The Expert View: How To Engage People

Engagement is declining across the workforce, causing a loss of a whopping $7 trillion globally from disengaged employees. We asked our experts for input on understanding the key drivers of workforce engagement.
Desiree McGinn
Jun 22, 2021

Having a highly engaged workforce is estimated to increase overall profitability by 21%. More recent data suggests that engagement has decreased in Europe, although local variations exist. In 2020, only 20% of employees worldwide felt actively engaged with their workplace. Across Europe, even fewer than 2 in 10 employees were engaged.

These numbers should prompt leaders to put employee engagement and motivation high up on the agenda. Not only is there a clear advantage of a highly engaged workforce: it might even be the determining factor in a crisis, tipping the company’s fate to surviving from failing.

To offer leaders with key advice on keeping staff engaged, we caught up with experts from our educator network to weigh in on what drives employee engagement and motivation.

1. Non-financial incentives

Autor and educator Adam Kingl surveyed corporate high-potential Gen Y’s over five years, attempting to uncover what the most important employer benefits might be and if these differ from the expectation of the employers.

According to Kingl, the factors from which people chose were: benefits package, CEO’s reputation, corporate social responsibility, development opportunities, openness to innovation, organisational culture, performance-based bonus, share-price performance, and work-life balance. The answers represent a dramatic shift from previous expectations. Not a single one of the top three most popular answers was a financial benefit.

2. Relevance, power, and ego

Leadership mentor and author Mark Fritz says that people are in general motivated by three key factors, other than money: relevance, power, and ego. He offers some advice on how to leverage these three drivers in a positive way:

‘Your people want to know their work makes a difference, that it has meaning. The most effective way to make people’s work relevant is through making their work visible to others. Visibility drives relevance, accountability, and pride’, he says.

When it comes to the concept of power, he says that people ‘want to have a choice, and feel their work is theirs. If people are just told what to do, they have no choice and don’t feel powerful.’ When people feel powerless, they take less action.

According to Fritz, the third key driver is ego. He says that staff wants to be recognized for their achievements, and also for what they are good at. He advises leaders to recognise and reinforce the achievements, but also the important behaviours you see where they are showcasing their strengths.

Beyond these key drivers, the level of engagement of leaders themselves is an important benchmark for the rest of the organisation. According to author and coach Flooris Van Der Walt, engagement really starts with the leader. ‘If a leader is not motivated themselves, then it is very difficult to motivate others. I believe leaders have to look at their level of energy and keep it high, while they connect, listen and then act on the communal issues.’

According to Van Der Walt, the common understanding of ‘we are all in it for the better of all’ defines the engagement because ‘I am involved in creating a better situation for all’.

‘People are normally motivated when they are engaged because they realize that they have something to offer, and it makes a difference’.

3. Empowerment

Reflecting Fritz’s point on empowerment, Kriti Jain, an international leadership and organisational change consultant,  emphasises that managers must trust workers enough to give them autonomy in how they work. ‘They must have the freedom to decide where, when, and how they do their work’.

Every employee is, of course, unique. So talk to them, listen and find out the contexts and complexities that they face on a day-to-day and aspirational basis, says business author and consultant Matt Marsh. ‘Give them the conditions and permissions where they can experiment and grow’.

Leading a company is primarily about getting things done in the right way. This requires mental energy and physical stamina to keep going, solve problems, and enable others to execute strategy. Excessive virtual meetings and demands on one’s time require good health, physical fitness, and dynamism. But energy levels must also be managed to avoid burnout or illness. A sense of well-being is essential to ensure positive energy is sustainable. Erik Hiep, managing director at The Next Level consultancy, argues that high energy is key for success in business and winning in the marketplace.

‘When on high energy, your quality of thinking goes up. You are more creative, more productive, and smarter. The key here is also not to complicate life; keep things as simple as possible. Leadership is about creating simplicity. Simple ideas, concepts, and strategies are easier to understand and implement. This increases the probability that you and your teams will achieve the objectives’, says Hiep.

4. Purpose

Leaders must be able to gauge how far and fast they can drive the organisation. Clarity of purpose underpins clarity of communication. A murky vision may be a symptom of a confused strategy. Fundamental to this vision is an understanding of how the world will look in years to come, and therefore how the business will need to adapt and transform.

Paul Hunter, managing director of the strategic management institute, says that motivation and engagement are energised by a common sense of purpose and direction.

‘The purpose is defined as the reason an organisation exists. It is permanent, definitive, and closed to debate. Direction is defined by strategy. Strategy is dynamic. It provides a mechanism for engagement through ‘open’ and forthright conversations – the primary source of cooperation and motivation’, says Hunter.

Engagement and motivation don’t just move the internal workings of a company – it also affects external perceptions, including hiring and talent attraction. It is fair to say that there’s not a single antidote that will solve the work engagement crisis, but rather, an array of initiatives and strategies that empowers the employee to do their best work.

Related Webinar: Success Through Collaboration

In this interactive Virtual Masterclass we will explore the meaning of collaboration and how we can expect it to evolve in digital work environments. We will investigate how we can use three core ingredients to foster a collaborative work culture: Purpose, Trust, and Inclusion. You will learn practical tips to apply immediately to your daily working practice. You will also discover research insights into why collaboration matters and how it’s best achieved in day-to-day life. Watch on-demand here. 

Related Research: Sustainable Leadership Report


Business is no longer just about profit. Leaders need to demonstrate they can do the right thing when it comes to social, political, and environmental issues too. The Covid-19 crisis has made this clearer than ever. In this process, HR and L&D functions have become crucial to business survival and the growth of sustainable leadership. To understand how leaders are dealing with these challenges and trends, we conducted major research on the topic, which you can download for free here. 

The Expert View: Related Questions

Desiree McGinn

Content Strategy Lead at Headspring