7 Ways to Improve Employee Engagement


purpose fuels performance


Acertitude Founder and Managing Partner Kevin O'Neill offers leaders 7 ways to improve employee engagement. 

Creating a culture of engagement is critical to business success. When executive teams are engaged, managers are 39% more likely to be engaged, and this drives engagement among all employees, found a Gallup survey.

Increased engagement impacts the bottom line. Publicly traded “100 Best Companies” consistently outperform major stock indices by a factor of two, according to an analysis by the Great Places to Work Institute.

Managers are 39% more likely to be engaged when their leadership teams are engaged

What should leaders do?

1. Identify the right people

“Certain people have it in their DNA — that unquenchable desire to connect to an organization in a meaningful way,” O’Neill says.

There are a million potential answers to the problem of employee disengagement, but solving it begins with identifying people who are most likely to be engaged from the start. The basis for finding the right people is having a rigorous and validated recruiting process.

Acertitude incorporates principles of the Topgrading Inc. hiring method, which digs deeper into each candidate than typical behavioral interviews. A simple-yet-effective practice to begin an interview is letting candidates know that a final step in hiring will be for them to arrange references with former bosses and colleagues. “This is the Topgrading ‘truth serum,’” O’Neill says. “We make it clear that we are going to speak with references of our choosing.”

O’Neill adds: “We talk to people who have seen the candidate in good times and bad to learn how they respond in different situations. We ask candidates, ‘What will this person say about you?’ instead of ‘What would they say?’”

O’Neill also recommends asking candidates not if they accomplished their goals, but how they accomplished their goals. He wants to find out whether they left a trail of broken glass in their wake or led their team on a journey to accomplish their mission.

To reveal the natural inclinations, learning agility, and potential of each candidate, Acertitude uses behavioral and cognitive ability assessments. O’Neill advocates using assessments as another data point to guide selection and adds that they offer the double benefit of being a tool for professional development, which also improves engagement of the selected executive.


2. Tune into the unspoken


There is more to recruiting engaged people than specifications and hard data — hiring managers need to be able to pick up on and use nonverbal cues.

O’Neill directs interviewers to connect with what really inspires a candidate. “The magic is not just using your ears to listen for the words that are said. You need to use all your senses to capture not only the substance, but the candidate’s essence, the spirit that brings life to people.” 

Changes in body language, energy, and tone of voice can provide a well of insights. Subtleties such as whether a candidate leans in, makes eye contact, or speaks brightly and repeatedly about a particular experience can indicate their intrinsic motivators and engagement level. On the contrary, someone who changes the subject, talks excessively, rubs their face, or looks downward or away from your gaze may be signaling that they are uncomfortable or uninterested. 

Be attentive to how the candidate’s style and personality manifest to envision how they will thrive with the existing boss and team. Managers influence 70% of variance in employee engagement, Gallup research finds, so it is essential to identify an executive who brings out the best in others.

An interviewer should also be mindful of their own presence, O’Neill points out. “To attract hard-to-find, passive candidates, signal your genuine interest and enthusiasm as much in your body language and tone of voice as in your words. When what you do and say are aligned, you come off authentic and believable.”

Craft a compelling message that will inspire the candidate and convey it confidently. Make the candidate feel important. “Engaging with someone is not about words on a page,” O’Neill says. “Job proposals don’t sell top talent on opportunities; compelling stories told with conviction do.”


3. Visualize the future

Interviewers should invite candidates to imagine how both the candidate and company could grow together in the coming years, stressing the importance of the candidate’s role in building that dream.

“Is there a trajectory where the candidate’s career and this company’s opportunity intersect?” O’Neill asks. “It’s being able to see that. So many people get trapped in today. The magic is taking people on a journey to what the future could hold.”

Employee engagement levels increase as perceived growth and development opportunities increase and are sustained when candidates are set up to advance at the right pace. “We step back and look at not only where our client is, but also where they are going,” O’Neill says. “We aim to match the trajectory of the candidate to the trajectory of the company, so the company won’t outgrow the candidate and the candidate won’t outgrow the company.” 

Communicating the culture also helps attract the right candidates, ones who identify with where the company is going.

4. Define roles in a cultural context

Cultural fit is the ultimate baseline for engagement. People need to fully understand what role they play in the organization and the way things are done inside it.

“Handing over a job description isn’t enough,” O’Neill says. “Job descriptions are typically black ink on white paper, so naturally people focus on what is written in black. But when hiring, we can’t forget about the white space — the unwritten rules of engagement — which can be more important to integration and improved employee engagement.”

To get the full picture, O’Neill is keen to walk the halls. “We spend a lot of time at our clients’ sites to observe, listen, and understand as much as we can about the company, the people, and the culture. We also encourage candidates to get on location and meet the people with whom they will be working — it’s more than just a series of job interviews.

Companies must make a concerted effort to define and communicate their culture when courting candidates so candidates can make an informed decision on whether the opportunity aligns with their career aspirations and values. Using a variety of tools — website, social media, marketing materials, and talks with candidates — companies can communicate their values and their business objectives. Employees who say their organizational values are “known and understood” are 51 times more likely to be fully engaged, a Modern Survey study shows. 

5. Connect at a human level

When people at every level connect the work they are doing to the mission of their organization, that is employee engagement.

Leaders must focus on making everyone’s work significant. This drives heightened emotional commitment and turns a workforce into a powerhouse.

Gallup found that 77% of employees are engaged when they strongly agree that there is open communication, opportunities to provide input, a clear connection between current changes and the company’s future, and management support. Moreover, a survey by the Society of Human Resource Management found that 70% of employees rank being empowered to take action on the job when a problem or opportunity is presented as an important component of their engagement.

O’Neill has found that a common thread connecting his own Acertitude team to improved engagement is sharing stories from the front lines. “Connecting your employees to the client interactions and events that happen outside the office motivates them,” he says. “I advise executives to bring enthusiasm back to the office and remind people of the important part they play in the bigger picture. Storytelling brings your employees’ jobs to life.”

6. Fail forward

Paradoxically, if you want your team members to be successful, you have to let them fail.

O’Neill advises leaders to give employees the freedom to align their work with their passions and dreams and then trust them to take appropriate risks and color outside the lines. “Encourage small failures so they get the opportunity to course-correct, learn, and grow as individuals. Not only will you challenge their minds and show that you believe in them, but the self-exploration could also lead to your next breakthrough.” 

Failures are the incubators for growth in almost every organization. “The only thing I’ve learned from winning is that I like to win,” O’Neill adds. “Everything else I’ve learned comes from my failures.”

The road to employee empowerment and, subsequently, engagement, runs parallel with building people’s strengths. Gallup research finds that people who use their strengths every day are six times more likely to be engaged on the job, are more productive and profitable, and have higher-quality work. 

“Push employees to pursue initiatives and learning opportunities where their strengths will shine,” O’Neill says. “Sometimes that means moving talent to another part of the organization or making yourself available as a leader for others to observe and learn from. Pairing teams of people with complementary skill sets or cross-training through mentorships can also be effective.”  

7. Recognize contributions

When a team inevitably achieves, it’s vital to give them the recognition they deserve.

It can be as simple as a public thank-you or an uplifting email. It is especially important for executives to show appreciation. Nearly one-quarter of employees say the most memorable recognition comes from a high-level leader or CEO, according to Gallup’s analysis.

“The highest calling of humans is not to make money,” O’Neill believes. “What fills the void for people is to be in a place where they can be of maximum service to others — knowing that you are where you are supposed to be, doing what you’re supposed to be doing, in order to achieve the highest good. Money is just a trophy.”

O’Neill cautions against seeking a fast, easy answer to the question of how to build an engaged workforce. A magic bullet is not going to solve these issues. “Employee engagement is more a way of thinking and acting over time rather than any single action,” he says. “If you build your approach to engagement around these basic principles, you’ll tend to have a committed team that performs … one that delivers the superior results that we’re all after.”

About the author

Kevin R. O’Neill

Founder + Managing Partner

Kevin O’Neill is founder and managing partner of executive search firm Acertitude and a master of driving change through people. His quest to revolutionize the global executive search industry and unleash the human potential of today’s leading organizations inspires the unremitting loyalty of team members and clients alike. It is a rare day that Kevin isn’t instinctively gathering more people into his circle and mapping out new ways in which they might benefit from knowing each other.