The 5 New Rules of Employee Engagement

The 5 New Rules of Employee Engagement

The rules of employee engagement are changing. If engagement is a priority for your organization, here are the five (5) new rules of employee engagement that your organization needs to know.


1. Engagement is not an initiative or a survey – it’s embedded into the culture.

Historically, employee engagement has been an employer initiative or an annual survey endeavor. It’s been mostly focused on implementing workplace programs, but not addressing systemic, cultural problems that hinder engagement. This traditional approach has had limited success.

Nowadays, the more effective way to improve employee engagement is embedding it into the culture: assessing it on an ongoing basis via surveying, having senior leaders commit to it as a priority, cascading it throughout the organization, and sustaining it.

Employee engagement is too important to a business’ success to be limited to just an annual survey, although, the survey is a necessary part of the process. It’s now about reviewing and elevating your systems, people, practices, and behavior to better support an engaged workforce.

2. Engagement is a partnership between the organization, the leader, and the employee.

The tables are turning in business, and organizations are putting more pressure on employees to take responsibility for their engagement, at least partially.

Engagement has become a partnership between the employer, employee, and their leader. The truth is that no employer can motivate and engage an employee by themselves. The employer can put into place practices and circumstances that increase the likelihood that an employee will be engaged, and the leader can listen to their employees’ needs/feedback and respond.

Ultimately, though, it’s the employee’s choice to be engaged, committed, and motivated. The employee must want to be engaged and motivated, openly communicate their needs to their leader, and take advantage of what their employer provides. They can also typically affect many of the intangibles including their attitude, the work they do; and their level of autonomy, task variety, workload, collaboration, and connectedness with their leader and colleagues.

At the same time, a toxic manager and/or work environment will turn an engaged employee into a disengaged employee pretty quickly…employee responsibility alone just doesn’t work. Engagement happens when the partnership is balanced and when everyone works together to make their work and the workplace more engaging.

3. Helplessness must decrease, and empowerment must increase.

More and more research is confirming that there is a considerable problem in the workplace of “learned helplessness” and its connection to disengagement. Learned helplessness is when employees feel helpless or hopeless on the job. It tends to emerge when an employee’s past experience influences their beliefs about what they can and can’t do in the workplace, and they develop an external sense of control.

Learned helplessness has become the enemy of engagement and an empowered workplace, and is a clear characteristic of disengaged employees. It leads employees to believe that they are powerless over their situation, can’t make a difference, and that things are hopeless. They get frustrated, stop caring, and quit trying.

Some of our employees will fall into this thinking based on experiences in their past employment or personal life, but more often, the reason why employees fall into this pattern of thinking is based on experiences in their current workplace. As employers, we need to look at ourselves in the mirror and recognize the role we play in creating these types of beliefs. Consider the following:

  • Are our policies, practices, behaviors, and attitudes causing this thinking?
  • Are we treating employees like empowered adults capable of affecting their outcomes?
  • How might we be creating a sense of helplessness or hopelessness in the workplace?

4. The power of reciprocity shapes engagement.

What goes around comes around, and as engagement becomes more of a partnership, the power of reciprocity in the workplace takes shape. It’s an unwritten social contract in the workplace: to attain commitment, we must commit to employees; to make employees care, we must care; to get employees to go above and beyond for us, so must we for them.

Take commitment for example, which lies at the heart of engagement. We want employees to be faithful and loyal to our cause, our product, and our organization. But will we give that same loyalty away? Employers must be completely committed and loyal with their employees if they want employees to be completely committed and loyal to them.

Infidelity runs rampant in the workplace these days. More companies view employees as short-term investments. Gone are the days of companies promising long term career opportunities and rewards – or even communicating what kind of future employees have at the organization. Yet, loyalty remains the foundation by which engagement flourishes.

If we constantly make employees feel insecure in their jobs, waver in our commitment to them, don’t look after them and their best interests, and don’t give them a future with our organization, we will never achieve an engaged workforce, because true engagement is true commitment.

5. Engagement requires us to connect differently with our employees.

How we connect and relate with employees must be different if we are to better engage employees. The emotional attachment of engagement requires touching employees at the heart of who they are and what they most desire. Traditionally, organizations have tried to improve engagement with distanced and arms-length relationships, manufactured team-building without creating a sense of community, and limited time investment in establishing trusting connections with others.

This requires enhancing connections with our coworkers, manager, and leaders because all of these relationships are always critical drivers of engagement. Employees often become disengaged when they aren’t connected to each other and their leaders – when there is no strength in relationship, no community in which others look out for one another, no trust in one another, and when people in the workplace look at and treat others as a means to their agendas and desired outcomes.

It also means building a deeper connection to the work itself and what the organization does. Employees go the extra mile when they believe that their work matters and when they believe it is meaningful, purposeful, and makes a difference.

All work matters, but the key is helping employees see the value of what they do. Now and in the future, organizations and leaders will be more pressured to not only provide meaningful work, but communicate the link between what employees do and how it makes a difference to your organization and its end users – whether those are customers, suppliers, or colleagues. They will be need to translate and connect work to something beyond outcomes, and create a culture where meaningful work is commonplace.

There are just some of the new developments with regard to employee engagement in the workplace. Engagement continues to evolve as research and experience continue to reveal new ways of engaging employees.

Additional Resources

Employee Engagement Surveys

Research shows that high employee engagement leads to increased retention, productivity and business success. ERC’s Employee Engagement Survey service assesses employees’ level of engagement, identifies the drivers of engagement at your organization, and provides recommendations on practical steps your organization can take to improve employee engagement.