THE world’s most successful companies have known for years that having an environment in which employees “show up” every day, not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well, is essential to achieving the bottom line.

Employee involvement in the day-to-day functioning of the company is called “engagement”. The word “engaged” has been used especially to describe employees who are willing, even eager, to do whatever it takes to make a meaningful contribution to their organisation’s success.

Employees make a choice to expend energy in their work versus simply going through the motions. The key word is “choice”:  Employees can be thought of as having a certain amount of discretionary energy, which they can invest in many different ways, some more valuable to the organisation than others.

How can companies unleash the discretionary energy of employees for the benefit of the enterprise?

The Forum Corporation has undertaken a global survey of employees, who described factors that increased or decreased their engagement. It found that leaders can take action to enhance engagement and results not through a “one-size-fits-all” approach, but in targeting actions to the specific needs and expectations of their employees.


Can engagement be predicted?

There are engagement factors that allow companies to predict engagement levels. The factors that played out prominently in each stakeholder group based on the study are:

•  Being encouraged to offer opinions and ideas and to make meaningful decisions;

•  Doing satisfying, meaningful work I am good at;

•  Working in an environment that provides opportunities for my family to understand the organisation and the work I do;

•  Feeling that others value my contributions;

•  Working with people who share my high standards of performance, take initiative, and accept accountability; and

•  Having opportunities to hear and talk about the organisation’s strategy, goals, plans and activities.


Based on the study, there are five types of “engagement need” profiles which, when addressed, lead to greater levels of employee engagement:

• Enjoyment (“I enjoy my work”): Short-term payoff; group-oriented people who choose “enjoyment” are engaged by work settings that are fun and where they have opportunities to interact in positive ways with others whose company they value.

• Belonging (“I belong here”): Long-term payoff; group-oriented people who choose “belonging” are engaged by feeling that they are members of a community; they have an emotional connection to the organisation.

• Advancement (“I’m getting ahead”): Long-term payoff; individually oriented people who choose “advancement” are engaged by the opportunity the organisation presents for them to build their portfolio of skills and contacts.

• Recognition (“I am valued”): Short-term payoff; individually oriented people who choose “recognition” are engaged by feeling that their efforts are noticed and appreciated by others.

• Accomplishment (“I am productive”): Mid-term payoff; both individually and group-oriented people who choose “accomplishment” are engaged by feeling their efforts benefit a greater mission or purpose.

Employees may align to a small degree with all five needs but they will typically have one or possibly two dominant needs that create their profile.

In leaders, the key is to get a sense of individuals’ “engagement profiles”: map out the engagement needs they most value, and find ways to meet these needs.

Top engagement needs

Employees’ average importance ratings of each of the five needs showed that “belonging” and “enjoyment” were rated highest. This finding supports the view that people are “social animals”.

People tend to find environments engaging to the extent they satisfy their social needs, both in the immediate term (such as working in an upbeat, challenging setting) or longer term (feeling they are valued members of a community).

How leaders can drive engagement

Leadership is critical to engagement. Most of the factors that either foster or diminish engagement can be influenced by managers. There are ways in which leaders can take action to increase engagement, and these include:

• Understand the five engagement needs. Assess engagement levels based on these and train your managers to address them.

To what extent do people exert discretionary effort? What needs drive them? How can you create an environment that will appeal to people with different engagement preferences?

• Have a group dialogue. This will provide opportunities for people to share their perceptions of the environment from an engagement perspective.

• Provide individual coaching and resources. Help employees by giving them access to resources that fit their engagement preferences. For example, with people who value “belonging”, increase their awareness of groups in the organisation with whom they may value connecting.

• Avoid engagement detractors. Keep track of the engagement level and ensure that the work environment is positive and people feel their efforts are appreciated.

• Manage low engagement. Do this by encouraging “low engagers” to set higher expectations and help to match the work environment to their preferences.

• Set the tone. Be a champion of engagement. Demonstrate that engagement is highly valued and you are willing to help others achieve engagement. Also, remember your engagement profile may be different from those on your team, so don’t assume that what engages you will engage them.

Engagement can be managed in any organisation. With a systematic process to tap the power of discretionary energy, you can raise engagement and drive results in your business.

Article by Cynthia Stuckey, managing director, Asia Pacific, of Forum, a recognised global leader in linking learning to strategic business objectives. For more information, visit