Business Leadership Today

The 14 Drivers of Employee Engagement


Matt Tenney, Author of Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process

According to the 2023 State of the Global Workplace report by Gallup, employees who are not engaged or actively disengaged cost the global economy $8.8 trillion. This loss in productivity equates to 9% of the worldwide GDP.

Companies continue to pour money into employee engagement strategies that fail every year. Many of these strategies fail because they do not address the most common needs people have for thriving 

For employee engagement strategies to succeed, they have to be focused on meeting the universal needs employees have for thriving. 

These needs underlie and drive engagement. When they aren’t met, employees disengage. Implementing strategies that address these needs will drastically improve employee engagement. 

The 14 drivers of employee engagement are clarity of expectations, having the tools required to do one’s job, doing work that leverages one’s strengths, recognition, growth, feeling heard, meaningful work, excellence, belonging, feedback, autonomy, trust, well-being, and feeling cared for by leaders.

In this article, I’ll cover the following: 

Employee Engagement Explained

Employee engagement refers to the degree to which an employee is motivated to do great work, passionate about their work, and committed to the organization and its mission. 

Types of Engagement

Workers fall into three categories of engagement: engaged, not engaged, and actively disengaged.

Engaged: Engaged employees have a profound emotional investment at work that helps them derive a greater sense of purpose at work. This not only increases their respect and concern for their colleagues, but it also fosters a commitment to the organization’s objectives and aspirations.

Not Engaged: Employees who are not engaged tend to show minimal dedication or passion towards their work. They might perform the tasks assigned to them, but, because they aren’t fully invested in the organization’s prosperity or aligned with its vision, they are unlikely to go above and beyond for their customers or colleagues.

Actively Disengaged: Disengaged employees lack the commitment engaged employees demonstrate. These employees aren’t just unhappy in their roles; they can make their co-workers unhappy in their roles by spreading negativity that ends up causing them to disengage. 

There are three dimensions of employee engagement: cognitive (the extent to which employees focus on their work), emotional (how an employee feels about their organization, co-workers, and leadership), and physical (the employee’s attitude towards their work, engagement in work activities, and the physical and mental effort they expend while performing their jobs). 

When employees are cognitively engaged, they’re committed to their job; when they’re physically engaged, they’re invested in their work; and when they’re emotionally engaged, they have an emotional connection to their work.

Impact of Engagement

Engagement is a critical metric for organizations because it can have a tremendous impact on so many aspects of an organization. Engagement can profoundly impact an organization’s absenteeism and retention rates, customer ratings and customer retention, and performance, all of which profoundly impact profitability. 

When employees are engaged, they are more motivated on a daily basis, more loyal to the organization, less likely to leave for another opportunity, and more likely to recommend the organization to others. 

Engagement enables them to stay self-motivated, clearly understand their roles, feel a strong sense of purpose in their work, view what they do as impactful and important, develop a continuous improvement mindset, and feel a strong sense of belonging within their team and within the organization, all of which improve performance. 

In hybrid and remote workplaces where employees need to be even more self-motivated (and self-disciplined and accountable), engagement becomes even more crucial for success.

Unfortunately, employee engagement cannot be improved with fancy perks. We have to dig deeper than the surface perks that are more focused on employee satisfaction or employee happiness to find what drives employee engagement and implement sound strategies based on those drivers to see real improvements. 

Employee experience is one factor that drives employee engagement. The best way to improve employee engagement is to provide an employee experience where employees feel valued, respected, supported, enabled to grow, aligned with the organization, and empowered to do great work. 

How Employee Engagement Is Linked to Employee Experience

Employee experience is made up of all the interactions that happen during the employee lifecycle, as well as the experiences that involve an employee’s role, work environment, workplace culture, leaders, and how their leaders demonstrate a commitment to their growth, success, and well-being. 

Employee experience shapes employee perceptions, which, in turn, influence how they respond to and engage with their work. Employees who view their employee experience positively are much more likely to work harder, take pride in their work, and provide a positive customer experience because they are also much more likely to be engaged.

When an organization provides a positive employee experience, they see improvements in customer satisfaction, greater innovation, and generate 25% higher profits than organizations that do not provide a positive employee experience.

Creating a positive employee experience in your organization paves the way for high engagement. When the employee experience is negative, it shapes employee perceptions in negative ways, which makes it harder for them to connect to a purpose at work.

To create a high-engagement culture, organizations have to first create an employee experience that is consistently positive for employees at all levels of the organization. 

Identifying and implementing the best strategies for the effective management of employee experience and employee engagement requires commitment from senior leadership, identifying the universal needs that drive employee engagement, streamlining the feedback process, and making that process responsive. 

How To Develop an Effective Employee Engagement Program

The first step in the process of developing an effective employee engagement program is getting senior leadership to fully invest in and commit to the process.  

Step 1 – Frequently remind leaders that their primary job is to inspire greatness—to inspire engagement.

Employee engagement is the best predictor of whether or not an organization will effectively execute the strategy. Organizations with high levels of employee engagement are roughly 20% more productive and 20% more profitable than organizations with low levels of employee engagement.

Employee engagement is something that everyone should be thinking about, all year long. Leaders at all levels need to be reminded regularly that their top priority is to inspire greatness in their team members, so that they prioritize activities that drive engagement and remove obstacles that can hurt engagement, instead of over-focusing on tasks and short-term metrics.

A simple process for achieving this is to have all managers print a document that reminds them of what their primary job is:

My primary job is to inspire greatness in my team by serving as a coach who helps people to be happy, great human beings, who do great work.

Once leaders have this printed, they should create a calendar event that reminds them to read this document several times a day for at least 30 days. Every time leaders read this, they’ll be more likely to take some action that helps bring out the best in their team members, and team members will feel more cared for as a result. 

The second step in the process is identifying the universal needs that drive employee engagement.

Step 2 – Identify the universal needs people have for thriving at work.

The second step to creating and sustaining an environment that helps employees thrive both professionally and personally is to identify the universal needs that people have for thriving.

According to Gallup, 70% of employee engagement is driven by direct supervisors. Employee engagement is driven by how well leaders, and most importantly, direct managers, meet the 14 universal needs people have for thriving and being engaged at work

We have identified the 14 needs for thriving that are very strongly correlated with employee engagement and retention, supported by decades of research. And these needs are essentially universal—almost everyone shares these needs for thriving at work and being engaged.

14 Universal Needs

  1. Clarity of Expectations
  2. Having the Tools Required to Do One’s Job
  3. Doing Work That Leverages One’s Strengths
  4. Appreciation / Recognition
  5. Growth
  6. Feeling Like Opinion Matters / Is Heard
  7. Meaningful Work
  8. Excellence
  9. Belonging
  10. Feedback
  11. Autonomy
  12. Trust
  13. Well-Being
  14. Feeling Cared for by Supervisor

I’ll discuss these 14 drivers of engagement in greater detail in the next section of the article.

The third step in the process is streamlining the feedback process so that you have an accurate and current assessment of how engaged your team members are. This can be done by frequently measuring how well you are meeting employees’ needs. 

Step 3 – Get regular feedback—in small digestible bits—on how well direct supervisors are meeting the universal needs people have for being engaged at work.

Once you’ve identified the universal needs of employees for thriving at work, managers need to get regular feedback from their direct reports on how well they’re meeting those universal needs. Although large, broad surveys do have their place later on, they are generally not the best way to start your efforts to consistently drive high levels of employee engagement. 

To drive high levels of engagement, you should start with one small survey with just one or two questions that are focused on meeting just one element of the 14 universal needs. To make the most impact the fastest, spend the first six months to a year only asking how well supervisors are meeting the needs of their direct reports.

Because 70% of employee engagement is driven by direct supervisors, this helps make the biggest impact the fastest. We can get feedback on organization-wide issues later; by getting feedback in small, digestible bits, it’s easier for employees to provide feedback.

This process allows employees to see action being taken on their feedback within days of completing the survey. Surveys should only be open for two to three days. You may not get responses from every employee on every survey, but the speed with which you take action on the feedback is much more important.

When leaders focus on universal needs first, engagement efforts are most highly leveraged. After addressing the universal needs with sound engagement strategies, you can then uncover and meet unique needs.

There are several survey and non-survey approaches you can utilize at different points to gather feedback and measure engagement:

Survey Approaches: Annual employee engagement surveys, pulse surveys, and employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS) surveys.

Non-Survey Approaches: 1:1 meetings, stay interviews, exit interviews, retention rates

The fourth step is making that process responsive so that employees see action taken on their feedback as soon as possible.

Step 4 – Help managers quickly respond to feedback by synchronizing feedback with training in bite-size bits.

Building trust alone can dramatically improve engagement. This is why research from Gallup suggests that engagement is nearly three times higher when employees strongly agree with the statement:

“My organization acts upon the results of surveys I complete.”

The secret to quickly and consistently improving employee engagement is to ensure that employees see meaningful action being taken on their feedback as fast as possible.

Ideally, direct supervisors should take at least some action within three to five business days of the survey closing to improve their ability to meet the needs addressed. Although this may sound impossible, there’s a simple hack that will allow you to easily respond to feedback almost immediately.

Rather than getting feedback from employees and then spending time coming up with a plan for addressing deficiencies after the feedback comes in, you should have a brief video training ready to go that helps managers more consistently meet the needs of their employees before a survey even goes out.

For instance, if you know you’re going to send out a survey on appreciation, you should have a brief video training ready that is focused on a simple habit for better showing appreciation, so that managers can watch and take action on the training as soon as they get the feedback from their team members.

This approach is extremely important for several reasons:

  • Managers are more open to learning with this process
  • It makes it easier to take action
  • There’s almost no interruption
  • Employees see action immediately

With this approach, you can build a virtuous cycle of employees sharing feedback, feeling heard, and quickly seeing action taken on their feedback. With each cycle of this simple process, employees have more confidence and trust in their managers and the leadership team.

The 14 Drivers of Employee Engagement

As mentioned in step 2 above, there are 14 universal needs employees have for thriving and fully engaging with their work. These drivers of employee engagement can help us forge successful and sustainable employee engagement strategies.

1. Clarity of Expectations

A lack of clarity is a significant source of anxiety and frustration.

Employees can experience conflict on a daily basis when their duties and responsibilities are unclear. This can raise stress levels, erode confidence, and decrease motivation. 

Providing clarity on expectations and setting goals with employees makes it easier to increase alignment between an employee’s goals and the larger goals of the organization, helps employees focus more energy on achievement, and allows leaders to better gauge an employee’s performance. 

2. Having the Tools Required to Do One’s Job

Lacking the tools to do one’s job can be just as frustrating as being unclear about expectations and goals. This one may seem like a no-brainer, but when it is overlooked, it can cause serious productivity issues and create confusion around expectations. 

To produce high-quality work, avoid delays that can cause setbacks, and avoid unnecessary stress, all workers need access to the right technological tools to do their jobs. 

For employees to thrive, especially when working autonomously, they need the right technology, to be supported, and to be empowered in ways that help them build confidence. 

Equipping your employees with the tools they need to work with autonomy is just as important as giving them autonomy. This means not only trusting employees to work autonomously but also providing them with the technology and support they need to work autonomously and empowering them in ways that build confidence. 

3. Doing Work That Leverages One’s Strengths

The more time people spend doing work they enjoy and are good at, the more likely they are to be engaged.

According to research from the Gallup organization, only one in three employees strongly agree that they have the opportunity to do what they do best every day. And, by doubling that ratio, organizations could realize a 6% increase in customer engagement scores, an 11% increase in profitability, a 30% reduction in turnover, and a 36% reduction in safety incidents.

After you have identified the areas where an employee is naturally strong, spend less time working on fixing weaknesses and more time finding ways to help them do more of what they are naturally good at. 

Leveraging employee strengths by putting team members with diverse strengths on a team can supercharge collaboration, and providing challenging assignments can boost individual team member engagement. 

4. Appreciation / Recognition

People need to feel recognized and appreciated for their contributions in order to continuously perform well.

Recognition builds trust, boosts team morale, increases employee retention and loyalty, and improves performance.

According to research, 69% of employees say they’d work harder if their efforts were recognized at their workplace. When employees’ contributions are recognized, they are up to 10 times more likely to strongly agree that they belong with the organization, and 80% of employees report being more productive when recognition and rewards are utilized to motivate them.

Acknowledging and celebrating the hard work, achievements, and successes of employees with rewards lets them know they are valued and the work they do has an impact. 

5. Growth

People need to be continuously growing to build engagement. Growth can help employees feel more confident in their abilities, more committed to the vision, and more engaged with their work.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that a lack of opportunities for advancement was among the top reasons US workers quit their jobs last year. The survey also found that those who quit and are now employed elsewhere are more likely than not to say their current job has more opportunities for advancement.

Whether through career pathing, tuition reimbursement, or specialized training opportunities, employees need to be able to grow and develop their skills, build new knowledge, and see a clear path to advancement in order to stay motivated in their roles. 

6. Feeling Like Opinion Matters / Is Heard

People need to feel like they’re making a contribution with ideas that are at least considered.

Active listening is the most important part of the communication process and essential for building engagement because employees are more motivated and invested in their work when they are included in the decision-making process.

To meet this need, give employees a voice and encourage them to use it. Leaders need to really listen to their employees and respond to what they are saying so that they are empowered to fully participate at work. 

7. Meaningful Work

The average person would give up roughly 23% of their income to do consistently meaningful work. According to McKinsey & Company, over the past 30 years, American workers have identified meaningful work as the most important aspect of a job— more important than income, job security, and the number of hours they work.

When an organization has a strong purpose that employees can unite around, it provides a strategic compass that guides decision-making and drives engagement and performance 

Leaders define and reinforce employees’ sense of purpose by tying it to the work employees do each day and the larger mission and vision of the organization. Leaders can help team members find purpose in their work by setting expectations that are tied to the organization’s larger vision and reflective of its culture and core values. 

8. Excellence

People inherently want to do a great job. Helping employees remove obstacles to achieving excellence can improve their engagement as well as their performance. 

Part of the process of achieving excellence is helping employees break the bad habits that impede performance. It can be difficult for employees to do this on their own. Many training and development programs may produce short-term results, but unless habits change, they will not produce lasting change. 

If leaders can make the shift to more consistently serve as coaches whose primary job is to inspire greatness, they can help their team members overcome bad habits and thus meet a very important human need (the need to be excellent) that is very difficult to meet on their own. And they’ll be creating lasting change in the process. 

9. Belonging

Having a good friend at work is one of the strongest predictors of retention.

A sense of belonging at work keeps morale high, improves cohesion, helps collaboration, and is linked to higher motivation. It also prevents work environments from becoming toxic. 

To support a sense of belonging in the workplace, organizations should be committed to policies and strategies that support an inclusive work environment for all employees and strengthen cohesion, cooperation, and collaboration. 

10. Feedback

People need regular, helpful feedback to grow.

For employees who are not performing, exchanging feedback with them can help them determine where things are going wrong, where improvements can be made, and what those improvements should be. 

In a feedback-rich culture, employees receive regular, helpful feedback from direct supervisors, and they are empowered and encouraged to provide meaningful feedback to co-workers and leadership.

11. Autonomy

People need to feel that they have as much control as possible over their lives. Giving employees the flexibility they need in the form of autonomy can be a great way to help employees thrive and engage with their work.

Autonomy has been identified as a major factor in the job-seeking habits of workers, with 42% of Millennials indicating they would choose a job that allows them to work independently on projects of their choice. 

Autonomy isn’t just about allowing (and trusting) employees to work remotely when possible. 

It is also about believing in and trusting employees to do the work well, independently or as a member of a team, and supporting an environment of accountability where employees can take ownership of their roles, identify their strengths and improve their weaknesses, and see the way their work impacts the organization as a whole.

12. Trust

People need to trust their coworkers and, most importantly, their leaders.

A high level of trust is critical to maintaining a positive work environment where employees do great work and work well together. The more employees are trusted and the more trust they have in leadership, the more satisfied they are in their roles—and the more likely they are to stay.

Compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies experience the following:

  • 74% less stress
  • 106% more energy at work
  • 50% higher productivity
  • 13% fewer sick days
  • 76% more engagement
  • 29% more satisfaction with their lives
  • 40% less burnout

Keeping communications open and transparent and letting employees have more control over their work are great ways to build trust with team members. 

13. Well-Being

Negatively impacting well-being is strongly negatively correlated with engagement and retention.

Employee well-being often suffers in many organizations, with overwork, lack of recognition, and toxic work conditions raising stress levels and leading to high absenteeism and turnover. 

One of the leading drivers of employee engagement is whether or not employees feel their leaders care about them and are invested in their well-being. When employees are engaged in their work, it boosts their mental well-being. 

In order to support employee well-being, leaders should be aware of the potential impacts of decisions on employee well-being and should always put people over profits. 

14. Feeling Cared for by Supervisor

Perhaps the most powerful driver of engagement and the foundation for meeting all other needs.

In his book Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone To Take Action, Simon Sinek tells us, “Leadership is not about being in charge. Leadership is about taking care of those in your charge.”

Studies show that a caring organizational culture can make a profound difference in how announcements about layoffs, financial instability, and crises of internal or external origin are received in the workplace and act as a buffer for “bad news.”

This is why the most important employee engagement strategy is developing a culture of care that consistently demonstrates to employees that they are valuable members of the team.

Additional Engagement Drivers

In addition to the 14 universal needs above, each individual has needs for thriving that are unique to them. These needs are often best identified by employees’ direct supervisors through meaningful, 1:1 conversations.

As the link between employee experience and employee engagement is strong, strategies that support a positive employee experience can also support high engagement.

Some drivers of employee engagement that also support a positive employee experience are flexibility, a positive work environment that is psychologically safe, equitable, and inclusive, and goals that are achievable and aligned with the vision.


According to a 2021 Jabra report on hybrid work, 59% of survey respondents said flexibility is more important to them than salary or other benefits, and 75% said they’d rather work for a company that gives them the flexibility to work from anywhere.

Flexibility is increasingly important to job seekers, and a lack of flexibility has been cited as a top driver of turnover in recent years. The pandemic showed us that for employees to stay engaged and thrive in a job, they need the flexibility to take care of things in their personal lives.

We don’t always know what’s going on in the lives of our team members or what kind of stress they may be encountering at home that can carry over to work. 

Consider the number of employees who are in a caregiver role, caring for a child, elderly parent, or family member with a disability. According to a recent Harvard Business School study titled The Caring Company, 73% of all employees have some type of current caregiving responsibility. 

Caregiving can be a full-time responsibility. It can create situations where employees need to change or reduce work hours, use leave time for caretaking responsibilities, or even leave their job (or their profession) due to the stress of juggling their personal and professional obligations.

Giving employees the flexibility they need to manage these responsibilities can improve their engagement dramatically and help them be more present at work. 

A Positive Work Environment

Creating the necessary conditions for successful collaboration and strong team cohesion requires that we provide a positive work environment that is psychologically safe, equitable, and inclusive. Keeping toxic behaviors out of the workplace is essential for maintaining engagement. 

Toxic situations can involve harassment, microaggressions, unequal treatment of employees, or behaviors from senior management that devalue others and make them feel expendable. It can create a psychologically unsafe work environment that negatively impacts engagement. 

Toxic employees poison culture by creating a work environment that is disconnected from an organization’s professed core values. When this happens, talented employees will disengage and leave.  

Top leadership can ensure organizational culture stays true to a company’s mission, vision, and core values by addressing toxic situations as soon as they arise so they don’t impact engagement or cause irreparable damage to the positive culture leaders and their teams have worked to create.

They can also implement policies and processes that are equitable and inclusive so that all employees can engage and fully participate at work. 

Achievable Goals

One of the common reasons employees may fail to engage is that unachievable goals are being set for them. 

To ensure the goals we set for teams and individual team members are achievable and vision-focused so that they can fully engage with their work and build confidence, leaders and team members should work together to set S.M.A.R.T. goals.

S.M.A.R.T. goals are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.

  • Specific: Setting a specific goal helps employees narrow their focus and ensures there is no ambiguity around what is expected of them. 
  • Measurable: Making the goal measurable connects it to a single performance result and helps employees chart their progress. 
  • Achievable: Setting achievable goals ensures that expectations are reasonable and possible to meet. 
  • Relevant: Making sure the goal is relevant to the larger purpose or vision can keep employees intrinsically motivated. 
  • Time-bound: Making the goal time-bound can help employees avoid procrastination. 

This objective-setting technique involves employees in the process and ensures that performance expectations are realistic so that employees can stay engaged with their work.

Matt Tenney has been working to help organizations develop leaders who improve employee engagement and performance since 2012. He is the author of three leadership books, including the groundbreaking, highly acclaimed book Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process.

Matt’s ideas have been featured in major media outlets and his clients include numerous national associations and Fortune 500 companies.

He is often invited to deliver keynote speeches at conferences and leadership meetings, and is known for delivering valuable, actionable insights in a way that is memorable and deeply inspiring.

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