Lethal Weapon: Employee Engagement

1 September 2005

Employees who are highly motivated and truly engaged are the most powerful competitive weapon organisations can deploy. Dr Charles Woodruffe, managing director of Humas Assets, explains why their development is so important.

"I love work," the Victorian humourist Jerome K Jerome remarks in his comic masterpiece Three Men in a Boat. "I could watch it for hours." Some people will always feel this way about work, but many of us do enjoy the pleasure of complete focus and concentration on something we really want to do.

But how can organisations maximise the proportion of their employees who regard their jobs in this way?

In the highly sophisticated economies in which organisations operate today – where every player can gain access to a similar calibre and quality of technology, and where all players need to pay about the same for their financing, premises and other key resources – it is a matter of sheer commercial logic that an organisation's people represent the most powerful weapon in its bid for competitive supremacy.


The trouble is, organisations don't necessarily put this thinking into practice by taking every step possible to ensure that their staff want to perform to the level of which they are capable.

Instead, the attrition of morale and energy can begin almost the instant a new employee takes up a position. This is not only tragic for the people involved, it is also commercially damaging for the organisation employing them.

There are still some chief executives and managing directors who think their employees will be motivated to give a great performance simply because the company has hired them. They see money as a cure-all. Their logic is that if they pay their employees enough they'll put up with anything. However, this is faulty and outdated thinking.

While the necessity to earn a living may be the main reason most people work, money is not always the main factor motivating people when they decide to work for one organisation rather than another. In practice, people are likely to be swayed by a range of other non-financial factors. This is particularly true of really talented people.


Overall, while the precise reasons people work will vary from one individual to the next, it is nonetheless possible to make some useful general observations about employee motivation.

First of all, in today's employment market, where the notion of secure, cradle-to-grave employment is in most cases an increasingly distant memory, people are more and more conscious of the need to maximise their employability. One big reason why people take a job in the first place, and why they might be motivated to give it their very best, is the fact that they feel the experience they gain will look good on their CV. Furthermore, they will expect ongoing development at the organisation where they work. They will be very likely to go somewhere else if they don't get that sense of being developed.

In today's tough job market, where there is strong competition among employers for talented people, employers need to understand that the training and development they extend to all their employees – and especially to their more talented ones – will not only make employees more able and more valuable to them, but also act as a powerful incentive for them to stay.

"Employers need to understand that training and development acts as a powerful incentive to encourage employees to stay."

Of course, organisations are always at risk that their staff will leave, taking their new skills with them. Yet employees of organisations that don't develop their staff have little motivation to stay.

This is a paradox, but it is one with a simple solution: accept that employees are more likely to leave if they aren't developed, and find ways to make people want to keep working at your organisation.

Fortunately, there are certain constructive courses of action you can take to make people want to stay with your organisation. And moving to the other side of the coin, the fact that money is not necessarily the main factor in people's decision to take a job in the first place or to keep working at a job once they have got it means there is considerable scope for employers to make conscious efforts to offer their employees the non-financial motivations that employees crave so much.

Among the most important non-financial motivations are advancement, autonomy, civilised treatment, employer commitment, environment, exposure to senior employees, praise, support, feeling challenged and trusted, working for a good and reliable organisation on useful assignments, respect for the work / life balance and discretionary effort.


People at work set great store by the feeling that their job is giving them the opportunity for career advancement, both on a short-term and long-term basis.


Most people, and all talented people, like to be able to get 'on a roll' as far as work is concerned. A degree of real autonomy, where someone can really get into their job, is likely to be welcome.


Even today, when organisations know perfectly well how expensive it is to recruit good people and how costly and disruptive it can be if good people resign, too many organisations treat people in a brusque, even uncivilised way.

The problem may often arise because line managers or middle managers find themselves working under great stress and 'kick downwards'. Such behaviour needs to be weeded out. It can easily wipe out a great deal of effort by an HR department in recruiting and motivating someone and then doing everything they can to help them settle into a particular job and be successful at it.


People like to feel that their employers are genuinely committed to them and to their careers.


A pleasant working environment is always welcome, especially in a high-pressure job where stress caused by a not especially agreeable environment can easily have a strong negative effect on performance.


Most employees like to feel they are being noticed by an organisation's senior employees and that they can approach these people, if necessary, for advice and guidance.

"People are more and more conscious of the need to maximise their employability."


One of the classic signs of poor management occurs when staff are given negative feedback for what is perceived as poor performance, but never given positive feedback. Giving praise where praise is due often requires a negligible amount of time and energy on the part of a manager, but the emotional benefits to the member of staff can be enormous.


Employees like to feel that there is someone available to whom they can turn for advice if they need it.


Employees like to feel challenged, given that they believe they have the tools and skills to respond to the challenge successfully. Sometimes employees can respond with surprising resilience, energy and commitment to even a really demanding challenge.

Of course, too much of a struggle can be counterproductive and induce people to consider jumping ship, but the sense of taking part in a struggle can also be energising. When Winston Churchill wanted to rally the British people into giving their very best effort in 1940, he did not promise them fish and chips, real ale and comfortable mattresses to sleep on, but 'blood, toil, tears and sweat'.


Feeling trusted is gratifying because it makes one a useful part of a team and confers significant status. As social animals, we will habitually – and often for very good reasons – withhold trust until we believe that extending it is justified. Employees know this, so the bestowal of trust is quite rightly regarded as extremely important. Employees who feel trusted are more likely to feel a useful and important part of an organisation and are more likely to confer loyalty on their organisation.


People want to be proud of their jobs and of the organisations they work for. People are unlikely to have much staying power at an organisation they perceive, rightly or wrongly, as a second-rate outfit.


Napoleon reputedly used to keep his army busy during slack times between battles by sending one half of his army out into fields to dig holes and then sending the other half into the same fields to fill them up.

"People like to feel that their employers are genuinely committed to them and to their careers."

Doing this might have been useful for logistical and morale purposes, as otherwise the soldiers would have remained idle and bored. But it would hardly have been a successful ruse if the two halves of the army ever got a chance to meet each other and discuss their day's work.

The point is that the feeling that one is doing a truly useful assignment is extremely powerful as a factor motivating employees. Of course the assignment has to be genuinely useful. Every employee, no matter which rung they stand on in the corporate hierarchy, wants to feel important and valued, and there is no better way of helping an employee feel this than by giving them some genuinely significant assignment on which to work.


Employees know they are going to have to work hard, but an employer who shows sensitivity to work / life balance issues is very likely to outscore one who doesn't.


Ultimately, all these elements of positive motivation are contributing factors to the overall level of engagement the employee brings to his or her job. The term engagement is being used increasingly at an organisational level to denote the intellectual and emotional commitment of an employee to a particular job, so that they want to give to that job what is known as discretionary effort. This is effort that is not necessarily required from an employee but which they want to give.

The term engagement is useful, emotionally honest and authentic, due to its connotations of commitment, bonding and even affection. But it is important to distinguish clearly between the process of engaging employees by helping them to love their jobs and want to give their best to their jobs, and the very different process of hiring employees in the first place.

"People are unlikely to have much staying power at an organisation they perceive as a second-rate outfit."

Engaging employees is important, whatever the potential of the employee, but it is especially crucial for truly talented people who are likely to have leadership potential, either now or in the future. Engaging talented people needs to be a top organisational priority because they are, by definition, especially precious. They are particularly likely to find another job if they don't feel that their current one meets their needs in terms of job satisfaction, purpose and sense of self-worth.


  • Get a public statement of commitment from the chief executive and the board on the importance of retaining talent by developing good people management practices
  • Ensure that all line managers take on a culture of talent retention. Ensure they understand that this is a core part of the organisation's business strategy to win in its marketplace
  • Treat every member of your staff as an individual, find out their needs at work and give careful thought to meeting them
  • Ensure your managers are supported and coached in their people management skills
  • Carry out regular employee satisfaction audits
  • Take scrupulous care to ensure you hire talented people to whom you can offer a commitment
  • Don't destroy the trust of your employees with a hire-and-fire mentality
  • Be absolutely sure to develop your people so that their worth to you increases
  • Challenge any reasons your organisation has for not being flexible and responsive to your employees' needs
  • Carefully identify your core talent so that you invest scarce resources in developing these people