3 Factors That Have the Largest Impact on Employee Engagement

If employee engagement is so important, as I argued in my last blog post,  what determines whether your employees are actually engaged or not?  In this post, I’ll talk about the 3 big factors that shape engagement, and what you can do broadly to improve it:

  1. The workplace environment in which someone does their job,
  2. The job the person is doing,
  3. The person who’s doing the job

Remember that I have defined employee engagement as the emotional attachment an employee has to their work; that attachment is strongly related to increased discretionary effort, retention, and presenteeism at work.  (Some authors us the term in confusing and vague ways at times that I outline in my previous post, on how to make sense of the noise around what engagement really is).   With that, let’s get started.   In this post we’ll examine these three factors and see how they can improve employee engagement.

1. Create a Supportive Workplace

Start with direct supervisors

To a large extent, whether one has an engaging work environment or not is determined by whom you directly report to and work with on a daily basis. Gallup’s CEO Jim Clifton states that “the single biggest decision you make in your job…is who you name manager. When you name the wrong person manager, nothing fixes that bad decision. Not compensation, not benefits — nothing.”1  Les McKeown, author and CEO of Predictable Success, puts it more event more bluntly: “The problem is with your managers, not your employees. If your employees are disengaged, your managers are at fault.”2

Characteristics of a supportive environment

What is it is that supervisors do to build engagement?  In their review of the data on engagement, the UK’s Institute for Employment Studies found that the key driver of engagement is “the sense of feeling valued and involved” with one’s work.3  The sense of feeling valued comes from:

  • Involvement in decision-making
  • The ability to voice ideas, and be listened to
  • Opportunities for growth
  • The feeling that the organization is concerned for their employees wellbeing

The employee’s manager has a primary role in each of these areas, as does the leadership and HR team of the company.  Author Paul Marciano posits that improving engagement means that company leaders need to promote a culture of RESPECT in the workplace, where RESPECT is his acronym for the five key elements: “Recognition, Empowerment, Supportive Feedback, Partnering, Expectations Consideration and Trust.”4 While other researchers use different terms, these are common themes. For example, Gallup argues that to improve engagement, hire, promote, or train managers who genuinely care for their people, invest in talent, and creatively motivate employees towards clear metrics.5

2. Create Supportive Jobs

The job itself must be meaningful and interesting

Beyond creating an environment in which people feel valued, certain core characteristics of people’s jobs drive engagement. First and foremost: employees must feel that the job itself is meaningful to the organization, and contributes to the goals of the organization.6 Researchers have identified a host of other job characteristics that contribute to engagement.7  The work itself should:

  • Be interesting and challenging,
  • Have variety,
  • Allow the use of different skills,
  • Allow personal discretion (autonomy)

There is a vast body of research behind various job characteristics; in 1976, Locke noted that at least 3600 studies had been conducted as of that point in time on the influence of job characteristics on employee performance and topics related to engagement.8  However these characteristics are some of the most common results in the literature.

Because engagement is driven in part by the nature of the work itself, some roles appear to be inherently more engaging than others. Managers are generally more engaged than non-managers, for example.  That may be because managers can clearly see their purpose within the organization and usually have more autonomy than other employees.  There are also significant differences occur across industries.  An astounding 28% of transportation workers and 26% of manufacturing workers considered “actively disengaged” (spreading dissent), but only 9% of physicians.9

What must not occur

Variety, discretion and opportunities for growth are irrelevant if an employee feels the jobsite is unsafe or is harassed at work and feels that the employer is indifferent to their situation.  A lack of organizational or supervisor support in face of harassment can destroy engagement, as can these negative factors:

  • Perceived injustice in how one is treated by supervisors
  • Job site accidents and injury
  • Inability to perform one’s job (lack of skills or resources)

Satisfaction and engagement can be increased by ensuring that job sites are safe and comfortable, does not overly fatigue the body. Ensure that job sites are safe and comfortable to safeguard satisfaction and engagement. Again, if employees are in danger, or don’t have what they need to do their job well, other efforts to improve engagement are merely window dressing.

3. Changing the Jobs People Fulfill

Engagement author Paul Marciano also notes that in a highly disengaged workforce, resolution may require changes in staffing.  While changing in staffing may seem extreme, it’s important to note that engagement is, in large part, determined by relatively fixed characteristics individual and the job.  Some researchers argue that dissatisfaction can arise from the inherent mismatch between what the job offers the individual versus what they want, and others that people’s personalities differ in terms of how satisfied they will be at work overall.10 In either case, efforts to change engagement without fundamentally changing the individual or the role can only go so far.  Thus, high engagement starts with the right people in the right jobs for them.


1. Gallup (2013a)

3. Robinson et al. (2004)

4. Marciano (2010)

5. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Gallup has developed a proprietary metric for assessing a job candidate’s likelihood of engaging his subordinates, called the Engagement Creation Index.

6. Corporate Leadership Council (2004)

7. Saks (2006), Citing Kahn (1992)

8. Locke (1976)

9. Gallup (2013a)

10. See Affect Theory and Dispositional Theory.

Stephen is a behavioral scientist who studies financial behavior and how digital products can help individuals manage their money more effectively. He serves as Head of Behavioral Science at Morningstar (HelloWallet’s parent company), where he leads a team of behavioral scientists and practitioners to conduct original research on saving and investment behavior.

Stephen has authored two books on applied behavioral science, Designing for Behavior Change and Improving Employee Benefits, and founded the non-profit Action Design Network, educating the public on how to apply behavioral research to product development with monthly events in seven cities.

Stephen holds a BA from U.C. Berkeley, a Master’s from Johns Hopkins-SAIS, and a PhD from the University of Maryland, where he analyzed the dynamics of behavioral change over time. He has two wonderful kids, who don’t care about behavioral science at all.

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