The Heart And Art Of Employee Engagement



1st Jan 2016

3 min read

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Are employees engaged, estranged or entertained?

There was once a factory manager with a commendable record for leading a high-performance team. The team’s motivation, morale, commitment and productivity were way beyond other teams. The head of human resources (HR) noticed this and decided to seek out the secret ingredient.

She went to the shop floor and interviewed the employees. She discovered that the manager’s wife had, on many occasions, baked or made something special for the team. The manager would then lovingly share the special treat with his team, to their delight.

The HR leader thought that this must be the secret to the team’s success. She went back to her headquarters and proposed a policy that required every team leader to give their teams a treat every fortnight, at the company’s expense.

Did it work? Only for a week or two.

Principles over practice

They copied the practice but not the principles that governed the activity such as sincerity, love, caring sharing, spontaneity, generosity, etc.

It was the spirit in which it was done that created an environment of trust and authenticity which impacted engagement.

Often we look for best practices – the “what” – behind a success story and just copy it wholesale. We then wonder why it didn’t work, or if it works, why the results are minimal.

This is the case for many known management practices – from Total Quality Management, Reengineering, Culture Change, Balance Score Cards to Organisational Transformation.

I have heard it said before that the Balance Score Card has become Balance Scold Card.

Professing that “customer is No. 1” has become “customer is No.1”.

They copied the practice, but missed the principle. The practice can be good, but you need to get the underlying dynamics right, first. These dynamics are what drive change or results.

Heart over head

Coming back to the earlier story, it was not the sweet treats that built a high-performance team but the spirit of the activity. Love, sharing, authenticity and trust make all the difference.

Recent writings on the topic of employee engagement point out that there are so many ideas to do this, and to do that.

People think: “Just because it worked in another company – it should work here!”

What we need to understand is that it is not the practice that makes the difference but the dynamics (the heartfelt intent and spirit) in which a particular act is done.

These principles lie at the heart of employee engagement:

  • Involvement
  • Commitment
  • Empowerment
  • Ownership

Endearing engagement companies

The authors of the book Firms of Endearment: How World-Class Companies Profit from Passion and Purpose distilled out the companies today that are the ultimate value engagers and creators. Some of these companies include IDEO and IKEA, Commerce Bank, Amazon, Costco, SAS Institute, Google, Timberland, Southwest, New Balance, etc.

These companies generate emotional, experiential, social, financial value as part of their internal culture.

People love doing business with these firms of endearment. “Loyalty” is real and visible and helps to create unbeatable advantages for organisations which are founded on the right principles, values and culture.

People are increasingly searching for higher meaning and purpose in their lives. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that companies which are driven with purpose and passion from the inside have the highest levels of employee engagement.

The 3 T’s of successful engagement

The three pivotal organisational engagement principles are: Truthfulness, Trust and Thrust.

Engagements that lead to good and sustainable partnerships must first be founded on Truthfulness.

Organisations that engage in truthfulness are basically those that are able to provide an environment where people feel safe without the need to look behind their backs all the time. Only when people stop worrying about themselves can they look out for each other.

If an employee’s No.1 key result area is to watch their backs – there won’t be much time left to engage and flow with creativity, capability and the passion of working.

Truthfulness leads to Trust, which is made possible through acts of openness, sharing, creativity, collaboration, experimentation and value creation.

The third important principle is Thrust. Thrust here means a forward thrust – the desire to achieve something. Man by his very nature lives on hope. And hope for something greater and better is what empowers him to create value.

It is the feeling that you are part of something bigger.

This mindset provides the thrust for inspiration, involvement, initiative, improvement and innovation.

When these three T’s work synergistically – power is expressed in every facet of the organisation by using resources through relationships to create results.

Through this, the desires, energies and the talents of the organisation can be fully tapped to deliver the ultimate customer, user and employee experience for an endearing and enduring company.

Xavier Johnson is the managing consultant of Waterhouse Consult Think, a strategic organisation development, HR and business consulting firm that focuses on aligning people and talent to the business delivery system for maximising ROI, using a design thinking methodology. He is a faculty of Leaderonomics. To engage with Xavier for your organisation, write to For more Consulting Corner articles, click here. 

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