The 5 Ways That Highly Engaged Employees Are Different

By Timothy R. Clark

How do you learn engagement from someone who’s disengaged?

You don’t. That’s like trying to learn French from a Spanish teacher. People simply can’t teach you what they don’t know.

So we decided that the key to understanding high engagement was to study the highly engaged. We studied 150 highly engaged employees in 13 different industries and 50 different organizations, from aerospace and health care to technology and media.

Do they behave in consistent ways? The answer is a resounding yes! Here is what we found:

  1. Highly engaged employees take primary responsibility for their own engagement. When surveyed, 99 percent of highly engaged employees report that they take personal and primary responsibility for their own engagement. It’s a stunning and largely ignored fact. The highly engaged expect the organization to play a support role. The highly disengaged expect the organization to play a primary role. While most highly engaged employees embrace an employee-centered model of engagement (meaning “I own it; it’s up to me; I’m responsible for my own engagement”), most disengaged employees follow an employer-centered model (meaning “It’s my manager’s or the organization’s job to keep me engaged”). In sharp contrast, the highly engaged don’t wait around for the organization to engage them. They take deliberate steps to engage themselves.
  2. Highly engaged employees feel the least entitled. Highly engaged employees understand they must dynamically manage their employability on an ongoing basis. They are far less predisposed to worry about what the organization owes them. They believe that high performance speaks for itself and that it will be recognized in any setting. It’s rather stunning, but most of the highly engaged individuals we studied think the concept of a “secure job” is a silly concept. They look at others who believe in such a notion as foolhardy. It’s not necessarily that we are going to become a world of temp workers, but a simple acknowledgment that no one and no organization has the power to grant true job security.
  3. Highly engaged employees engage customers. Highly engaged employees can’t help but reveal themselves to customers. They project and infect customers with the contagion of their own engagement. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true of disengaged employees. Ultimately, an organization’s brand promise is kept or broken by the employee — the real and ultimate face of the company. Highly engaged employees make the customer experience. Disengaged employees break it. Whatever is inside the employee is sure to come out and infl uence the customer. Employees always reveal their level of engagement at the customer interface.
  4. Highly engaged employees remain highly engaged almost anywhere. Highly engaged employees are amazingly agnostic to their organizational environment. We found highly engaged people in all kinds of organizational settings and environments: corporations, governments, hospitals, schools, nonprofi ts. It didn’t matter. They demonstrate agility and adaptability and recognize that organizational conditions are subject to market conditions and the business cycle. Their high engagement is portable; they take it with them. It’s both a mindset and a skill set. They create their own weather.
  5. Highly engaged employees apply six behavioral drivers. Individuals who take personal and primary responsibility for their own engagement consistently apply six behavioral drivers: connecting, shaping, learning, stretching, achieving, and contributing. The ongoing process of applying these drivers allows them to sustain high levels of engagement over time.

Highly engaged must take the lead

Don’t misunderstand. We’re not saying that leaders and organizations shouldn’t help engage their employees.

They should! Extrinsic motivators help drive engagement, and leaders play a vital role in fostering conditions that boost engagement, such as creating a dynamic culture, developing good leadership, creating a compelling strategy and vision, aligning reward and recognition systems, and providing ample resources.

We are saying, however, that highly engaged employees must take primary responsibility. They must take the lead.

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As an individual, you’re responsible for enabling behavior. If both elements come together, the result is a highly engaged individual. It’s important to understand both factors and how they reinforce each other.

“The employee’s role is primary”

And it’s critical to recognize a significant finding from our research about highly engaged employees: even in poorly performing organizations with lousy work conditions, limited resources, and few opportunities, those who are highly engaged still take responsibility and own their own engagement.

Here’s the principle: Organizational conditions that create extrinsic motivation are important, but never enough. The employee’s role is primary. The organizagtion’s role is secondary.

To maintain high engagement, you’ve got to take action. You’ve got to apply  the six drivers and create your own engagement.

Excerpted from The Employee Engagement Mindset, by Timothy Clark. © 2012, McGraw-Hill Professional. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Timothy R. Clark is founding partner and CEO of TRClark . He is considered an international authority in the areas of leadership development and large-scale organizational change. He advises leaders and organizations around the world. A former two-time CEO, he writes the weekly column “On Leadership” for the Salt Lake City Deseret News. He' s also the author of the critically claimed book, "Epic Change: How to Lead Change in the Global Age." You can follow him on Twitter, or contact him directly at


11 Comments on “The 5 Ways That Highly Engaged Employees Are Different

  1. As fascinating as this is, how were engagement and disengagement operationally defined in the study?

  2. This leaves me wondering how an organization should approach trying to shift the disengaged to a degree of engagement.  If it’s all on the employee, then what?

  3. As this article implies, the Organization must play a role – they need to identify, and put in place, motivators that help drive engagement.   One fabulous driver involves supporting highly structured  education opportunities that show employees how a particular education path will lead to career growth and increased wages.  THEN – providing ample resources (help with tuition and books) to go after the education the company endorses.

  4. What the author states is admirable, and I assume that he is talking about functional organizations that reward and encourage employees to engage. But when one is employed in a disfunctional organization where management cannot make decisions, and then resents engaged employees, employees  slowly become disengaged as there is no reason for engagement that is not acknowledge, rewarded (acknowledgement that the engaged emplyee is a valuable member) or, heaven forbid, compensated. Why must it fall on the employee to be the engaged aspect? Management of a company must have a vision and the drive to focus that vision. With that vision then employees can be engaged. I am tired on articles like this that insist that the employee must make all the strides for a company.

  5. Great post, Timothy. When employees take the reins in their own careers, their engagement levels will surely improve. However, highly engaged employees don’t become the way they are without the assistance of a manager at one point or another. These sorts of leaders help those who may have engagement issues to see the value of their performance, as well as what these employees need to do on a daily basis to help improve themselves as professionals. With this sort of real-time input and mentorship, employees can understand the impact they can make and act accordingly to advance themselves and their careers. Of course, eventually they’ll be able to do it on their own, but just as young people need direction from teachers and parents, employees need to be instilled with independence and knowledge in order to engage themselves.

  6. This article really resonates with me.  What this implies to me is that hiring engaged people is critical to the organization’s success.  
    Any advice on how to suss out whether someone is engaged during the interview process? 

  7. I think this reasoning (or lack thereof) is highly misleading: “Highly engaged employees are amazingly agnostic to their organizational environment. We found highly engaged people in all kinds of organizational settings …Their high engagement is portable.” The authors suggest that engagement is a purely individual quality, when in fact it is a relationship between an individual and a setting. The fact that they found engaged people everywhere simply indicates all settings will find at least some engaged employees. It doesn *not* mean that (for example) a person who is highly engaged in a creative/knowledge industry setting will be equally engaged as a retail cashier.

  8. It all boils down to one thing. Does the person take responsibility to get the job done no matter what the circumstances are. That means if we want an engage workforce we need to be hiring for one major attitude not personality but an attitude of being responsible

  9. Since ‘engaged’ workers make up less than 13% of the global workforce, then the ‘highly engaged’ must be in a tiny minority. I don’t think these low numbers can be explained simply by a lack of responsibility for being engaged. In my book OPEN: How We’ll Work, Live and Learn In The Future, I argue that many workers have become disengaged through the removal of autonomy and trust. Since employers were largely responsible for this, they surely have some responsibility for changing engagement. My own solution is to create cultures of innovation (without fear of failure) and learning. companies like WD-40 have done this and enjoy 93% engagement rates!

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