The ABCs of Employee (or Board Member) Engagement

a b c blocks
Lisa Hochgraf Photo
Senior Editor

2 minutes

Motivate people by meeting their needs for autonomy, belonging and competence.

In her presentation at CUES Symposium in late January, Kathleen O’Connor, Ph.D., told attendees that research shows how engagement drives not only employee retention but also company profitability.

A professor at Cornell University and London Business School and a lead faculty member for CUES’ CEO Institute II: Organizational Effectiveness, O’Connor defined engagement as “a positive work-related state of fulfillment that is characterized by vigor, dedication and absorption.” She said that by meeting certain needs, companies could boost engagement of employees or board members. The key needs—autonomy, belonging and competence—make up her “ABCs of engagement framework.”

Autonomy: People like to be in charge of themselves and make their own decisions. They want to organize their own work schedules. When a boss tells them how to do something, they might think, “There are multiple ways to get this job done. Yours may work, but mine may, too.” 

Belonging: People want to interact with others and be connected to and experience caring from others. They take pride in being able to say things like “We achieved this” or “I was selected to be part of the group.”

Competence: People appreciate leaders who help them play to their strengths. They might say, “When I’m using my strength, I feel more engaged.” But this doesn’t mean people should be pigeonholed, O’Connor said. “People also want to develop new strengths and take on a stretch assignment.”

If you can find ways of helping people meet their needs, they will be more engaged, O’Connor said. But it’s not easy. 

Too often, people do not have enough autonomy—which would include the opportunity to control how they spend their time, the projects they work on, how they organize their work or which tasks they will be responsible for, she explained. 

O’Connor also cited research that showed that employees were more likely to leave an organization if they were excluded than if they were sexually harassed. “When people feel left out, this is real,” she said. “Social exclusion causes the same part of your brain to light up as the part that lights up when you feel physical pain.”

Finally, people want to play to their strengths. Ask yourselves, “Are we encouraging our managers to support this idea?” she suggested.

“If we can find a way to meet those needs, we will have a more engaged workforce,” she said.

Lisa Hochgraf is senior editor for CUES.

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