Employee engagement is the perennial business challenge. Last month Forum ran a poll on just under 100 of its customers. 52% of respondents said that improving employee engagement was a top priority for them in 2014.

Get it right and the rewards can be endless. According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace Report, October 2013, a highly engaged workforce brings a slew of tangible business benefits such as 22% greater profit margin, 21% greater productivity and 65% lower employee turnover.

Yet, according to Gallup only 13% of staff worldwide are engaged. This 13% are willing, even eager, to do whatever it takes to make a meaningful contribution to the success of the organisation. They show up, not just physically but mentally and choose to expend their discretionary energy in their work. Just imagine the output if all the workforce applied this same mentality?

Studies have shown that one reason for low engagement levels is poor management practice from first-line managers through to C-level leaders. In a Forum study on ‘How to engage networks of people’ 17% of staff cited the negative workplace climate and 49% blamed their manager’s behaviour – in particular their unappreciative and unhelpful manner – as the two biggest detractors to engagement. And, in numerous studies we have found that climate and manager’s behaviour are interlinked; a leader’s actions impact environment and motivation more than any other factor.

Yet, last year Forum found that leaders are still displaying the typical traits of a ‘bad boss’ which is breeding mistrust, which in turn impacts motivation. Around 30% of staff in EMEA said they trust managers less today compared to past years because leaders fail  to take responsibility when things go wrong. Lying, taking credit for others’ ideas or blaming employees unfairly, gossiping, poor communication and lack of clarity were the most common characteristics of a leader whose team have little trust in.  Staff with low trust in their leaders were moderately engaged while those with high trust were highly motivated.

It shouldn’t come as any real surprise that poor leadership is a key contributing factor to the low levels of engagement in businesses when only one in five managers is qualified to lead a team, according to reports by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS).

For first-line leaders, the situation is even worse, as training spend tends to be much lower at this level compared to higher management, yet we know that they impact roughly 80% of the workforce. Statistics from CareerBuilder show 58% to 80% take up a leadership position without any relevant people leadership skills development.

This ‘sink or swim’ mentality is leaving many first-line leaders disengaged and, if they’re not engaged, they will struggle to find the discretionary effort they need to energise their team.

Lack of training and development in people leadership skills often results in managers applying a ‘one-size fits all’ approach when trying to inspire a team but it’s important that a leader knows what specifically motivates and engages individuals to get the best from their people. What inspires one person may not interest another.

From our research, Forum has developed the following five distinct areas of engagement, to help leaders identify, understand and relate to individual needs. Employees typically experience all five needs to some degree but may also place a greater importance on some, more than others:

  • Enjoyment (“I enjoy my work”) is those individuals more engaged by fun work settings and where they have opportunities to interact in positive ways with others they value
  • Belonging (“I belong here”) is for people who are engaged by feeling that they are members of a community and have an emotional connection to the organisation
  • Advancement (“I’m getting ahead”) is for those motivated by the opportunity to build their skills and contacts
  • Recognition (“I am valued”) inspires those feeling that their efforts are noticed and appreciated
  • Accomplishment (“I am productive”) is for people driven by feeling that their efforts are benefiting a greater mission or purpose.

Some of these needs are more group-orientated such as a sense of ‘belonging’ where as others are more individual like ‘feeling valued.’ Areas such as ‘needing a fun and supportive workplace’ refer more to the day-to-day workplace while others like ‘opportunities for career advancement’ are more long-term.  Great leaders that energise their team understand which of these needs engages the individual or group the most and finds opportunities to develop these needs.

Forum did find that ‘belonging ‘ and ‘enjoyment’ were rated as the most important drivers of engagement among staff. That’s not to say the other needs are unimportant and may be very significant to specific people, but this finding does suggest that we are ‘social creatures’ and that we find environments engaging that respond to our social needs.

In fact, a recent global generation report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) found that their  millennial workforce place the highest importance on a sense of teamwork and community at work more so than their non-millennial staff.  The findings showed that millennials have great expectations in being supported and appreciated for their contributions and to be part of a cohesive team whereas non-millennials are more inspired by pay and career development.

What the PwC report reinforces, once again, is the need to identify the individual’s motivational needs.

Regular individual coaching and informal feedback can help leaders understand individuals better and work out which activities ‘press’ their engagement drivers, whereas group discussions are a way to stay in touch with how engaged the team is feeling. If there are any de-motivated members of the team then find out why and review their personal goals and the environment to assign them tasks that get them back on track. Arguably most importantly, leaders must also set the tone. Given a manager’s behaviour is responsible for shaping the majority of a workplace, leaders must be energised themselves and seen to be motivating others if they want to build a highly charged and productive workforce.

Productivity is key to the future success of any company. Pay rises, jobs and career development are all reliant on the output of a business but unless there is a highly engaged workforce with energy to drive the business forward, productivity will only diminish and staff at any level will feel the impact. To keep the wheels moving and the engine running, on full throttle, companies need to ensure their leaders are equipped with the right people management capabilities. But, as we have seen from the PwC report, times change and with that, different things motivate and inspire individuals coming through the business. So, teaching leaders motivational techniques is much more than a one-off lesson in engaging people. It’s about continuous learning and development programmes so leaders are forever refining their skills to spot shifts in the workplace and the changing motivational needs of our ever evolving workplace.

By Graham Scrivener, Managing Director of Forum EMEA, a global leader in leadership development and sales training solutions. 

Forum EMEA hosted a Webinar: ‘How Great Leaders Drive Results Through Employee Engagement’ on 5th March 2014.  To register to hear a recording of the discussion, please visit the Forum EMEA website on