6 Ways to Engage Employees – But Only One That Really Works

We think there are millions of ways to engage, or disengage, employees but there aren’t.

Truly, there are only six. The six basic emotions we feel as humans, which are:

  1. Anger;
  2. Disgust;
  3. Fear;
  4. Happiness;
  5. Sadness;
  6. Surprise.

Does “happy” equal “engaged?”

Knowing there are only six doesn’t necessarily make it any easy for us to figure out how to raise engagement, but at least it will help you giving you a concrete starting point.

Let me help get you started. Of the six, only one really help you engage in a positive way — Happiness. The other five can all be very disengaging factors: Anger, Disgust, Fear, Sadness and Surprise.

So, you want to raise engagement? Well, that seems easy, because happy employees will equal engaged employees.

But, you’ll have your haters which will say, “Tim! Just because I’m happy doesn’t make me ‘Engaged’!”

Yes, you’re right, but have you ever tried to engage an employee who was angry, disgusted, fearful, sad or unexpectedly surprised? It’s tough.

If I need to increase engagement, I would prefer to start with happy employees. It just makes my job easier.

Going the “negative” engagement route

In the short-term you could “engage” employees by the negative emotions as well, but that never plays out well long-term. I can make employees fearful for their jobs, their livelihood, and they will perform better for a little while and seem very engaged — until they find another job. All the negative emotions can be played out like this.

So, I’m left with Happiness. It’s not a bad emotion to be stuck with if you can only have one that helps you. I like happy people, even on Monday mornings. It’s better than dealing with assholes for sure!

We focus our engagement on so many things that have little impact on the emotion of happiness. We spend millions of dollars a year on leadership development because better leaders raise engagement, we’re told. We spend millions of dollars on building better environments because $800 office chairs raise engagement. We spend millions of dollars on increasing wages and benefits, because more raises engagement.

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But none of these really raise happiness.

“But, Tim! You’ve told us before you can’t ‘make’ someone happy.”

The dirty little secret about engagement

Ah, now we’ve come to something important. If you can’t “make” someone happy, how can we positively raise the engagement of our employees?

You can’t. It’s a dirty little secret the engagement industry doesn’t want you to know (oh boy, can’t wait for Big Papi Paul to kill me in the comments on this one!).

You can raise the engagement of your organization, though. Hire happy people. Happy people aren’t just happy some of the time, they’re predisposed, for the most part, to be happy. Hiring happy people consistently over time will raise your engagement.

Do you have a pre-employment assessment for happiness? Probably not. HR people hate happy people.

Tim Sackett, MS, SPHR is executive vice president of HRU Technical Resources, a contingent staffing firm in Lansing, MI. Tim has 20 years of HR and talent background split evenly between corporate HR gigs among the Fortune 500 and the HR vendor community ? so he gets it from both sides of the desk. A frequent contributor to the talent blog Fistful of Talent, Tim also speaks at many HR conferences and events. Contact him here.


8 Comments on “6 Ways to Engage Employees – But Only One That Really Works

  1. I must have missed it in my psych classes. What exactly is “happy”?
    I’m also old enough to remember reading articles from years ago about happiness and productivity. There are better words to define the mindset needed to be highly productive.

    I know its far more pleasant to work with happy people but my experience tells me there many highly productive people who are someplace between angry, sullen and happy.

    I love happy people also but as a hiring strategy that’s going to exclude a lot of talented people.

  2. How about happy and engaged in continuous improvement. I like the thinking, happy employees do make a difference, but having happy employees doing the right things right versus the wrong things often, brings about happyness far more often. Today’s leaders have done very little to drive out the wasteful activities that prevent employees from doing the work they were hired to do. As one commentor stated, just because they are happy, doesn’t mean they won’t fly the coop and go somewhere else where they can better apply the skills they were reasonably suited for, skilled and trained to do, and able to better conduct when the barriers to performing their job exceptionally well are removed by the owners of the system.



  3. I hate to be a naysayer, but I believe your premise is false. While the 6 emotions listed may have something to contribute to a state of engagement, they are by no means exclusive. And, there is no silver bullet either. Sure, happy people are fun to be around (most of the time), but being happy has little to do with engagement.

    Trying to simplify a complex issue is a risky endeavor, which generally fails. To do so successfully requires a thorough understanding of the issue being addressed, and sufficient experience to support the claim. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but having an opinion doesn’t make it so.

  4. I am an HR professional and I love happy people. That last line is pretty exclusive. Working with happy people is important to the success of everyone in an organization and makes coming to work enjoyable.

  5. I’d have to agree with John’s comments here – this article greatly simplifies some very complex relationships between the meaning behind ’emotions’, ‘engagement’ ‘happiness’ and ultimately ‘performance’. Without going down this semantic rabbit hole, I don’t subscribe to the conclusion drawn here that you can’t influence happiness in people. In fact, i believe exactly the opposite – that you can and the fact that organizations don’t know how speaks volumes about why engagement sucks so bad in companies today. I don’t see this as a black or white issue of either “having the happiness gene” or not. Even the most basic coaching and working on an individual’s understanding of themselves and overall sense of self-awareness can unleash great potential in a person – and the discovery of self becomes something that leads to significant satisfaction, well-being and happiness. If we add to this the fine tuning of compatibility between job role, people you work with, cultural fit etc… then it’s absolutely possible to not only encourage and cultivate happy people in a company but to bring out TRUE engagement as an act of “doing” and not “being”. Our research at Empatico is along these longs and more can be read at empatico.ca/blog/. Cheers, Bob

  6. Makes sense. One of the best examples is In-N-Out Burger. I know they pay even trainees fairly well, and store managers can earn 6 figures. And I’ve never seen anyone with a bad attitude at any In-N-Out anywhere in California, Nevada or Arizona.

  7. I too must agree with the comments made by John Bushfield and Bob Telfer that ;

    1) Six is not a definitive count of possible emotions

    2) There is no silver bullet

    As it pertains to Employee Engagement, I firmly believe that emotion which has most impact is that of “Feeling Valued”.

    When people feel special they act special. They will then go the extra step, help others, speak highly of the organization and ultimately be more productive.

    High self-esteem is the fuel for performance.

    Finding out what makes us each feel valued is the tricky part and (as pointed out) there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Managers, peers and colleagues should take time and put initiatives in place to find out the uniqueness of each other. Don’t assume that just because you like something, everyone else must like it too. We need to bend the golden rulehttp://bit.ly/GoldenRuleAtWork

    And if anyone really is stuck on the idea that happiness = engagement, well the easiest way to make someone happy is to make them feel valued.

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