Engagement in the Workplace: A Choice That Matters

Excerpt from The Search for Meaning at Work: Unleashing the Hidden Power of Purpose to Engage and Fulfill Your Workforce by Steve Van Valin, SVP of Culture Transformation

It’s important to get calibrated on the definition of the term engagement as it relates to work. I see it as a choice. It’s a conscious and subconscious choice to apply our energy, talent, and care to any effort, large or small. 

I estimate we make hundreds of these choices throughout a given day — whether to speak up in a meeting, check your email a third time for grammar and tone before pressing “send,” or serve a customer in a way that will delight them. These are choices that matter. When you add up these positive choices across the total organization, you create and scale a high-performance culture with an entirely new set of accountable expectations.  

Engagement in the Workplace is a Spectrum

Although there are many other engagement definitions out there by credible sources, most of them seem to miss the mark on engagement by not seeing it as a living, organic, and active element in the psyche of employees. Engagement is highly variable. 

The truth is I might be totally fired up and engaged at 8 a.m. to start my day, but after a discouraging conference call, I’m completely checked out and watching the clock to escape for lunch by 11 a.m. Then, after a great exchange with my boss at 3 p.m., I’m recharged to take on a tough challenge to finish the day with a victory.  

How do you possibly measure something as variable as engagement in the workplace by doing a once-a-year survey? I always tell my clients that a yearly engagement survey is just a small snapshot in time to give you a feel for how things are trending. 

We are losing the battle despite the near obsession that employers have an increasing engagement. 

So what’s going on? 

Meaning & Purpose Are the Heart of Employee Engagement

It’s obvious that most companies know what they want, but they don’t know how to get there. No matter how many initiatives they launch, no matter how many motivational and productivity consultants they might bring in, these companies seem unable to engage their employees. 

The reason is that they are failing to get to the heart of workplace engagement; there’s a missing sense of meaning and purpose. If meaning and purpose are missing in the workplace, no consultant or program is going to effectively change how employees feel about their work. 

What’s most important to American employees in today’s post-pandemic workplace? 

According to a 2022 survey, “purpose” is at the top of the list, topped only by “benefits” and “flexible hours.” This underscores the recent shift in employees’ personal and professional priorities, reinforcing the need for employers to look beyond the symbols of perks and benefits, placing equal importance on the substance of purpose and its impact on engagement. 

So, inevitably, it comes down to the one-on-one, everyday events that shape culture and individual employee engagement. The battle for engagement is won or lost in the trenches, by the granular and seemingly innocuous exchanges and choices that take place in the course of working through the day. 

Who is the primary shaper of these exchanges? 

It’s the manager. Managers play a crucial role in determining whether the events positively or negatively impact people’s ability to make progress in meaningful work.