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Employee Engagement Explained

Your guide to understanding everything you need to know about employee engagement, and how it can improve your organization. 

What is Employee Engagement?

Employee engagement is an emotional state where employees feel passionate, energetic, and committed to their work. In turn, employees fully invest their best selves- their hearts, spirits, minds, and hands in the work they do.

An engaged employee gives discretionary effort; they go above and beyond the bare minimum that is required for them to maintain employee productivity and their manager’s approval. To be engaged, we must feel something and then take action on what we feel. Take the feeling or the action away and you won’t find engagement.

You might think of feelings and actions as two oars in a rowboat. They are complementary opposites. Both are necessary. Row with one and you’ll travel in circles. You might work up a sweat and feel as though you should be getting somewhere, but you won’t. Pull with both at the same time and you’ll make progress. 

How Does Employee Engagement Differ From The Employee Experience?

It’s important to note that employee engagement and the employee experience are not one and the same. Employee engagement is an outcome of the employee experience.

Humans have a fundamental and profound need to belong – to belong to something larger than themselves. This need to belong is so powerful that it can be used as rocket fuel to drive employee engagement.

As leaders, we tap into the power of belonging through place, culture, and experience. First, we start with culture. Culture is the way things work and feel at a certain place, whether that place is virtual or physical. Culture is either deliberate or organic, but either way every place has a culture. The employee experience is the impact your culture has on your employees.  When the employee experience is right, then high levels of employee engagement is the result.

The right employee experience exists when employees are given a purpose, a path, and a place. These elements create an environment where employees thrive and grow. Our mission is to help organizations create places, cultures, and experiences where employees can bring their authentic and best selves to work. This, for us, is the true essence of employee engagement.


The sum of perceptions employees have about their interactions with the organization in which they work.

“The impact of the culture on the employees.”


An emotional state where we feel passionate, energetic, and committed toward our work. In turn, we fully invest our best selves in the work that we do. 

“The employees’ emotional response to the employee experience.”

How Does Employee Engagement Differ from Employee Satisfaction?

Another area of confusion is when we mistake employee satisfaction for employee engagement. Some leaders mistakenly think that increasing employee satisfaction will increase employee engagement and motivation. However, there is a clear difference between a satisfied employee, or even high employee morale, and an engaged employee.

Job satisfaction is transactional and contractual. In return for their work, you promise to provide employees with the basics: compensations, tools and resources, physical safety, communication, dignity, and respect. Both the organization and the worker must continue to make constant deposits in the relationship “bank account.” 

employee satisfaction- employee engagement

Satisfaction is the entry fee in your mission to build belonging – the minimum standard for all organizations.

Satisfied employees, however, will only put out as much effort as they are compensated for, and no more. They deliver what is asked of them, as long as you deliver on your part of the deal. They show up and do their work, but high job satisfaction, while it might do something to improve employee  retention and decrease employee turnover, doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to say no to other offers.

While your employee recognition or employee satisfaction efforts may leave them feeling happy, empowered, and sometimes motivated, they may not be truly engaged.

Employee engagement vs satisfaction inforgraphic

What Are the Core Elements of an Employee Experience that Drive Employee Engagement

To understand how we can work on increasing engagement, we first must understand what are the top employee engagement drivers. Our research of over 50 million employee survey responses helped us discover five keys for superlative employee experiences. In developing a winning employee experience, leaders should take care to ensure that these elements are part of the experience.

These five keys are known as ENGAGEMENT MAGIC:

Meaning: Your work has purpose beyond the job itself.

For many people, a job is just that, a job. But those that create meaning in the workplace understand that what they do matters. They find purpose in what they do. They understand that their efforts and productivity contribute to a greater cause-one that is important to them.

Autonomy: The power to shape your work and environment in ways that allow you to perform at your best.

Some people feel stifled in their jobs. In fact, 34 percent of employees say they can’t speak up for fear of negative consequences from the leadership above them. Autonomy doesn’t mean “no rules and free reign.” We all work under guidelines. But when we understand our parameters, and have the freedom to do our best work, we are more creative, innovative, passionate and, ultimately, demonstrate an increase in productivity.

Growth: Being stretched and challenged in ways that result in personal and professional progress.

Growing in our jobs doesn’t always mean getting a promotion or a raise; these are components of satisfaction. Growth is about mastering new skills, taking on challenges, and pushing to be better-both professionally and personally.

Impact: Seeing positive, effective, and worthwhile outcomes and results from your work.

Impact is about results. It’s incremental progress toward a goal, and small wins that lead to big outcomes. We all need to see that the work we do is contributing to our own goals, the success of our team, those whom we serve, and the organization we are a part of. It’s the difference between simply showing up for work and knowing that we’re an integral part of the day’s operations.

Connection: The sense of belonging to something beyond yourself.

We connect with our organizations through the people with whom we work, the mission and values of the organization, and the work that we perform. Our work and our company are a part of who we are. The job, then, becomes more than just a set of tasks we perform to earn a paycheck.

These five keys form the acronym ENGAGEMENT MAGIC, which is a convenient way to keep these keys on the forefront of a leader’s mind. 

For a detailed look into how these elements can help support a winning employee experience, please see Our book, ENGAGEMENT MAGIC ® : Five Keys for Engaging People, Leaders, and Organizations, which shows how managers can leverage these five keys. 

Who is Responsible for Employee Engagement Initiatives?

So, who should be involved in the employee engagement initiative at your workplace? The short answer is everyone. It starts from the top down, with those in leadership positions being the first to buy-in to creating an engaged employee experience.

employee engagement consulting

In fact, in research we conducted to see if there was a relationship between the engagement level of managers and the engagement level of their subordinates, we found that the more engaged man­agers are in their work and workplace culture, the more engaged their teams are. That’s intuitive, right? It’s also scientific, and the stats support it.

Engaged vs. Disengaged Employees

Using data from over 50 million DecisionWise employee engagement survey responses, looking at those questions that are indicators of high or low employee engagement, rather than drivers, we find that only 5% of employees are fully disengaged on their jobs, with another 17% being moderately engaged. Therefore, nearly 80% of employees would fall under the fully engaged or key contributors section of the employee engagement spectrum.

How Should We Measure Employee Engagement?

Engagement, in essence, is the outcome or by-product of all of the organizational and work factors that an individual experiences day-to-day. Therefore, survey items that measure engagement must also measure outcomes, perceptions, attitude, and beliefs. 

Our Best Practice Guide can help you choose the best method to measure engagement at your organization. The guide breaks down four types of employee engagement surveys you might consider using which we classify as: Always-on, Pulse, Spot, and Anchor. Each have a different scope and frequency for how they are traditionally administered.

Employee Engagement Survey Types

Employee Engagement Survey Questions

Actionable employee engagement survey questions produce results that a manager can easily interpret and take action on to improve. Valid employee survey items simply measure what they are supposed to measure. And reliable employee engagement questions produce similar results each time they are used. There are two types of questions on the DecisionWise engagement survey

employee engagement survey review

The first type measures the overall level of employee engagement. We call these anchor questions. Anchor questions measure the current state of employee engagement that an employee feels. The average score of these anchor questions produce an overall employee engagement survey score.

The second type of employee engagement survey question measures the drivers of engagement in the organization. These questions make up the bulk of the survey and measure things like leadership, organization policies, teamwork, and the job experience. Comparing scores from the driver questions to those of employees who are fully engaged based on the anchor question scores, shows which items influence employee engagement in the organization.

How Do We Analyze Employee Engagement Survey Results?

Employee survey results should be rolled out to all levels in the organization to allow managers to work with their employees to develop action plans. The amount of detail provided to each manager will vary. Executives will have access to the results for the entire organization including breakouts by demographic categories such as tenure, gender, and department. Front-line managers normally only receive results for their respective group. Our manager report tool delivers data and insights directly to the manager with no need to login into another portal.

HR professionals within the organization will want to compare the employee engagement survey results to industry benchmarks, internal business metrics, and past employee survey trends. The HR team answers questions from the executive team and other managers about any number of data points and needs to have easy access to query and analyze the results.

Then What? Creating an Action Plan

Action plans used in creating an employee engagement strategy are normally created at the executive level for the organization and by each manger for his or her work group. The executive team will need time to process the results and decide on the two or three main themes that are most important to the organization. Executive team action plans are best created during an Engagement Summit meeting and rolled out to the organization. Individual managers are responsible for creating action plans with their teams to address areas within their control.

Action plans are more than just seeing a box checked in an online action-planning tool. It takes human investment: time, energy, and follow-up to ensure that real change is being made within an organization’s employee engagement program. DecisionWise partners with organizations to create a “what’s next?” plan and execute the implementation to improve employee performance.

Ideas For Improving Employee Engagement

The first step in improving anything is to understand the current state. We suggest using a variety of employee surveys to gain insights and understanding into the experience your employees are having.  Use a listening program to help you answer this fundamental question:  What experience am I creating right now for my team, department, or organization?

Have a clear understanding of what your culture should look like and how it will help you attract, retain, and engage the talent you need to win.

Listening is the starting point, the endpoint, and vital for everything in between.  Continue to listen to what your employees have to say about the experience they are having.  Use continuous listening programs to provide leaders with data insights to help them improve experiences at levels within the organization.

Your gut is great, but it’s not all-knowing.  Enhance your decision-making through people data and data analytics.  Invest in the tools and resources you need to make better decisions that are grounded in evidence and data. 

Ground your employee experience in competencies by helping your people develop the knowledge, skills, and abilities that will drive success and fuel growth.  Be clear on what competencies are needed for success and what behaviors will be observed and prevalent when those competencies are operating at full force.

Employee Engagement Benchmarks

Our comprehensive employee engagement surveys include benchmarks which allow you to get a clear view of the playing field: identify the high-performing companies in your industry, understand how you compare, and set goals to improve your workplace culture. While these benchmarks can be useful, it’s important to not become so fixated on industry benchmarks that you end up imitating instead of innovating or failing to properly address the engagement needs within your organization because you place too much focus externally.

We have compiled more than 30 million survey responses. Download a sample engagement survey to see how we can help your company today.

Employee Engagement Best Practices

Speak with one of our experts to learn more.