Engagement: A Top-down Approach

Today, no leader can afford to be indifferent to the challenge of engaging employees in the work of creating the future. Engagement may have been optional in the past, but it’s pretty much the whole game today.

Gary Hamel, strategic thinker, professor, co-author of Competing for the Future. Co-founder of the Management Lab, a non-profit organization based in Silicon Valley, which aims “to create a setting in which progressive companies and world renowned management scholars work together to co-create ‘tomorrow’s best practices’ today.

Engagement - A Top-Down Approach 2014-03-25

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For the past decade, the term “engagement” has been debated within companies and among scholars. Studies show that disengagement can cost organizations over $300 billion in lost revenue (Saks, 2006), and even more worrisome, a recent 2013 Gallup study showed that 70% of the U.S. workforce is disengaged (Gallup, 2013).

Organizational leaders must fully understand the consequences of disengagement, and devote attention and resources to initiatives that will increase and sustain employee engagement. Employees are free to leave their jobs to find more fulfilling work, or a better work environment, or even a more supportive boss. However, building an engaged workforce is the responsibility of a leader: from the top-down. The reason is that while there are known factors that can drive or derail engagement, regular employees are generally not in control of company policies and practices. Consequently, the buck begins at the top.


The concepts of engagement and motivation can sometimes be confused, and while there is a relationship between the two, they are not the same.

Motivation is born from human psychological and physiological needs. In its simplest form, intrinsic motivation comes from within an individual, such as doing or learning something because a person is interested or curious. Extrinsic motivation comes from external sources, such as being motivated to make a higher salary or gain a different title.

While an engaged worker is likely to be motivated, a motivated worked is not necessarily engaged. A person who stays late at the office may be motivated by avoiding the negative consequences of not getting their work done, yet completing their work done does not assume they were engaged in the process.

Organizational psychologist, Wilmar Schaufeli, describes Engagement as “…a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind that is characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption.” Vigor is described by high levels of energy, feeling strong, wanting to go to work, being mentally resilient, and persevering. Dedication is characterized by finding meaning and purpose in work, being inspired and enthused by your job, being proud of the work you do, and being challenged by your work (Shaufeli, 2002). Absorption refers to being immersed in your job, and being happy when working intensely. Think of a time when you were so absorbed in a work activity that you lost track of time or became unaware of your surroundings. You were experiencing the psychological state sometimes referred to as “flow.”

These attributes of engaged employees are critical to an organization’s success. Without it, a company’s bottom line is threatened by lost revenue, lower productivity, excessive absenteeism, and more employee turnover.


Action: So what do employees need to become engaged?

On the flip-side, what factors contribute to disengagement?

  • Repetitious work
  • Boredom
  • Restructuring
    • Not enough people-resources left to do the job
    • A feeling of being overwhelmed or being stretched too thinly, or having too much work
    • The psychological contract with the company has been broken
    • A lack of security
    • A lack of trust for the organization
  • Loss of creativity
  • Being devalued by immediate manager or other organizational members

I will admit that sometimes work tasks are repetitious, and we can become bored. Sometimes firms look to small perks, such as ice cream socials or dressing down on Friday, as a way to keep workers happy. Such benefits are short lived, and they don’t encourage engagement.

In my own study regarding engagement and women (which may be applicable to a majority of working-adults), I found engagement was positively influenced by a number of factors. And for these factors, there are a few things leaders can do to help build and sustain engagement among workers:

  • Having a voice regarding solutions to issues.
  • Having autonomy in regards to decision-making.

When possible, give your employees a “voice” in decision making. Help remove obstacles and create smooth transitions for those seeking to move within the company.

  • Being challenged intellectually and by stretch opportunities.

Educate and encourage your employees about the benefits of accepting lateral job moves within a firm.

  • Having the ability to grow or change the business.

Create a culture of change within the organization.

  • Having skills acknowledged by manager and/or the organization.

Provide worker exchange programs that allow your staff to transfer to a different department on a temporary basis with the purpose of learning new skills.

  • Finding meaning in a job.
  • Feeling valued as a team member.

Your employees are more engaged when they feel they are doing meaningful work. Help them understand how their job relates to the overall company and why their part is important to success.

  • Seeing a clear path for advancement within the company.
  • Make leaders accountable for the engagement levels of their division.

Has anyone used other initiatives to build engagement?



Saks, A.M. (2006). Antecedents and consequences of employee engagement. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 21(6), 600-619.

Gallup (2013). State of the American Workplace Report 2013. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/strategicconsulting/163007/state-american-workplace.aspx

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