The Astoundingly Simple Truth About Employee Engagement

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There have been more articles written about how to engage workers than you can shake a stick at, and yet the sad reality remains — most people hate their jobs.

On the one hand then, all the talk of engagement makes sense. Employers need help devising ways to get workers plugged into their workplaces. I get it.

On the other hand, all this talk doesn’t make sense. Shouldn’t employers have more of a clue by now? Shouldn’t we have — I don’t know — outgrown this topic?

Apparently not.

What’s so mysterious about employee engagement?

“Employee engagement” means different things to different people, with some suggest-ing that it needs to be redefined, and others suggesting that “employee engagement” is simply passé and something else, like “passion,” should take its place.

Dear me.

Granted, it’s not always apparent why one employee:

  • Wakes up wanting to go to work;
  • Is willing to do a good job; and,
  • Actually does a good job (as measured by the standards set by management).

… while another employee doesn’t/isn’t/doesn’t (or does/isn’t/doesn’t, or whatever), but it’s not exactly like trying to figure out what happened to Amelia Earhart, or where Jimmy Hoffa is buried, or whether aliens built the ancient pyramids.

Call me naïve, but I just don’t think it’s that deep.

Lack of knowledge is not our problem

When I think about employee engagement, I think about the weight I haven’t lost.

Those pounds aren’t budging for lack of head knowledge, okay? Eat less and move more. Works every time.

So when the pounds stay packed, it’s not because I’m befuddled on how to lose weight, it’s because I won’t act on what I know. I won’t eat less and move more.

Employee engagement is like that. Employers know what to do, they just won’t do it.

We all want the same things

With the exception of a few outliers (e.g., the tremendously lazy and/or unmotivated or the downright evil), I’m certain people come to work wanting the same things — interesting assignments, decent relationships, and decent pay.

And when employees become disengaged (or fail to engage in the first place), something on that list is missing.

Maybe the work has become boring, or the manager is an ass, or the pay isn’t enough for the employee to comfortably meet his living expenses. Whatever the case, at some point the employee decides his effort isn’t worth the return, and he begins to disengage.

And I know management is hard, but it’s not that hard, in the sense that managers can’t fathom what to do to prevent more employees from checking out.

Why do I say that? Because, again, we all want the same things.

Hey manager, do you want someone breathing down your neck, asking you every other damn day when that thingamabob will be finished? I didn’t think so.

Boss man! How much fun would it be to have your boss take your talent and time for granted, as though you were no more than an appendage to him or her? Not much fun? Gee, how did I know?

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Mr./Ms. VP — to what degree would you love your employer if you were overworked yet still underpaid, able to pay your bills but unable to save, buy a house, or pay your child’s tuition for the school you’d like her to attend instead of your crappy neighbor-hood one?

True, we can all want the same things and still be different enough to confound our managers about our specific motivations, but good bosses will actually spend the time to know their people, which cuts down significantly on the confusion.

The simple truth

And so, in a nutshell, here is the astoundingly simple truth about employee engagement —

If work meets an employee’s intellectual, social, and financial needs he’ll be engaged. If it doesn’t, he won’t.

And if employers care anything about that, they’ll reward managers who spend quality time with staff and then use that knowledge to provide the things their employees need and want, which will 99.9999 percent of the time motivate employees to return the favor.

Taking pains to pay reasonable wages, rewarding people for good performance, getting rid of jerk bosses, and dealing with organizational conflict productively would also be a huge step in the right direction.

You say all that sounds like too much trouble and you wish employees would just do the jobs they’re being paid to do without all the gimme gimme?

You gotta engage with them

Hmmm … it sounds like you’d do better with robots than people for employees.

Because people have needs, and when those needs go unmet, you employer, are going to have a problem on your hands.

And, how realistic is it to expect that employees will be engaged when you’re so unwilling to engage with them?

My pounds aren’t going to drop without effort, and your employees aren’t going to become/stay engaged without your effort.

It’s astoundingly simple.

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at


8 Comments on “The Astoundingly Simple Truth About Employee Engagement

  1. Interesting thoughts. When broken down to its lowest common denominator this makes complete sense. The devil is in the details when you scale it to a company that has hundreds or thousands of employees. It seems this is less of an issue of “employee engagement” and more of a case for culture. If the culture is built and maintained to support two way dialog between managers and employees then the engagement will follow.

    1. Tyler, you make a great point. The company’s culture has to be founded on two dialog between managers and employees. However, this will only happen when employees can trust their manager to have their best interest a heart.

    2. I completely agree with your point. The issue in many cases is culture and not engagement since some say cultural rules shape 90% of our behavior. A few efforts to improve engagement are great but what organizations really need is an understanding of how to engage employees as a normal part of their unique culture. The question is more about how than the “astoundingly simple truth” but the awareness needs to be there before the education and action can take place in any meaningful way. Thank you for the article, increasing that awareness and starting the education.

  2. Hi Tyler. Yes, I do believe you’re right that at the heart of all this lies company culture and how managers are rewarded for managing–and that includes how employees for whom the organization is no longer a good fit are managed. I readily admit that sometimes the employee wants something the company can’t give.

    I also wanted to piggyback on your comment about “scaling,” because it’s important. No matter how large a company is, ultimately (and for the most part), an employee’s engagement will hinge on the quality of the work relationships–particularly his or her relationship with his or her manager.

  3. Hello Crystal,

    “If work meets an employee’s intellectual, social, and financial needs he’ll be engaged. If it doesn’t, he won’t.”

    That is not rigorous enough; managers have a huge impact on employee engagement, incompetent/ineffective managers prevent employee engagement.

    For 80% of managers employee engagement is a huge threat. If we want to significantly improve our chances of creating an engaged workforce we need to stop hiring managers who find employee engagement a huge threat. We need to stop focusing our efforts on employees and start working on getting executives and managers to do their jobs well all of the time.

    Employee engagement should not be a threat since it is the end result of executives, managers, and supervisors doing all things well; it is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of managing for job success.

    It is far easier for executives and managers to focus on their employees than themselves.

    Successful employees have all three of the following success predictors while unsuccessful employee lack one or two and usually it is Job Talent that they lack.
    1. Competence
    2. Cultural Fit
    3. Job Talent

    Employers do a…
    A. great job of hiring competent employees.
    B. good job of hiring competent employees who fit the culture.
    C. poor job of hiring competent employees who fit the culture and who have a talent for the job.

    Identifying the talent required for each job seems to be missing from talent and management discussions. If we ignore any of the three criteria, our workforce will be less successful with higher turnover than if we do not ignore any of the three criteria.
    1. Competence
    2. Cultural Fit
    3. Talent

    There are many factors to consider when hiring and managing talent but first we need to define talent unless “hiring talent” means “hiring employees.” Everyone wants to hire for and manage talent but if we can’t answer the five questions below with specificity, we can’t hire or manage talent effectively.
    1. How do we define talent?
    2. How do we measure talent?
    3. How do we know a candidate’s talent?
    4. How do we know what talent is required for each job?
    5. How do we match a candidate’s talent to the talent demanded by the job?

    Most managers cannot answer the five questions with specificity but the answers provide the framework for hiring successful employees and creating an engaged workforce.

    Talent is not found in resumes or interviews or background checks or college transcripts.

    Talent must be hired since it cannot be acquired or imparted after the hire.

  4. I whole heartedly agree with this Crystal. I guess the challenge for your average manager is – “How do I know how well work meets an employee’s intellectual, social, and financial needs”.

    This sort of thing is probably well above the skill set of most managers and is in the realms of HR consultants such as yourself. Plus a lot of the things that contribute to these needs are subconscious and therefore cannot easily be uncovered.

    We have been working on which uses a behavioural psychology questionnaire that gives managers a clear profile of these things PLUS a 3 point action plan to address the most important ones.

    Would value any peer feedback on what we have been doing… Thanks in advance Andy

  5. Totally agree that lack of knowledge is not the problem. Would like to add to your comment “If work meets an employee’s intellectual, social, and financial needs he’ll be engaged. If it doesn’t, he won’t.” A person’s human needs must be addressed – to feel valued, appreciated, and treated fairly. They must also believe in the company’s purpose and trust both their boss and the leadership of the company, especially their integrity.

  6. I love your tone in this article, Crystal! This was fun to read and I completely agree with you.

    I also enjoyed reading this article in HBR which goes into greater detail about employee needs and has some great research:

    The concept of employee engagement gets put into a box all too often, and tends to miss the bigger idea that people are human and have needs.

    It was nice to read something on the topic that has a less serious tone.


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