Article: Understanding Employee Engagement - Getting to the Basics

Understanding the bottom line of employee engagement is simple, but not necessarily easy. Neuropsychology can help you understand the basic truths of how people are wired and programed – and how it’s impacting your workplace.

The power of mindful engagement

Steve Swavely, Ph.D.
Senior Vice President
Corporate Leadership Consulting Manager

So much has been written about employee engagement over the past decade it’s easy for leaders to get overwhelmed with the sheer volume of theories, models, concepts and advice.  Understanding the bottom line of employee engagement is simple, not necessarily easy, but simple. To begin with, understanding employee engagement is about understanding the basics of how people are wired and programed – the neuropsychology of your teammates.

It all starts with understanding the primary function of our brain. As complex as the human brain is, it's designed to do essentially one thing, and that’s to take in all relevant information in our environment and make a decision to approach (engage) in order to receive some kind of reward, or to withdraw (disengage) and escape some form of threat. 

That basic decision to engage or disengage in the workplace is driven by two basic human needs. One of these is the need for approval (to be accepted). The other is the need to get what you want (to be successful).

These two basic human needs are created by three core human emotions in the workplace.  Two of these emotions are deemed negative because they don’t feel so good: the fear of failure and the hurt of rejection. Experiencing these emotions in the workplace leads to employee disengagement.  

The third emotion, deemed positive because it typically feels good, is the joy of experiencing success as well as the joy of being accepted by others. Experiencing this emotion in the workplace leads to increased employee engagement. 

Within the workplace, these three core human emotions are created by six fundamental employee beliefs. Three of those beliefs are related to the need for approval:

  • Do employees believe they are connected to the people they work with? 
  • Do employees believe they are treated fairly by the organization?
  • Do employees believe they are viewed as important to the team?  

The other three beliefs are related to the need to experience success:

  • Do employees believe they have clarity about the mission of the team and what success looks like for their job or role on the team?
  • Do employees believe they have the control needed to do their jobs as they see fit without being micromanaged?
  • Do employees believe they have the competencies needed to accomplish their jobs in a way that they are challenged, but not overwhelmed? 

The stronger each of these six beliefs is in the positive direction, the stronger the emotions of joy, and the more employee engagement rises as a result of anticipating the success and approval we all desire. The stronger each of these beliefs is in the negative direction, the stronger the emotions of fear and hurt, and the more employee engagement drops as a way to avoid the threats of failure and disapproval. Of course, some of those beliefs can be in the positive direction, and some can be in the negative direction. The overall engagement of the employee is the sum total of the strength of the six beliefs. We call these six beliefs the six engagement drivers. 

The threefold approach to employee engagement

The beauty of understanding employee engagement from this back-to-basics perspective is threefold.

  1. First, a leader has great control over each of the six engagement drivers by the environment they create. It’s the leader’s role to help create that sense of connectedness, fairness and importance in their team members. Similarly every leader has the responsibility of providing clarity about the mission of the team and what success looks like, providing the appropriate degree of control and autonomy to their teammates, and ensuring all their teammates possess the competencies needed to accomplish their assigned jobs or tasks. 
  2. Second, the beliefs that make up the six engagement drivers can be measured within a team and this information can provide leaders with clear direction on how to increase engagement. This data can provide the prescription for where to focus valuable resources to increase engagement on any given team. 
  3. Finally, by using the six engagement drivers a leader is quite literally tapping into and leveraging the neuropsychology of their teammates. This represents one of the most powerful mechanisms available to leaders for creating an engaged team.    

This back-to-basics description provides the core ingredients necessary to create employee engagement. It’s really pretty simple to understand, but not necessarily easy to implement.  Successful implementation requires the leader to have great self-awareness, interpersonal awareness, and organizational awareness. Developing this awareness is the work every leader must do.

Learn more about engagement

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