Engagement: What Really Matters Most

Carmen O'Shea

There’s a lot of buzz lately around the concept of employee experience and treating employees as one would treat consumers. There are many aspects that comprise an employee’s overall experience, but one of the essential elements of a positive experience continues to be how engaged the person feels at work.

One of the areas my team works on is employee engagement and ways to motivate employees to be more connected to and fully involved in their work on a sustained basis. The idea, borne out by research, is that engaged employees are more productive and service-oriented and ultimately contribute to a company’s success and reputation in ways that unengaged employees do not.

Engagement can be a complex concept, with numerous definitions and various contributing factors. At its core though, engagement is the emotional commitment an employee has to her organization and its goals. Drivers of engagement (as delineated by Aon Hewitt and Gallup) include:

  • Quality of professional life: Physical environment, work-life integration, flex work arrangements
  • Company practices: Timely and cohesive organizational communication, perceived effectiveness of senior leadership, fair performance management frameworks
  • Recognition: Tangible and intangible recognition, perks, and rewards that impact employees’ overall belief that they are valued members of the company
  • Opportunities: Career advancement potential (both upwards and laterally), adequate and relevant training and development offerings
  • People: Manager effectiveness, team effectiveness, levels of collaboration among colleagues
  • Nature of work: Ability to connect one’s work to a broader context and purpose, understanding of strategy, ability to take risks and innovate, and a feeling that one’s opinions are considered

My view, after numerous years of focus on the engagement topic within SAP, is that the people driver stands out as the most crucial in fostering individual engagement.

People: Managers

A manager has an outsized influence on their employees’ engagement. In most cases, this is the core relationship that can set the tone for so much of an employee’s experience on the job. A manager can choose to be empathetic, choose to allow flexibility in how and where employees work, choose to nurture each employee’s talents and abilities, choose to stretch yet support their people, and choose to allow productive risk-taking and challenges to the status quo. Perhaps most importantly, managers can choose to model the values they wish their team to embody – integrity, diplomacy, compassion, innovation, passion. Employees often say they leave due to a bad manager, but the converse can hold true as well – great managers can instill loyalty to and cohesion of a team.

People: Colleagues

Colleagues can make or break an employee’s engagement at work. When employees are excited to partner with team members who challenge them, this excitement permeates their own work and brings out their best effort. When employees feel as though their contributions are important to the resolution of an issue, they are more inclined to really work through the change required. When employees respect the unique perspectives and skills of their colleagues, trust and collaboration follow suit. And this trust paves the way for more innovative thinking, for more honest reflection on improvement, and ultimately for more of a “we’re all in” attitude that ensures better results.

This is not to say that other engagement drivers are unimportant, but merely that the people with whom one works, and the quality of these professional relationships, often supersede other factors. And in many cases, these relationships directly impact other factors (e.g., a manager often dictates the quality of professional life based on how flexible they’re willing to be, and managers and colleagues often influence communication and recognition decisions). Particularly in a large organization where one’s direct contribution to the bottom line can seem hazy and indirect, the people around them largely dictate the quality of their experience and the nature of their day-to-day engagement.

Employers who genuinely care are key to happy, engaged, and loyal employees.


Carmen O'Shea

About Carmen O'Shea

Carmen O'Shea is the Senior Vice President of HR Change & Engagement at SAP. She leads a global team supporting major transformation initiatives across the company, focused on change management, employee engagement, and creative marketing and interaction. You can follow Carmen on Twitter.