make engagement something you and your team members think about, talk about, and act on regularly. Leaders and managers who are the most successful make engagement a living, breathing part of their company's culture.

Three strategies that work

Engagement is built one team at a time, one person at a time. And each person has different needs and expectations. Great leaders intentionally interact with their team members to assess the team's situation and needs. They respond directly to team members' need to belong and reinforce their sense of self-worth. And they use impact planning to start a conversation with employees about engagement and work with employees to build their engagement over time.

These three strategies can help you integrate engagement into your regular routine:

  1. Define the engagement goal in real-world terms. To build a common understanding of the engagement goal, discuss it during team impact-planning meetings and in one-on-one feedback sessions with employees. For example, if your goal is to boost recognition among your team members, ask them, "What would we need to do for everyone on the team to strongly agree that 'In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work?' What would it take for you to give this item a top score?"

    One manager I know shared the dialogue that ensued when his team discussed what a top score would look like for this item. Their discussion clarified that recognition could come from team members, managers, or internal or external clients. It could be public or private -- whatever the employee prefers -- and it should reference a specific work situation. It could come through an informal comment, written feedback, or an award for outstanding work. This conversation helped the team understand what recognition is and how team members like to receive it -- information they could put into action immediately following the meeting.
  2. Talk with team members one on one about engagement. Some employees may not feel comfortable sharing their strengths, needs, or opinions in a team meeting. So ask probing questions about specific engagement elements in one-on-one sessions. Then listen and write down responses so you can share them anonymously in team goal-setting and impact-planning sessions. Consider asking questions such as: "What is the best recognition you have ever received? Why was it the best? When you achieve your goals, how would you like to be recognized?"

    When discussing recognition one on one with his team members, one manager was surprised to hear that an employee treasured a handwritten note recognizing her for going the extra mile on a project. Another employee said he was uncomfortable with public recognition but appreciated when he was kept in the communication loop on a project he had completed recently. Understanding these personal preferences is vital to building engagement.
  3. Empower team members to lead team engagement sessions. Employees are closest to the issues that affect them the most. To integrate engagement in the culture, encourage your team members to take ownership by leading engagement activities. Ask for volunteers -- or recruit employees who are looking for a challenge or leadership development opportunities -- to lead impact planning.

    "One of my team members led one of our best meetings," said a manager I worked with recently. "I asked her to lead it because she was good at engaging the rest of the team in conversation. I purposely did not attend, so she became the leader and the voice of the others in that meeting. She reported the results to me and will be leading a follow-up discussion with my guidance. Since then, I've seen a marked difference in her attitude, and she's even more engaged in her own responsibilities." The team's response was positive, and the manager noticed that employees felt more comfortable speaking up and sharing ideas when a peer led the discussion and impact-planning session.

Engagement demands a year-round commitment

Every interaction with an employee has the potential to influence engagement and inspire the employee's discretionary effort. That's why employee engagement shouldn't be a one-time event. Circumstances, needs, and perceptions change, so building an engaged team must be an ongoing effort, and it requires a year-round commitment. Best-practice leaders create high levels of engagement over time because they continually focus on changing behaviors, processes, and systems to anticipate, discuss, and positively respond to the changing needs of their team members.

Managers who define what their engagement goals look like, integrate engagement activities into one-on-one discussions, and empower team members to lead engagement sessions often have higher levels of engagement among their team members. Managers report significant improvement when using these strategies on these engagement items:

  • In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.
  • There is someone at work who encourages my development.
  • At work, my opinions seem to count.
  • The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.
  • I have a best friend at work.
  • This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.

The ultimate goal of any engagement effort must be to transform the culture, so the primary goal of a company's engagement efforts should not be creating an impact plan. An impact plan is a starting point, not a destination. It should serve as an instrument that documents best intentions that team members will act on to boost their engagement. Leaders, managers, and team members who integrate engagement into how they think, speak, and act will successfully boost and sustain engagement.

The 12 Elements of Great Managing


Mary Knight is a former consultant at Gallup.

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