What's missing from employee engagement? Part 1

By Stuart Mackenzie and Sarah Phibbs-Moss 2nd October 2018 Leadership

The Missing Ingredient of Employee Engagement: Part 1

Ten years ago, the government sponsored report Engaging for Success by David Macleod and Nita Clarke was published, which presented compelling evidence that employee engagement is the key to unlocking high productivity. Recent surveys collected from Gallup have proved that their research is still relevant to today’s workforce – increasing engagement is sound advice for any business which struggles to maintain or improve its position in a tough market.

The message to leaders, managers, and other stakeholders could not be clearer. If you want to improve organisational performance, you need to raise your people’s level of engagement.

Traditional research shows that the three pillars of employee engagement are to ensure that your people feel:


To understand the process of employee engagement, we must start by reminding ourselves of basic human nature. This is where Abraham Maslow started many years ago. It is no coincidence that there is a correlation between the three pillars of feeling valued, involved, and developed, and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

None of this is too ground-breaking. It makes sense that in an era when many people feel alienated and disassociated from the world around them, they turn to their organisations to feel a part of a greater whole. Additionally, to learn and to extend oneself is an evolutionary drive. What then is missing?

We believe there is an equally important fourth pillar. It is the need for people to feel:


Self-actualisation is not in fact the highest need – instead, it is something Maslow called “self-transcendence”. This is when people feel they make a difference and serve a higher purpose. It occurs when people feel a connection to a bigger idea and are inspired by it. Inspiration in turn gives rise to new levels of enthusiasm and engagement.

Leaders therefore need to know how to create meaning if they want true engagement. For example, employees tend to respond better to organisations that have a reputation for social responsibility or are leaders in their communities.

Your commitment to inspiring people is essential for creating talent engagement. Recognise and act on the knowledge that human beings need to feel they matter, that they make a difference and have a meaningful purpose.

It is the leader’s role to create the circumstances in which people can feel these positives. Only then do people produce outstanding performance, and only then is an individual’s potential unlocked – and with that, the organisation’s potential.

Five leadership secrets revealed

1. Legacy

Invite each direct report to describe the legacy that they would like to leave when they finally leave the company. Engaged people expect to make a difference.

“We all leave footprints in the sand. The question is, will we be a big heal, or a great soul.” – Anonymous

2. Authenticity

Discover today if people see you as authentic by asking people if they know what you stand for and believe in. People feel readier to do their best for someone who is manifestly behaving in an authentic way. Share your humour, your values, and your humanity.

“To be authentic is literally to be your own author, to discover your own native energies and desires and then to find your own way of acting on them.” – Warren Bennis

3. Creativity

Decide to be a creative leader who says “Yes, and” rather than “Yes, but”. This improvisational technique helps you build on other’s suggestions, rather than knocking and finding faults. Encourage your team to suggest improvements and be inventive and imaginative.

“Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties.” – Erich Fromm

4. Imagination

Be openly curious about one of your team members today and uncover what it will take to engage their talent. By using your natural curiosity, you will stimulate a sense of what is possible. Use your imagination to wonder what could exist beyond how things are now.

“While knowledge tells us all we currently know and understand, imagination is more important and points to all we can discover and create.” – Pablo Picasso

5. Meaning

Interact with each member of your team this week to discover whether they find their work fulfilling and worthwhile – and if they don’t, do something about it. People need to find meaning in their work so they can feel engaged and use their potential.

“Work is a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread.” – Studs Terkel

Further reading

Download our Employee Engagement whitepaper to read our full report, or read Part 2: What's next for employee engagement?

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