The Engagement Matrix

Employee engagement requires taking a hard look at each individual’s personal experience at work. It can be a challenge for leaders to build engagement, but the payoff can be immense.

An engaging work experience feels invigorating, positive, energetic and fulfilling

Everybody talks about employee engagement, but few leaders have a deep understanding of it. To get your company’s engagement efforts on track, here are three probing questions that will reset your thinking about this timely topic.

What is employee engagement?

The most important thing to remember about employee engagement is it’s a psychological state within each individual. It’s how a person feels at work and about work. The way most leaders experience employee engagement is as a number on a report. It’s important to measure employee engagement, and an engagement score from a valid survey is an important metric for your business. But that score is just an indicator. The real goal is for your employees to feel great about their work as individuals.

Exactly what does feeling great about work mean? Work and the workplace can be invigorating. They can be positive, energetic and fulfilling. They can be warm, welcoming and safe. This is how an engaging work experience feels. The alternative is a bland, merely satisfying experience or a cynical and demotivating one. Which experience would you prefer?

Why is engagement important?

The first reason employee engagement is important is a business matter. The business case for investing in employee engagement has been made in the research findings in the reports and summaries in this article’s reference section.

The current labor market is very tight. The labor market for top talent is always so. A leading producer in your company might want to stay with you because of a competitive salary and benefits package. But if a competitor makes a similar offer, this employee’s feelings about his or her work will influence how seriously he or she considers leaving. An engagement program, therefore, is no longer just smart to have—it’s a risk not to have one.

The second reason why employee engagement is important is personal. As they progress through their career, leaders have a greater opportunity to make a positive impact on something larger than themselves. They often find their thoughts turning away from the immediate daily operations toward the long term and their legacy.

One very achievable way to have a positive impact is to improve the quality of life of hundreds or even thousands of people—and, by extension, their families. Engagement at work improves individuals’ lives. A more engaging work experience can boost fulfillment, peace and positivity for your employees. Those effects can spill over the boundaries of the workplace and improve the lives of employees’ families and many others. What better way to have a positive impact on the world?

How should a leader “perform” engagement?

High employee engagement is a business necessity. So how is it achieved? First, find out what you don’t know. To improve employees’ work experience, you need to understand it. You might be aware of problem areas and some general sentiments, but it's difficult for leadership to have an accurate, objective picture of an employee’s feelings and thoughts about work. An employee survey is generally the best way to get a lot of data quickly.

What survey instrument to use and how to harness the results to inform decisions are crucial choices. You should be sure to use an instrument that measures the most important aspects of engagement, as well as the most crucial beliefs and feelings that drive engagement. And that instrument should be scientifically validated so that the substantial research literature on employee engagement can be brought to bear on your company. A psychological state is difficult to measure. Not just any survey instrument can do it well.

Just as important, the results produced by a scientifically designed and valid survey are actionable. They can be used with confidence to inform actions targeted to your organization’s, or even specific teams’, best areas of opportunity. In short, a high-quality engagement survey can give you information you can’t get anywhere else.

Next, take action. The second most important thing to remember about employee engagement is the how, not the what. A great employee experience isn't the result of adding fun things to the workplace, like casual Fridays, table tennis or a keg in the breakroom. It’s the result of your corporate approach to human beings. Changes to your “hows” will have greater impact on engagement than a few new “whats.”

Changing existing policies, institutional habits, training procedures, cultures—the “hows”—can be much more difficult than adding some new projects or supplying some fun toys. But it’s the “hows” that have a sustained influence on what your employees feel each day as they go about the tasks of their job.

Adding fun to the workplace certainly can make people feel better, and adding some new “whats” can be effective in helping change or support a culture. And because they can be relatively quick and cheap, they can be a good start. But investing in higher engagement will require a deeper investment and a longer term outlook. You can’t expect to significantly change an employee’s experience if you don’t change, for example, their manager’s tendency to micromanage or an overall lack of understanding of the importance of their daily tasks.

So, again, “whats” like casual Fridays are not enough on their own. If management has shown a consistent commitment to thinking about and improving the employee experience, then giving workers the option to wear more comfortable clothes at work can lighten the mood and increase positive feelings. If, however, the “what” is not accompanied by other efforts to improve employees’ experience, it could be seen as mere window dressing. This could even exacerbate any existing negative feelings or reinforce a sentiment that management isn't willing to address the real problems but is only interested in superficial bandages.

As a concrete example of a “how,” one client changed the way their front-line managers communicate with their call center employees. By implementing standard practices around daily team huddles—changing the “how”—they have helped employees get clarity on new policies and initiatives, share best practices and connect more often with their colleagues. This intervention has been part of a larger strategy that has seen engagement scores rise among the call center employees.

Always focus on the individual

When reviewing survey results and thinking about corporate-wide strategies for engagement, it’s easy to forget about the individual. Perhaps the best guidepost for engagement initiatives in your company is to always focus on the individual employee. Engagement is a psychological state within each person. How will this new policy affect the way a single person experiences his or her workplace? How will this new management training change the way an individual feels about the actual work he or she spends hours doing?

When you think about improving engagement at your organization, think the how, not the what. It is not a list of boxes to check, but a corporate-wide approach to how you treat human beings.

By Patrick Gallagher, PhD
Illustration by Hadley Hooper

What else can high employee engagement do for your company and employees?

The positive relationship between high employee engagement and individual job performance (and, therefore, company performance) is well-documented. But what are some of the less-discussed advantages of high engagement? Here, five additional benefits to know about.

1. Higher customer loyalty

Higher engagement can be related to a better service climate, better employee performance and higher customer loyalty.


  • Salanova, M, Agut, S, & Peiró, JM (2005). Linking organizational resources and work engagement to employee performance and customer loyalty: The mediation of service climateJournal of Applied Psychology, 90(6), 1217-27.

2. More active learning

Some employees’ higher engagement has been correlated not only with their supervisors’ ratings of job performance but also with self-initiated pursuit of professional development learning.


  • Bakker, AB, Demerouti, E & Ten Brummelhuis, LL (2012). Work engagement, performance and active learning: The role of conscientiousnessJournal of Vocational Behavior, 80(2), 555–564.

3. Personal work initiative

Higher engagement levels have predicted an increase in self-started, persistent, proactive behaviors that supported the goals of the organization.


  • Hakanen, JJ, Perhoniemi, R & Toppinen-Tanner, S (2008). Positive gain spirals at work: From job resources to work engagement, personal initiative and work-unit innovativenessJournal of Vocational Behavior, 73(1), 78–91.

4. More innovation and intrapreneurial behaviors

Higher engagement has predicted employees’ self-rated behaviors related to creating new, innovative ventures at their company.


  • Gawke, JC, Gorgievski, MJ & Bakker, AB (2017). Employee intrapreneurship and work engagement: A latent change score approachJournal of Vocational Behavior, 100, 88–100.

5. More happiness at home—among employees and their partners

Daily engagement levels at work have been associated with increased happiness at home among employees. In addition, employees’ partners were happier on days that employees were more engaged.


  • Rodríguez-Muñoz, A, Sanz-Vergel, AI, Demerouti, E, & Bakker, AB (2014). Engaged at work and happy at home: A spillover–crossover modelJournal of Happiness Studies, 15(2), 271–283


Christian, MS, Garza, AS, & Slaughter, JE (2011). Work engagement: A quantitative review and test of its relations with task and contextual performance. Personnel Psychology, 64(1), 89–136.

Bakker, AB, Demerouti, E, & Sanz-Vergel, AI (2014). Burnout and work engagement: The JD–R approach. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 1, 389–411.

Learn more about engagement

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