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According to Bersin by Deloitte, “employee engagement (by 2016) has become the top issue on the minds of business leaders, directing us to an entirely new model of management”.

Firstly, we need to understand what Employee Engagement is, why it is growing in importance and how do we develop it. As important is the need to be able to measure it. It can be difficult to quantify, but without knowing where we are, it is hard to move forward

The Institute of Employment Studies defines Employee Engagement as

‘a positive attitude held by the employee towards the organisation and its values. An engaged employee is aware of business context, and works with colleagues to improve performance within the job for the benefit of the organisation. The organisation must work to develop and nurture engagement, which requires a two-way relationship between employer and employee.’

It’s not so different to the notion of “discretionary effort” which lies at the heart of most leadership theory and practice. Discretionary effort is the level of effort people could give if they wanted to, above and beyond the call of duty. The important thing there is that they give this effort willingly and without the feeling of imposition.

This immediately suggests that leadership is therefore a key factor in developing employee engagement.  However, the Institute of Employment studies makes another vital point. Employee Engagement is a two-way relationship: organisations must work to engage the employee, who in turn has a choice about the level of engagement they will offer.

Some employees approach a job as if it were simply something they have to do to fulfil a requirement to be paid. Others engage much more fully. Willing to ‘go the extra mile’ , being at times prepared to do what is needed even if it inconveniences them

The advantages of engagement for organisations are clear. Engaged employees enable organisations to perform better. In a competitive world. Engaged employees create a “can do” positive culture

Engaged employees also create a more responsive and flexible organisation. Important for this so called VUCA world we now inhabit.

For employees, there are also clear benefits to engagement.

Employees feel more engaged with the organisations purpose and objectives and understand their role better and how it contributes to organisational success. This enables a sense of achievement to be realised (and acknowledged).

Well directed employee engagement enables staff to feel they are fully part of the team.

A key element of employee engagement is personal growth, acquiring new skills and developing a sense of control over their life and their work.

Good leadership has a major role to play here. In our work we have observed carefully what the very best leaders do to create employee engagement.

The outcome suggests that the best leaders do three key things and do them well:

  1. They show Determination to Deliver the purpose and objectives of the organisation. Visible, well communicated and authentic this is fundamental to building trust.

Interestingly, our work shows that even when it is uncomfortable to do so, staff prefer to follow a leader who knows where he/she is going than a leader who doesn’t or who says one thing and then does another.

2. Engage with employees. For a better response from staff, then be aware of their needs to be able to respond and provide recognition when they do what is expected, especially when it surprises you.

3. Engage with team working. This is employee engagement in another important sense. This is not just team working in my team but teamworking across the organisation. The organisation is one team.

For this element we have developed the ILM72 psychometric measure which helps leaders to assess their leadership behaviour as well as their underlying leadership style.

Having noted that Employee Engagement is a two way process we come to the other party – the employee.

A frequent refrain is that employees do not always want to be engaged. That might appear to be the case but the crucial phrase is “appear”. What we are observing is their behaviour for which there will be many explanations.

What we can realistically seek is the active participation and involvement of most employees. This will create its own momentum often converting the less enthusiastic as the organisation develops its culture.

However in our experience most employees who do not appear to engage ay don’t do this because they don’t want to but rather because they don’t know how to.

The issue is one of mindset as much as it is of behaviour. We often think we can’t do something when in fact we can.

Here we have focused on the concept of Mental Toughness which basically describes ”the way we think”. It is about an aspect of personality that determines how we respond mentally when faced with a range of situations –setback or opportunities.

Those who adopt a positive response to the world around them are generally termed mentally tough. Those who are less positive are generally described as mentally sensitive.

This mindset can be developed in such as way that it supports employee engagement. We can enable employees to be more “minded” to engage with their work and their organisation.

Again, we have developed a psychometric measure, the MTQ48, which helps us to assess this key concept.

The mental toughness framework helps us to understand:

Control – the extent to which individuals have a “can do” approach and believe they can engage.

Commitment – the extent to which they like working to goals and are aspirational. And where they will do what it takes to achieve important goals – “to walk that extra mile”.

Challenge – how they approach new and challenging situations– and importantly do they see these are learning opportunities or as situations to be avoided in the future.

Confidence – both confidence in ones abilities and interpersonal confidence – the confidence to participate in discussion and debate and to ensure that your contribution is heard and acknowledged.

We feel this is an important contributor to understanding how to develop employee engagement. Many, perhaps most, employees want a more fulfilling role and the acknowledgement that goes with it.

All organisations work better with engaged employees. Engaged employees enjoy their life and their work much better.

Doug Strycharczyk, CEO AQR International & Professor Peter Clough, Professor of Psychology, University of Huddersfield, UK