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What Drives the Most Engaged Employees?

Statistical analysis shows that the most engaged employees are motivated in some distinct ways from other employees.

In our previous study, we focused on the drivers of employee dis-engagement by looking at the statistical differences between the bottom 10% (most disengaged) employees and everybody else. The logical next step was to look at what motivates employees at the other end of the spectrum. This time, our research focuses on the most engaged employees and how the things that motivate them are a bit different from everybody else.

The three lists below show the survey questions that are most highly correlated with overall engagement for all employees compared to the top 20% (most engaged) employees and the top 10% (most engaged) employees. We have included three lists in order to illustrate the progression of the key differences between the groups. As our focus on the most engaged employees narrows, the differences become more distinct.

The key differences between the most engaged employees and everybody else are highlighted in bold.

All Employees
Top 10 Drivers of Engagement
  • Respect for Employees - This organization respects its employees.
  • Fairness - Everybody is treated fairly in this organization.
  • Trust - There is an atmosphere of trust in this organization.
  • Respect for Management - The leaders of this organization really know what they are doing.
  • Values - The actions of our senior leaders support this organization's mission and values.
  • Teamwork and Cooperation - It really feels like everybody is on the same team in this organization.
  • Respect for Management - Our senior leaders demonstrate strong leadership skills.
  • Respect for Management - The senior leaders in this organization are highly ethical.
  • Personal Expression - People with different ideas are valued in this organization.
  • Personal Expression - Our senior leaders are genuinely interested in the opinions of all employees.
20% Most Engaged Employees
Top 10 Drivers of Engagement
  • Personal Expression - People with different ideas are valued in this organization.
  • Fairness - Everybody is treated fairly in this organization.
  • Values - The actions of our senior leaders support this organization's mission and values.
  • Respect for Employees - This organization respects its employees.
  • Empowerment/ Autonomy - Employees are given the freedom and authority they need to make necessary decisions.
  • Personal Expression - Our senior leaders are genuinely interested in the opinions of all employees.
  • Accountability - People are held accountable for achieving goals and meeting expectations.
  • Respect for Management - The senior leaders in this organization are highly ethical.
  • Teamwork and Cooperation - It really feels like everybody is on the same team in this organization.
  • Values - High ethical standards are always maintained throughout this organization.
10% Most Engaged Employees
Top 10 Drivers of Engagement
  • Personal Expression - People with different ideas are valued in this organization.
  • Empowerment/ Autonomy - Employees are given the freedom and authority they need to make necessary decisions.
  • Fairness - Everybody is treated fairly in this organization.
  • Values - Everybody in this organization lives up to the organization's values.
  • Accountability - Poor performance is effectively addressed throughout this organization.
  • Accountability - People are held accountable for achieving goals and meeting expectations.
  • Fairness - Favoritism is not an issue in raises or promotions.
  • Teamwork and Cooperation - It really feels like everybody is on the same team in this organization.
  • Personal Expression - Our senior leaders are genuinely interested in the opinions of all employees.
  • Communication - Information and knowledge are shared openly within this organization.

To clarify what these lists are showing... the first box lists the items that are most highly correlated with overall engagement for "all employees" - that is, everybody who completed the survey across more than 150 companies. In the middle box, we looked at the same correlations, but we only included employees who had overall engagement scores that placed them in the top 20% of all survey respondents. In the third box, we included just the top 10% of employees.

The first thing to note is that the three lists are more similar than they are different. The themes of fairness, respect, teamwork, values, etc. are important to everybody, including the most engaged employees. For the sake of brevity and clarity, we have only listed the top ten items on each list, but where there are differences that are not highlighted, the items generally fell just outside the top ten.

However, the highlighted items are distinct to the most engaged employees. These items are well below the top ten drivers of engagement across all employees. To confirm this finding, we included the third list, which indicates that accountability and empowerment become even more important as we narrow our focus.

Employee engagement graph
Lastly, the prominence of the Personal Expression item for the most engaged employees is worth noting since it is at the top of second and third lists. This same item is still in the top ten for all employees, so it is an important driver of engagement for all employees, but it does appear to have a potentially more important role for the most engaged employees. We have chosen not to focus on this area because the result is less conclusive and distinct than the differences noted within engagement and accountability.

(Research Note: We also looked at engagement drivers for the top 5% (most engaged) employees. Accountability and Empowerment rise to the top two positions on this list. This suggests that the trend continues, but the statistics are less reliable because the group size is smaller, and because it is likely to contain a higher percentage of "outliers" - people who gave unusually high scores on the survey without really answering the questions in a thoughtful manner. Therefore, we have not included these findings.)

Engagement and Performance

We make an assumption when we look at the most engaged employees - we assume that these employees are, by and large, also top performers. This assumption is supported by the survey questions that stand out among these groups. Top performers want to be empowered so they can perform at their best, and they want to see themselves and others held accountable for achieving results.

On the other hand, in companies that do not empower employees or hold people accountable, it is reasonable to assume that some of the most talented employees would be more likely to be disengaged.

Empowerment, Autonomy, and Accountability - Conclusions

For companies that are interested in driving engagement to the highest levels, our research indicates that the way to do this is by empowering employees and by making sure that all employees are held accountable for achieving results. Moreover, these areas are important for attracting, retaining, and motivating the most talented employees. People who value empowerment and accountability will be discouraged in companies that do not promote and support these things. By contrast, poor performers might enjoy the safe haven of a company that does not demand accountability. These are employees who might have high levels of "satisfaction", but they are likely to be adding little or no value, and even worse, discouraging the talented people around them.

Empowerment, autonomy, and accountability must be addressed from several angles in order to be effective:
  • Formal company policies, procedures, and processes should foster empowerment and autonomy where possible and appropriate, and they should require accountability at every step and at every level.
  • The company culture needs to support empowerment and accountability. This can start with formal processes and policies, but the actions, communications, and signals sent by management need to engrain these things in the culture of the organization.
  • Managers at all levels are where the rubber meets the road. Individual managers will have the biggest day-to-day impact on their employees in these areas. The organization needs to provide the framework and support that managers need. Then, it is ultimately up to each employee's manager to dictate the level of autonomy that employees have, and to define goals and hold all employees accountable for achieving results.


And finally, let's not forget the similarities on the three lists of engagement drivers. Empowerment, autonomy, and accountability stand out as uniquely important to the most engaged employees, but higher levels of engagement cannot be achieved through these things alone. The things that motivate all employees and the most engaged employees alike are just as important.

Fairness stands out as a top item on all three lists, which indicates that this area is an especially important driver of engagement. Respect, values, trust, teamwork, personal expression, and communication (openness) are also areas that matter to all employees, including the most engaged employees. Engagement won't happen without these things, and the steps noted above can be applied to these areas as well.






* Research findings based on statistical analysis of employee engagement survey results from more than 18,000 employees across more than 150 organizations. The survey questions that are listed are those that are most highly correlated with the average score on all engagement survey items for each employee in the group. The groups consisted of the top 10% of respondents, the top 20% respondents, and all survey respondents.

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