3 Terrifying Secrets to Real Employee Engagement

The author says there are 3 key problems that prevent employees from being fully engaged in an organization and explains how to overcome them.

I was listening to a podcast the other day focused on the link between employee engagement and performance and found myself thinking, “He’s so right, AND he’s missing the point.”  

The presenter was talking about two phrases as being key indicators of employee engagement. His premise was that if an employee can agree to – say “yes” to — both these statements, then the employee would be fully engaged.

Those two phrases are:

  • Every day at work I know what is expected of me.
  • Every day at work I get to do something I love.

For most of us who have studied leadership at any level, these two statements seem pretty straightforward and seem to make sense. Many organizations have employee engagement surveys that contain these exact phrases asking employees to rate them on a scale of “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”. And most organizations charge their managers and supervisors with ensuring that their employees do, in fact, respond “agree” or “strongly agree” to both statements.

So why isn’t it working? Why are there still employees who disconnect (dis-engage) themselves from the team, drag their feet on getting work done, constantly find fault with their colleagues, the system, the boss (all in the best interests of the organization, of course), or otherwise disrupt the productivity and atmosphere of the team?

After 27 years of studying what makes people do what they do, first as a handler of spies, later as a senior executive, and now as a transformational coach, I’ve learned that there are 3 key problems with these statements that have them falling short and leaving our employees less than fully engaged.

Problem 1

The statements are in the wrong order. To maximize employee engagement, and therefore productivity, the first focus should always be “Every day at work I get to do something I love.”

When a person is doing something they love, they put more energy behind the activity, are more resilient and creative when things don’t go as planned, and have more tolerance for the things they don’t love that are attached to the pursuit of the things they DO love. For example, I love training, coaching, and helping people experience their own greatness. That love is what gives me the energy to write – something I’m not really wild about — BUT is the pathway that allows me to reach those who need and want my support.

Traditionally we’ve been taught to believe that enjoyment is irrelevant to one’s professional duties and responsibilities. We hear mentors talk about fulfillment, but it often shows up like a booby prize. “My job is sucking the life out of me, but the mission of my organization matters so that’s good enough.” “I don’t live to work, I work to live.”  

In government service, in fact, we’ve taken lack of enjoyment to the next level under the guise of “sacrifice for the needs of the service” – wearing stress, frustration, or burn-out like a badge of honor.  

Which leads directly to…

Problem 2

The statements assume that there is no direct connection between doing something I love and what is expected of me at work. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite! The traditional cultural assumption in government service is that it is not POSSIBLE for the thing that is expected of you to also be something you love.  

Oh, there might be a few really lucky rascals who manage to line those two things up, but for most normal people “doing something I love” becomes the extra duty you try to squeeze in on breaks or at lunch. Or the thing you disguise as a “special project” that is tangential to the core mission of your work unit. The thing that lines up with the core mission of your work unit couldn’t possibly be something you actually enjoyed, could it?

And, finally…

Problem 3

The statements mimic the historic relational dynamics of parent/child or principal/student. I’ve even heard managers say that supervising employees is “just like being a parent.” How condescending! And you wonder why you have trouble motivating your team?!? 

The unspoken message is that an employee has no valid decision-making capacity of his own and, absent specific direction from a higher manager, couldn’t possibly know what he needed to do to contribute to team objectives.   

To be clear, yes, I’ve seen units where the team wasn’t completely sure what objectives the team was striving for and therefore really had no idea what was expected of them, collectively or individually. And, yes, it does fall on the unit leader to establish overall objectives for the team.  (Though even that does not – in fact, should not – happen in a vacuum.)

But approaching employee engagement from the perspective of telling each employee exactly what to do, when, and how – otherwise known as telling someone how to suck eggs — shuts down the energy of innovation and inspiration that leads to engagement, personal growth, and leadership.

Making a Change

Just because this is way it has always been, does not mean that’s the way it has to be. And the best news is…

YOU can shift this starting today. This very minute even!


Step 1: Take charge of yourself

Regardless of whether you are a supervisor, a manager, or a line employee.  It’s your career and your life.  Don’t wait for things to be different.  It’s up to you to choose “different”…even if it’s scary.  (Need some help? That’s what I’m here for.  I’ve got your back.)


Step 2: Shift the statements to questions

  • How can I do more of what I love today? (Not tomorrow or someday.  Today.)
  • How can doing more of what I love help my team meet our objectives today?

Remember to sue BOTH these questions.  Stopping with only one will leave you and others flappin’ in the wind.  And wind flappin’ is where the scary feeling comes in.

Step 3: Don’t tell anyone you are operating this way. 

Just keep choosing in favor of those things that light you up on behalf of your team. 

(NOTE: Be sure your bases are covered on those bits you don’t like until your covert operation gains traction and those bits shift or fall away on their own.)  

Experiencing greatness in government starts with experiencing the greatness in you. You become the ripple in the pond. How can you do more of what you love at work today?

About the Author

Martha Wilson is a retired CIA Operations Officer, leadership instructor, transformational coach and the founder of Greatness In Government, a leadership and personal development firm that specializes in re-energizing mid-career government employees. Organizations that are struggling with complaints about bad leaders, discrimination, bullying and other symptoms of employee dissatisfaction hire her when they are ready for a fresh approach to leadership training. She also provides private coaching to high-potential government employees who have decided to assume responsibility for their own personal and professional development.