Employee Engagement: How to Tell if People are Really Engaged?

Collaboration | Engagement

High employee engagement correlates with better team and organizational performance. Engaged employees help each other out, take greater initiative, and assume more responsibility for aligning their needs with the goals of the company.*

At the same time, employee engagement ‘scores’ are pretty darn low in the U.S. and globally per Gallup’s extensive dataset. 

Our clients often ask us these questions: How can we increase employee engagement?  How can we better measure the level of employee engagement? 

Like true consultants, we start to answer those questions with other questions.


What does better performance mean?   

  • What does better performance mean?
    • To the person who authorizes everyone’s paycheck, i.e., the CEO  
    • To the Board of Directors who pays her salary
    • To the shareholders who expect a decent ROI, and
    • To other key stakeholders whose support is critical to keeping the things in motion.
  • To what extent are the CEO and other key decision-makers aligned in their answers to the question: what does better performance mean?
  • How well do we set clear performance expectations for employees and have effective ways of measuring outcomes?

Leadership alignment around the meaning of successful performance and setting clear employee expectations are the stuff of sound business management. Engaged employees know how their efforts impact the performance of their colleagues of the success of their organizational unit. Without clarity and alignment about what successful performance means, the goal of a highly engaged workforce is beside the point.

Measuring employee engagement

Now, let’s introduce a disruptive idea about the nature of employee engagement. Leaders don’t engage employees. Employees choose to engage based on how well they are meeting needs for emotional safety and work satisfaction. Organizational processes, colleagues, and leaders can help employees meet their needs. But employees turn on their own engagement ignition in service of meeting their needs.

How would you know that your employees are engaged (not engaged, actively disengaged)?  For most organization who track employee engagement, the answer is: engagement scores from annual or semi-annual surveys.

(Reminder: For most employees, the primary goal is not to improve team or organizational performance. The goal is to meet needs. The fundamental needs are emotional safety and work satisfaction. Employees who feel safe and satisfied are more present at work and tend put in more discretionary effort.)  

What girds emotional safety and satisfaction at work differs from person to person. The formula is some blend of successful experience in three areas: results, process and relationship. Results have to do with achievement. Process is about control (for the employee, e.g., autonomy and for the organization, e.g., work processes that meet or exceed a standard). Relationship is about the quality of our human connections – person-to-person, team-to-team, business representative to the customer.

It’s hard to control for all those variables. That’s why employee engagements surveys that ask lots of questions about how well the company in helping people feel safe and satisfied or what others do or don’t do miss the point. (Don’t get us wrong. A survey with lots of questions may point to a significant trend or phenomenon. That can be the starting point of a very productive inquiry.)

To discover actual levels of engagement, we suggest that you depend less on annual or semi-annual employee engagement surveys and more on regular conversations between managers and employees and among colleagues (e.g., peer coaching).

In those regular conversations, have managers or peers ask one question that gets at the heart of the matter for the employee, e.g., How often do you start work with the ambition to help your team (or another colleague) accomplish something worthwhile? 

Start with a set of questions important to your organization – experience-focused vs feelings-focused questions – and have employees can pick the 1 or 2 most resonant with their daily experience.

(You can still do that big survey. Remember also that doing a once per year or semi-annual survey on a sunny vs. cloudy day, in the am vs. the pm, after a local team win or loss, can have a big impact on results!)

The importance of collaborative leadership.

Consider this question. How do the attitudes and skills of our leaders influence the way our employees create results, process and relationship success for themselves and our organization?

Leaders who value “stakeholder voice,” “human dignity” and “shared responsibility,” and model behaviors consistent with those values -- e.g., effectively involving employees in decisions that affect their lives at work – are more likely to inspire “engaged” employee behaviors.   

When a leader holds a collaborative attitude, they genuinely seek maximum appropriate involvement of key stakeholders. Not because they want to create the illusion of involvement, but because they believe that together we are smarter and better than any one of us. They believe that the process of involvement brings out the best in people and connects them to organizational priorities. They see their organization as a de facto community with a communal responsibility to help all members meet their needs.

When a leader has collaborative capability, they have interpersonal savvy and recognizes when people don’t feel safe, recognized or inspired. They have the skill to inquire non-judgmentally and to be altered by what they hear. They have skillfulness to design meetings where people feel safe speaking up, disagreeing, or remaining silent.

A collaborative leader articulates a compelling vision of the desired future. They speak with passion, logic, and integrity in a way that inspires others to say, “I want that too.” A collaborative leader knows their audience and adjusts the message in a way that connects people to the greater possibility of their work.


A Few Well-Timed Questions

  1. To what extent are our people leaders aligned around "X": what does successful performance mean for our organization and/or unit?
  2. How well are we setting employee performance expectations and how effective are our ways of measuring outcomes?
  3. What short-list of experience-based (vs feeling-based) questions can we ask employees to best measure their levels of engagement?
  4. How might we institutionalize daily conversations between managers and employees (or peers) to ask those questions, and to inspire employees to push their own engagement ignition switch?
  5. How well are we developing collaborative leaders who encourage people to engage and share responsibility for performance?

One well-timed question will reward you more than a simple answer. In case you are still looking for answers to how can we increase employee engagement and how can we better measure the level of employee engagement, we’d like to ask you a few questions. 

Jay Cone is a Senior Consultant with Interaction Associates (IA). Jay helps clients discover the most useful questions to address organizational challenges.

Learn more about how IA can help your organization with employee engagement and foster inclusive behaviors.

Key Contributor:

Barry Rosen, the CEO of Interaction Associates.  



* a widely accepted statement.







About Jay Cone

Jay Cone has spent the past 25 years focusing on leadership development, strategic thinking and innovation and is the founder of Unstuck Minds. Prior to joining Interaction Associates, Jay worked in the food service industry as a training manager, Human Resources director, and internal consultant. Jay is a thought leader for Interaction Associates’ work in teams, innovation and strategic thinking. Jay is a regular contributor to Saybrook University’s Rethinking Complexity blog. His articles on strategy and leadership development have appeared in Rotman Magazine, The Journal of Global Business and Organizational Excellence, Training Magazine, and The American Society for Training and Development's Best of Customer Service Training. Jay served on the editorial review committee for David Straus' book, How to Make Collaboration Work, and contributed a chapter on accountability to Leadership for Transformation, edited by JoAnn Danelo Barbour and Gill Robinson Hickman. Jay served for five years on the faculty of the Executive M.B.A. program at The University of Texas at Dallas, where he taught innovation and collaboration. Jay is conducting research and writing a dissertation on organizational strategy formation to complete his Ph.D. program in organizational systems. Jay's current consulting practice focuses on senior team facilitation, strategic thinking, leadership development, and innovation.