The Truth About Sustainable Employee Engagement

maze-people-ca32170972cropIf you’ve been in management for any time at all, you know that traditional forms of engagement strategies work initially but then seem to lose their appeal over the long haul. Why? Because the traditional forms of engagement are not engagement at all! They are merely enrollment, not true engagement.

The same reality holds true for cutting edge employee engagement today as it did 125 years ago: The secret of  motivating employees – you can’t make people motivated or engaged if they don’t want to be motivated or engaged! Psychologists have told us that for decades.1

Having said that, we can assure you there are things you can do to help foster genuine employee engagement. You can create an environment conducive to engagement so that people perform work tasks because they enjoy the assigned work tasks, rather than simply doing their jobs for fear of losing their jobs.

If we were going to offer you traditional employee engagement tactics, there would be no reason for you to read this. You are, no doubt, very acquainted with thousands of conventional employee motivational and retention practices which have been around for years.

These well-worn employee engagement strategies, in and of themselves, are not as effective as they used to be and are not a panacea for sustainable growth. They may work for awhile, but they will not guarantee sustained employee engagement. You’re probably already experiencing their limitations.

Extrinsic forms of motivation (material things) have become commonplace. They attract top performers, but won’t keep them. It is the intrinsic engagement strategies that will guarantee lasting engagement. And a compelling amount of research bears that out.

EmployeesOnBreak-DTEmployees who are fully involved in, and enthusiastic about their work, will act in ways that further their organization’s interests. You are, no doubt, very aware that engagement is the degree of employees’ positive emotional attachment to their job, their colleagues, their managers, their customers, and their organization that profoundly influences their willingness to be immersed in their work. This level of immersion, as you know, is distinctively different from job satisfaction and being happy at work.

How Do You Know There’s a Problem Brewing?

  1. Weariness, fatigue, and lethargy are often the first signs of disengagement. When employees are no longer eager to complete tasks, something has caused their excitement about work to evaporate.
  2. If you’ve noticed an increase in absences among certain employees, this is a major indication of withdrawal.
  3. The most blatant signs of disengagement are complaining and outright sabotage. If you hear employees chronically complaining about issues, it means they’re dissatisfied and they feel that the company’s goals and values are not in line with their own goals and values. Nothing is more infectious and damaging to employee spirit than contagious disengagement. 2

We’ve seen the above scenario repeated in the workplace many times, and we believe you have too. What happens is that external motivators which characterize  most employee engagement programs lose their shine. They are extrinsic motivators that work over the short run but do not have a lasting influence.

Check Out the ROI:

Employers spent nearly a billion dollars on employee engagement in 2012. And in 2013 they’re projecting that number will rise to $1.5 billion. The $1.5 billion question is: What are employers getting for this investment? Not much, if you accept the findings in the most recent Gallup report, “State of the American Workplace.”

The statistics on the level of employee engagement have virtually flat lined  with about 30% of employees genuinely engaged since the initial Gallup reports in the late 1990’s. That means 70% of the people who work with you are disengaged, disinterested, and distanced from the work they are hired to perform. So, the percentage of engaged employees has not improved at all over the last twenty-five years!

Why? Because today’s workplace has not kept up with the current science of employee engagement. The latest findings from positive psychology, the neurosciences, and the psychology of happiness and optimism tell us that material things (perks) and money do not lead to lasting employee engagement. They do not have the staying power for sustainable engagement.

No amount of spending or energy devoted to extrinsic engagement strategies is likely to dramatically affect employee engagement unless people recognize that employee engagement, as it is currently being practiced, puts the burden for engagement on the employer and leaves employees to judge whether or not they want to be genuinely engaged.


It is our belief that employees must do their part. Employee engagement is a partnership. Employees need to recognize that both they and their employers are in the engagement business. Each has a role to play to make the workplace conducive to performance, productivity, and profits.

The question employees, at all levels within the organization, must ask is: “Am I getting out of bed each workday morning and heading in to engage in something that is worth my time and effort?” 3

If the answer to that question is ‘yes’ then investing in both intrinsic and extrinsic employee engagement would be a worthwhile investment. If employees are at their place of work for any reason other than sharing their talents, skills, and knowledge in work they truly enjoy, they will not partner in the process.

Positive psychologists remind us that employees who are valued and respected, allowed to use their talents and abilities to the fullest, seen as partners in productivity achievements, rewarded for their optimism and creativity, and feel as if they can be authentically themselves will devote themselves to their work and drive themselves to unbelievable excellence. 4

Unfortunately, there seems to be a pervading belief – one that originated in the early 1920’s – that in order to motivate employees (to keep them engaged), there must be plenty of extrinsic incentives. This worn out perspective continues to suggest that if employees are not compensated adequately using extrinsic reward systems, they will be lazy, unmotivated, and habitually disengaged.

Carrot-ca1755266 copyThis view also touts that all that’s expected of employees is that they just need to show up, do their job, and obey management. According to this out-dated motivational strategy, using extrinsic motivation as a carrot, managers can expect exemplary performance. Sound familiar?

As we’ve indicated before, extrinsic employee engagement strategies are not the elixir they used to be. They may make it more difficult for top performers to shop around for higher stimulus employment; however, as soon as they can find similar eperks somewhere else, they will leave the nest! And in many cases they will leave knowing there may be less eperks waiting for them. Why? Because people:

    • value being respected,
    • want meaningful work,
    • need opportunities to be creative,
    • want to contribute to something they feel is significant and worthwhile,
    • want to be genuinely listened to,
    • need to have their ideas valued and used,
    • enjoy working in environments compatible with their own beliefs and values,
    • value being able to pursue personal growth interests, and
    • want to feel they are part of a ‘community’ that has a heart.

Believe it or not, they want these things as much as, and even more than money!

Current research substantiates our views on employee engagement. The eperks that characterize eemployee engagement strategies are simply temporary engagement drivers. We advocate their continued use, but not their ‘pedestalled status.’ We categorically recommend iengagement strategies for sustainable and enduring employee engagement. We also want to say that it has always been the intrinsic motivators (imotivators) more than the extrinsic drivers (edrivers) that have interested employees the most.

Star-5aspects-EEWhat’s required now is what’s always been required: It’s called “sustainable engagement.” The key factor, the study finds, is a work environment that more fully energizes employees by promoting their physical, emotional and social well-being. Add to that mental and spiritual well being — or more specifically, the added energy derived from the capacity for absorbed focus and a strong sense of purpose.

Many employers are pursuing a variety of wellness efforts, typically focused on giving incentives or penalties to people who embrace healthy behaviors like exercise, good diet or effective management of a chronic illness, the report concludes.

These are important, but to sustain energy, employers have to go beyond these core programs and embrace the notion of workplace energy on a far broader plane. When they do, the consequences are nothing short of staggering. For organizations, the challenge is to shift from their traditional focus on getting more out of people, to investing in meeting people’s core needs so they’re freed, fueled, and inspired to bring more of themselves to work. 5

While organizations need both intrinsic and extrinsic employee engagement strategies, there must be just as great, if not more, of an emphasis on intrinsic drivers (idrivers) to make the employee engagement formula complete – and realistic.

Our approach is visionary, but pragmatic; forward-thinking, yet present moment focused; strategic, yet tactical; founded on scientific principles, but proven to work outside the lab.

We believe you will find our approach just what you’ve been looking for because it places just as much responsibility and accountability for exemplary engagement on your direct reports as it does on you. We see employee engagement as a partnership, not an entitlement program. We think you’ll agree.



  1. James, William (1890) The Principles of Psychology; Freud, S. The Ego and the Id, 1923; Jung, C. G. (1902–1905). Psychiatric Studies. The Collected Works of C. G. Jung Vol. 1; Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396; Herzberg, Frederick (1959), The Motivation to Work, New York: John Wiley and Sons; Skinner, B. F. (1961). “Why we need teaching machines”. Harvard Educational Review 31: 377–398 – to name only a few).
  2. Khakhria, H., Employee Engagement Ideas to Combat the Walking Dead, Randstad Canada, Posted on October 30, 2012).
  3. Cook, M., The New Definition of Insanity – Expecting Employee Engagement to Improve, Human Capital League, June 26, 2013.
  4. Martin Seligman,(2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.
  5. Schwartz, T., New Research: How Employee Engagement Hits the Bottom Line, Harvard Business Review, November 8, 2012.

About Cher & Bil Holton

Since 1984, Cher & Bil Holton have been co-owners of The Holton Consulting Group, Inc., helping corporate and association clients enhance bottom-line results using cutting edge employee engagement. Their keynote speeches, turbo-training, and coaching sessions are practical, grounded in research, and lots of fun to boot! They are prolific authors, and take "Indiana Jones" vacations to continually stretch their limits!
This entry was posted in Leadership, Positive Psychology, Productivity, Supervisor Skills, The Extraordinary You, Uncategorized, Work & Life Enrichment and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Truth About Sustainable Employee Engagement

  1. Pingback: The Truth About Sustainable Employee Engagement | Donnell Turner

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