HR Management & Compliance, Talent

Engagement—Nature or Nurture?

Employee engagement is a loosely defined term. Enter it into a search engine, and you are likely to come up with as many definitions as search results.


Source: Michail_Petrov-96 / iStock / Getty Images

But we know that employee engagement is key to businesses’ success and can mean the difference between a mediocre organization and a stellar business. The trick is populating a company’s staff with engaged employees, begging the question: Are engaged employees born or created?

A Deep Dive into Engagement

Let’s start by looking at some definitions of engagement. Custom Insight provides a useful, straightforward definition: “Employee engagement is the extent to which employees feel passionate about their jobs, are committed to the organization, and put discretionary effort into their work.”

To flesh that out a bit more, Gallup contributor, Ken Royal, describes some traits of engaged employees:

  • Despite challenges and barriers, the engaged don’t let problems become an excuse for inaction or destroy their ability to perform.
  • Engaged employees seek ways to operate at their best, which means they focus on their strengths and don’t spend too much time trying to do what does not come naturally to them.
  • Engaged employees are intentional about their engagement. They have a plan and independently and proactively try to improve their engagement rather than expecting someone else to engage them.
  • Engaged employees take accountability for their performance instead of blaming others when things don’t go as they want.

Based on these descriptions, it can be assumed that engaged employees are simply cut from a different fabric than the disengaged. They may have been raised with a certain work ethic or simply possess a certain drive that they apply to all aspects of their lives, not just work.

How Managers Impact Engagement

According to Royal, a team’s managers have a huge impact on their level of engagement. In fact, Gallup attributes more than 70% of variance in team engagement to the way they’re managed.

“Managers create the conditions that promote the behaviors of engaged employees (or just the opposite) with the relationships they establish,” Royal says. “The manager is either an engagement-creating coach or an engagement-destroying boss, but both relationships affect employee behavior.”

Managers having such a big impact on their teams’ engagement suggests that engaged employees can be created—they aren’t just born engaged. So, what can managers do to boost their staff’s engagement?

Ask the Right Questions

Royal goes on to suggest that something as simple as asking the right questions can go a long way toward refocusing employees and encouraging them to reengage when they get off track.

These questions help employees with introspection, giving them a greater sense of control and ownership over their work. For example, rather than simply asking an employee why he or she isn’t progressing on an assignment, a manager can ask questions about whether the employee has enough information to move forward, if he or she has the necessary resources, or if he or she understands the expectations and the goal.

Such questions avoid focusing solely on the negative. They also do more than simply point out what the manager thinks the issue is; instead, the right questions can provide a jumping-off point for the employee to start thinking about what he or she needs to be successful.

There are many ways managers can help foster effective and meaningful employee engagement, but the idea of ownership underlies most engagement tools.

Employees who feel they have ownership over a project or task are more likely to be highly engaged in its completion—and completing it well. When employees struggle to make progress, sometimes simply framing questions in the correct way can stimulate that ownership and jump-start progress.

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