7 Ways of Defining Employee Engagement

definitions of employee engagement

"Employee Engagement is an emotional state where we feel passionate, energetic, and committed toward our work. In turn, we fully invest our best selves-our hearts, spirits, minds, and hands-in the work we do."

There are many different definitions of employee engagement that tend cloud organization people initiatives. Rewards and recognition, learning and development, health and fitness, perks and benefits are all categories that commonly use employee engagement to describe their initiatives. Here, we will sort through the various definitions and competing ideas to provide more clarity.

What Employee Engagement is Not

First, it’s important to identify what employee engagement is not. Sometimes any type of positive employee attitude or behavior is considered employee engagement, while anything contrary is considered a disengaged employee. However, it’s not always that black and white. For example, employee engagement is not employee happiness, satisfaction, motivation, or empowerment. Now that we have a good understanding of what employee engagement isn’t, let’s take a look at some different ways people have gone about defining employee engagement.

Different Definitions of Employee Engagement

If you search for “employee engagement definition,” you’ll come up with a seemingly unending list of definitions from consultants to multinational corporate conglomerates—and everyone in between. Here’s a selection of some of the best (or most curious) employee engagement definitions we’ve seen:

  1. “The emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals.” Kevin Kruse, Forbes Contributor and NY Times Best Selling Author
  2. “The art of getting people to believe what you want them to believe.” Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat
  3. “Emotional connection an employee feels toward his or her employment organization, which tends to influence his or her behaviors and level of effort in work-related activities.” Business Dictionary
  4. “A business management concept that describes the level of enthusiasm and dedication a worker feels toward his/her job. Engaged employees care about their work and about the performance of the company, and feel that their efforts make a difference.” Investopedia
  5. ” Employee engagement is the emotional attachment employees feel towards their place of work, job role, position within the company, colleagues and culture and the effect this attachment has on wellbeing and productivity. ” HR ZONE
  6. “An emergent and working condition as a positive cognitive, emotional, and behavioral state directed toward organizational outcomes.” Michael Shuck and Karen Wallard

The DecisionWise Definition of Employee Engagement

DecisionWise defines employee engagement as:

“An emotional state where we feel passionate, energetic, and committed toward our work. In turn, we fully invest our best selves-our hearts, spirits, minds, and hands-in the work we do.”

Engagmenet: hearts-hands-minds

When you see engagement, you know it. However, it is often hard to put into words. For example, in 2001 Douglas Conant took over as CEO of Campbell’s Soup and called it a “bad” company. Its products were bleeding market share, and research showed that 62 percent of the company’s managers did not consider themselves actively engaged in their jobs. Yet by 2009, 68 percent of the company’s employees said they were actively engaged, while just 3 percent considered themselves actively disengaged.

How did Conant do it? He made a commitment to his people, embodied in the phrase “Campbell valuing people, people valuing Campbell.” Conant improved the physical surroundings by removing the barbed wire fence around the offices and focused on improving manager communication. Conant also instituted programs to celebrate individual success, from sending them personal thank-you notes to having lunch with employees.

Campbell’s built a culture of employee engagement. This resulted in an engaged workforce. It had nothing to do with air-hockey tables in the break rooms or on-site clinics. People engage with people, and they give more when they feel heard, empowered, and appreciated.Busy office setting with employees at computers

How the Psychological Contract Between the Employee and the Company Defines Engagement

The Psychological Contract has the greatest potential influence on employee engagement and as a result, the overall employee experience. Hidden in our hearts are the ideas, hopes, and dreams that truly define us. These expectations cannot be addressed adequately by clauses in an employment contract or hiring slogans that attempt to align expectations. These expectations are part of the psychological contract. The Psychological Contract is the unwritten, implicit set of expectations and obligations that define the terms of exchange in a relationship.

What’s Different Between a Satisfied and an Engaged Employee?

Many leaders mistakenly think that increasing employee satisfaction will increase employee engagement and motivation. Satisfaction is transactional and contractual. In return for their work, you promise to provide employees with the basics: compensations, tools, and resources, physical safety, dignity, and respect. Both the organization and the employee must continue to make constant deposits in the relationship “bank account.”

Satisfied employees 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 that doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to say no to other offers. A satisfied employee does not equal workforce engagement.

Changing Our Minds About Engagement

When it comes to the all-important bottom line, employee engagement (not job satisfaction or employee happiness) matters. This is why it’s so important to get employee feedback on their engagement levels by conducting an employee engagement survey. These survey results provide you with engagement scores that give you a better idea of where your workplace falls under the employee engagement spectrum. Ultimately this will allow you to create an employee engagement strategy to improve your work engagement.

It’s a powerful engine for not only improving your company culture but for growth and profit. When defining employee engagement, it is important to recognize that it is a 50/50 proposition with the responsibility to become engaged between the employee and the responsibility to create an engaging environment on the organization. Employee engagement is creating a workplace culture where both the organization and the employees become engaged.

Read the authoritative book on employee engagement: ENGAGEMENT MAGIC: Five Keys for Engaging People, Leaders, and Organizations.

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Meaning: A Key to Employee Engagement – Connecting Hands, Minds, Spirits, and Hearts

MAGIC: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Employee Engagement

Employee engagement is much more than ensuring employees are “satisfied” with aspects of their jobs, including compensation, benefits, and basic work conditions. Engagement refers to the passion and energy employees bring to their work—the discretionary effort they put forth as a result of the quality of the employee/employer relationship.

Meaning is the first “key” in the ENGAGEMENT MAGIC® employee engagement model. What is Meaning? It’s a very real and personal connection between what you value and the work you do. Your work is something of value—something of worth. It is a major part of your self-identity, or at least involves a connection between who you are and what you do. In order to be engaged at the highest level, you must see the significance of your work and how it allows you to contribute to a greater purpose. You must personally connect to the mission of the organization, and see a clear intersection between your role and your values.

What is the source of a person finding Meaning in their work?

For one of my clients, the director of Emergency and Trauma Services for a successful regional hospital system, the meaning is clear—anyone who receives an email from him sees, as part of his signature line, the following quote:

“Is nos operor, sic alius may ago”
“This we do, so others may live”

For him and his staff, the meaning is inherent in the work they do. In this high-stress, fast-paced environment of emergency medicine, they are able to face the daily job challenges with the knowledge and conviction that they are, quite literally, saving lives. As the daily pressures pile up, that connection between what they do and what they believe is apparent. This leader ensures meaning is never lost. Each team member finds meaning in what he or she does, and each knows the importance of his or her role in driving the mission of the organization.

But what is the relevance to you and me? Are we clear about the meaning of our own work? What if our work isn’t about “saving lives?” And what if the connection between our personal value system and the day-to-day work we perform isn’t as obvious?

Meaning: A Key to Employee Engagement

In order to find meaning in our work, we must clearly see the connection between what we value and what we do. For some, assembling a piece of equipment connects with a love of technology. Or it may connect to an innate desire to provide superior customer service by providing the best technological solution. Or, perhaps that piece of equipment is a pacemaker, which may be used to save the life of a father of two. That meaning is different for each of us. However, if we don’t see the link, our engagement is not as high as it could be. We might need our leaders to make the link between our hands and our hearts and minds—the connection between our work activities and how we think and feel about them.

Leaders must help employees find meaning in their jobs.

If leaders want to maximize employee engagement, then they must take an active role in connecting the work with a higher purpose. Steve Jobs wanted to “make a dent in the Universe,” and his most engaged employees wanted to help him do just that. They had the sense that their effort (and, under Jobs, suffering) was worth it because their efforts would change the world.

Jack Welch helped employees, from the top of the organization to the bottom, to see the link between their efforts and “winning,” and he wrote the book on how to do it. As a result, GE employees typically see themselves as unflappable winners who are always ready for the next challenge.

What have you done, or what have you seen leaders do to make the “meaning” connection for employees in your organization? What advice do you have for making a strong connection among hands, hearts, and minds? What results have you seen in terms of employee engagement?

Without Coaching and Goal-setting, Your 360 Degree Feedback Process is a Waste of Time and Money

Feedback is a vital part of performance, growth, and development. Understanding ourselves and how we interact with others helps us to understand the impact we have on those around us. The perceptions of others within our circle of influence, whether those perceptions are accurate or inaccurate, determine our level of success. Regardless of the accuracy of these perceptions, our interaction with others both influences and is influenced by the perceptions of others. This is where 360 degree feedback enters into the picture.

Based on the philosophy that individuals should receive a full 360‐degree picture of performance by gaining multiple perspectives, multi‐rater feedback gathers input about an individual’s performance and behaviors by soliciting feedback from those stakeholders impacted by that individual. Similar to the 360 degrees of a circle, an individual is figuratively at the center of that circle, and feedback is gathered by way of a survey from those in positions to observe that person in action: supervisors, direct reports, peers, customers, etc.

engaged your workforce connection

The use of 360 degree feedback, has increased dramatically over the past two decades. Some estimates suggest that as many as 90% of all Fortune 500 firms use some type of multi‐rater feedback with their managers. However, the success of 360 degree feedback programs varies greatly. The question that rises to the surface is, “what makes a 360 degree feedback program successful, versus one that fails miserably?”

In studies conducted by DecisionWise researchers over the past decade, we have found some interesting facts about making the 360-degree feedback process more effective. Two areas stand out more than any others: Coaching and Goal Setting.


The first DecisionWise study regarding the effectiveness of 360-degree feedback was conducted in a two-year study with a group of 345 managers from a large multi-national technology consulting firm. Each of these managers had participated in a 360-degree feedback assessment earlier that year. A total of four different 360 feedback surveys were used for this group, meaning not all completed the same 360 feedback instrument. However, on each of the assessments, these managers received feedback from supervisors, direct reports, and peers.

Six months after completing the 360-degree feedback survey, DecisionWise asked these managers via an online survey to self-evaluate their perceptions of the survey effectiveness. They were asked to rate the degree to which they agreed with two overall statements:

  1. Overall, I feel that the 360-degree feedback process is effective.
  2. I have made meaningful positive change as a result of the 360-degree feedback I received.

They were also asked to rate various elements of the process, such as whether the administration of the survey was simple, whether they received coaching, and if they had set goals based on the survey. The results of this research were very telling:

92% of those that received coaching reported that the overall 360-degree feedback process was effective. In contrast, only 34% of those who did not receive coaching felt the process was effective.


For purposes of this study, the concept of “coaching” was left to the interpretation of the manager being rated. For some, this meant a simple debrief in which he or she sat down and reviewed the results with his or her supervisor, peers, mentors, or and outside coach. For others, the idea of coaching was deeper, and included more extended coaching sessions. This was intentionally left to their interpretation, as the desire was to allow the participant to determine the level of coaching needed in order to get the maximum benefit from the assessment.


A follow-up to this study was conducted two years later and nearly identical results were found. This study went one step further, and asked a number of raters (those providing the initial feedback on these managers) whether they had noticed changes in the managers’ behavior and performance after the 360 assessment. An analysis of the results of the raters’ responses showed a clear correlation between the self-reported effectiveness (the managers’ ratings of the process and their subsequent improvement) and the change noted by these managers’ raters. These correlations provide further support to the theory that coaching and goal setting dramatically improve the outcome of a 360-degree feedback process.
Further analysis also showed that when participants had set specific goals to address areas of their 360 feedback, it was far more likely that their 360 feedback showed significant improvement the following year than when goals were not set. This finding added additional weight to the theory that goal-setting is key to improvement.

Findings summary

The research yielded some additional interesting insights:

92% of those who responded positively to “I received sufficient coaching” answered positively to “Overall, I feel the 360 process is effective.”

87% of those that set goals felt the 360 process was effective.

94% of those that received coaching and set goals felt the 360 process was effective.

Conversely, only 34% of those who did not receive sufficient coaching felt the 360 process was effective.

Less than 40% of those that did not receive coaching set goals based on their 360 feedback.

Just half of organizations provide 360 feedback coaching

One interesting note—despite what we clearly note in these studies, we find that less than half of the organizations using 360-degree feedback today emphasize coaching and goal setting as part of the process. These studies leave little doubt as to the importance of coaching and goal-setting in making a 360 process more effective, and appear to indicate that a large number of organizations conducting 360 assessments could dramatically improve the return on their investments.

So, do you want to ensure your feedback process is effective? Add goal setting and coaching. The research seems to clearly point out that these two factors make the difference between 34% feeling their multi-rater feedback was helpful, and 94% saying the process was effective.

360-Degree Feedback Survey Download

Learn how to coach on 360 degree feedback results

Related Post: Top 10 Leadership Coaching Issues

Related Post: 3 Principles of Effective Leadership Coaching

Related Post: 5 Reasons to Use a Leadership Coach

Leadership Coaching in 2019: What type? Who gets it? Who does it?

Leadership coaching has become one of the most effective and important activities for developing leaders in organizations. In fact, a recent poll conducted by ATD found that 47 percent of all respondents ranked coaching and feedback as most critical to their organization’s success in the next three years.

Download 360-degree feedback survey sample.

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Many organizations recognize the need and value of providing coaching to leaders as part of a leadership development process. Research shows that people that have used a coach indicate that it is the single most valuable leadership development activity they have experienced. So, what is holding so many organizations back from providing their employees with the value of leadership coaching? You guessed it: cost and time. We also find that many organizations don’t know what coaching is, who should receive it, and how it should be done.

What type of coaching?

There are many different types of organization coaches: career coaches, life coaches, performance coaches, and so on. For our purposes, we are going to focus on the role of a performance coach used for leadership development.

Performance coaching is about helping individuals to set and reach goals for both personal and business development. Most times this is an ongoing process where the person meets with the coach on a regular basis (weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc.). During these meetings the coach helps the person set goals and overcome obstacles for success. The coach provides accountability and support so that the person can reach individual goals. This process is often aided by using a 360-degree feedback assessment, where employees are able to get a well-rounded view of their performance.

Who gets coaching?

Effective coaching can benefit everyone, but most organizations need to be able to focus their development resources where they have the greatest impact. For this reason, many companies provide coaching to their executive and senior leaders, high potential leaders, and some of those key players that might be exhibiting poor performance or ineffective behaviors.

engaged your workforce connection

Who does the coaching?

Coaching can be conducted by an outside coach, an internal coach, a supervisor, or a peer. The following are some examples:

Outside coach
Many organizations choose to use an outside coach to work with senior leaders. Often, an internal coach is not in a position within the organization where he or she could be considered a legitimate coach, or there may be confidentiality concerns about using someone inside the company as a coach. When using an outside coach, it is important to find those that have extensive coaching experience and relate well with the individuals being coached. Using an outside coach is also quite common with, for want of better words, “problem children.”

Internal coach
Internal coaches are often effective with mid-level managers in the organization. These coaches need to be able to establish a relationship of trust with the participants so that there is no concern that what is discussed will be used against the participant. Leadership coaching skills do not come naturally to most people. Internal coaches should be skilled at providing coaching and developing others. These abilities are often the result of solid training and practice.

Boss as coach
Certainly, a person’s boss should also be his or her coach. Unfortunately, the boss may not have the skills or the time to be effective. Supervisors should play an important role in any coaching scenario by providing support and follow-up to ensure that progress is taking place. As with other internal coaches, a supervisor’s coaching effectiveness can be greatly improved through training.

Peer as coach
Peer coaching can be very effective and economical. The idea is that leaders are paired up to provide coaching to each other. They take turns playing the role as coach and help each other reach development goals. It is important to create the right pairing, provide training, and set proper expectations. These groups also need follow-up to ensure that coaching is happening on a regular basis.

Supportive Ecosystem for Coaching

Final thoughts

You may find that you are using some or all of these leadership coaching methods in your organization. To get the greatest value from the process we recommend that you use a 360-degree feedback assessment, set a development plan (think SMART goals), and make sure that your coaching process is consistent and ongoing.

360-Degree Feedback Survey Download

Managing Your 4 Key Talent Groups

4 Keys to Understand 360-degree Feedback Surveys

Do you have formal methods for identifying the talent that exists throughout your organization? If so, does the management team have a common language to describe different talent pools?

Leaders Need Feedback. Download 360-degree Feedback Survey Sample

Successful organizations are effective at identifying their talent and taking the appropriate actions to utilize and develop their people. There are many ways to quantify the human capital in a company. Some like to use the familiar labels of “A, B, and C Players.” Other organizations use complex models that include many groups and tiers within each group. As we work with organizations to identify and evaluate talent, we often use language around following four groups:

  • High Potentials (aka, “Hi-Po”)
  • Top Performers
  • Strong and Steady Performers
  • Low Performers

Of course, there are different shades within each group, but for the sake of simplicity we use these labels to help leaders quantify talent and make human capital decisions.

In order to place individuals in these groups, we most commonly assess them based on three factors: operational results, people skills, and growth potential. The relative scores in each of these areas help determine where to place each person (see below). The following definitions also provide development recommendations for each group.

High Potentials

In every organization there are a rising stars. Regardless of title, they show the potential to be future leaders in the organization (or at least to move to the next level). They bring up new ideas and create opportunities. They bring competency and raw talent that has the potential to continue to grow and mature. They are eager to learn, and are willing to take risks. They want to grow and be successful, and they work well with others. These people make up the organization’s High Potential pool. They have the ability to lead innovative projects, improve existing processes, establish networks and relationships, and bring energy, enthusiasm, and growth.

Often, the critical value of High Potentials is undervalued, even ignored. These valuable employees may even leave the organization in search of opportunity elsewhere. Hi-Pos are your “Super-Keepers”; the people the organization goes out of their way to invest in. They must be given growth opportunities and challenging assignments. Assign them a mentor, give them access to other functions, and expose them to customers. When High Potentials see a path to realize their goals in your organization, they will remain actively engaged.

  • Operational Results: Med-High
  • People Skills: Med-High
  • Growth Potential: High

Top Performers

In every organization there are a handful of individuals that “make a real difference.” They are the MVPs of the organization, making the big plays.

They are at the top of their game, and they know it. They are comfortable being Top Performers. They want to continue doing what they are currently doing so well—they like what they’re doing, and it shows. They are counted on to deliver superior results. They are reliable and have earned the respect of others. Top Performers influence important decisions, make significant contributions, and motivate others to achieve.

Over time, the important contribution of Top Performers may be taken for granted. Ensure that they feel valued, developed, challenged, and recognized. Reward them as Top Performers.

  • Operational Results: High
  • People Skills: High
  • Growth Potential: Med

So, how does a Top Performer differ from a High Potential? The reality is that in day-to-day performance, there may be little noticeable difference. Both are achievers. Both are at the top of their game in their current roles.

However, a High Potential has the ability (and need) to continue rising through the organization. While a Top Performer may have the eventual potential to move to the next level, he or she is often at the peak of his or her level of competence—at least for the time being. Yet, many organizations fail to realize this. They aggressively promote the Top Performer into a position where the Top Performer is now only average (or below average!). Not only has the organization added one more average performer to the ranks of failing leadership, but it has lost an extremely valuable Top Performer.

Strong and Steady Performers

At the core of most organizations are the Strong and Steady. These are the organization’s solid citizens—the loyal workers providing a solid foundation of knowledge, skills, and experience. They play an important role in defining standard practice, common knowledge, and core competence. These are the people that keep the operations going. They serve the customer, both internally and externally.

Strong and Steady employees are loyal workers. They are generally in it for the long-term, so long as their basic needs are met. They need good management, fair policies, clear direction, and the necessary tools and training to keep going. Engage the Strong and Steady employees to contribute their best at work. Develop their skills through regular training, coaching, and feedback.

  • Operational Results: Med
  • People Skills: Med
  • Growth Potential: Low-Med

Low Performers

Almost every organization has members that are not performing well, even if we would claim otherwise. They struggle with the current responsibilities. Their challenges can be with the work itself, their relationships with others, or both. If their problem is with delivering results, it may be that their work is low quality, or their level of output is unacceptable. If their problem is with building relationships of trust, it may be that they are unable or unwilling to collaborate.

Often, Low Performers are aware of the situation and feel stuck in a rut. Being labeled a “Low Performer” may be useless to the individual, but providing options may help them decide how to make progress. Sometimes, Low Performers are simply unaware of their situation. They do not know they are underperforming, or may not understand how their behavior impacts others in the organization.

It is, obviously, in the best interest of all parties to resolve a Low Performer’s situation. Three approaches are:

  • Improve performance in the current job through training, goal setting, etc.
  • Find a better fit within the organization
  • Leave the organization

A Low Performer may overcome the current challenges, make a turn-around, and go on to achieve success. A person may fall into the Low Performer category in one job, yet flourish in another position better suited to their skills and interests. If the first two approaches won’t resolve the situation, terminating the relationship is also an alternative that provides both parties new opportunities.

  • Operational Results: Low-Med
  • People Skills: Low-Med
  • Growth Potential: Low

Final Thoughts

As you think through (formally or informally) your own talent groups, it is important that senior leaders understand and know how to use these groups. It’s not about labels, although these do help us speak a common language when assessing talent. However, it’s vital that employees know where they stand, as well as the development options they have in order to become more successful.

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What Employee Engagement Is Not

They're in the planning phase of their project

Many definitions are thrown around today to describe employee engagement.  Some of these definitions include references or similarities to other common organizational behavior terms, to the point where “engagement” has become a catchphrase that includes all the positive feelings and qualities that we want in employees.  If it’s a positive behavior, we lump it into the “engagement” category.  However, this creates a good deal of confusion as many try to define engagement for their particular organization.

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So, let’s take a different approach.  Let’s address what employee engagement is not first:

  • Employee Engagement is not Satisfaction.  Satisfied employees are content with their pay, working environment, and the job they do.  Satisfaction must be in place for employees to be engaged (it’s the “price of admission”) but it does not cause an employee to be passionate about her job, nor does it cause an employee to throw his heart, hands, and mind into his work.
  • Employee Engagement is not Happiness.  Employees can be happy at work but not necessarily engaged in their work.  A fun working environment can contribute to engagement, but it may only make your employees happy without contributing to engagement.  We’ve seen plenty of employees who are happy with their jobs (think “Dude, it’s so easy . . . I don’t have to do anything but sit all day and watch YouTube”), but are not engaged in their work.
  • Employee Engagement is not Motivation. Motivation is a component or result of engagement in one’s work.  Engaged employees feel motivated to do their best because the conditions for engagement have been met.  Additionally, motivation does not always equate to action (I’m motivated to diet, but that sure doesn’t mean I’m going to).
  • Employee Engagement is not Empowerment. Autonomy or empowerment is a component of engagement, but some mistake being empowered with being left alone.  The opposite of this, of course, is to be powerless and micromanaged.  Empowerment also often ignores the fact that engagement is a choice.  While I may be empowered, once again, I may not act.

So what is engagement?  Let’s keep it simple: employee engagement is a state and a behavior that makes employees feel passionate about their work, and give their hearts, hands, and minds to that work; it leads to employees caring more and contributing more to their work and their companies; it is driven by experiencing meaning, autonomy, growth, impact, and connection in one’s job.

Any other terms you would add to the list? How would you describe employee engagement?

Listen to Podcast: ENGAGEMENT MAGIC, Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Employee Engagement, Listen as David Mason, Ph.D. discusses the five essential ENGAGEMENT MAGIC keys (Meaning Autonomy Growth Impact Connection) that managers need to cultivate lasting employee engagement with their teams.

2016 State of Employee Engagement Report

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Related Webinar: ENGAGEMENT MAGIC®: The Five Elements of Employee Engagement
Related Training: Engagement MAGIC® Training