At work, engagement is lacking; so is meaning

To say the global workforce is lukewarm on work is an understatement. A recent survey shows lower motivation and levels of loyalty, continuing a five-year slide in those measures of employee engagement.

Dow Scott has learned plenty about engagement, through research as a professor and through time as a consultant to numerous companies, at the corporate level and on the production floor.

Scott, the co-author of a recent study on retention of key talent, said the main way to keep employees interested is simple. “At the end of the day, they want meaningful work,” said Scott, who now works at Loyola University in Chicago.

That’s the first of his three ways to keep employees engaged. Here’s more on each:

What is meaningful work?

How do you find meaning in a seemingly humdrum job? That’s sometimes a function of the employee’s level of intrinsic motivation. Sometimes, the motivation falls on the boss.

“I worked with a guy (whose division) produced 30 million pairs of underwear,” Scott said. “He could convince people that that was meaningful. ‘Meaningful’, to me, has a notion of purpose: We have a contribution to make, and it’s not just to the bottom line and making money for stockholders. It’s about contributing to society, the community.

“The big thing is, communicate that to employees. How does the company contribute, and how does that person contribute to the overall value?”

“Meaning” is a nebulous word, but a vital one. With more employees admitting to less loyalty to their current employer, engagement is critical in retention.

“People try to play around the edges,” Scott said. “They don’t go to the heart of the matter, which is, I think, meaningful work.”

Recognise your employees—and reward them

This is the first of a two-part engagement strategy. Employee-of-the-month recognition programmes do not work if they are not tied to some past good work.

“Too many companies want easy answers, and they want a recognition programme,” Scott said. “But unless the person can connect it to a contribution they’ve made, that recognition is pretty false.”

Scott cited one example in which a company’s employees thought so little of a recognition programme, which was not tied to measurable contribution, that one employee was embarrassed to be named the winner. The employee who thought of himself as next in line to win the award often would not show up to work that day.

He said companies should have a pay system that reinforces that employees are adding value.

One Harvard study showed that the most powerful workplace motivator was employees’ tendency to measure their own performance against that of others. That is why recognition-and-reward systems work.

Give your employees influence

This could be distilled to one act employees seem to want more of from their managers: listening.

“If you don’t feel like you have some influence, it’s hard to feel that what you’re doing is meaningful,” Scott said. “It can be discussions, ideas, flexibility.”

Scott counts flexible scheduling options as part of a worker’s influence. “Give them control over their work environment” and chances are they’ll feel better about work.

He uses the example of a customer-service employee who must follow a set of guidelines when dealing with a complaint. Sometimes, the employee is required to refer the customer to someone else instead of taking care of the customer issue. This frustrates the customer and the employee.

Employees feel empowered if they can solve problems on their own.

“It’s very easy to leave a job if you don’t feel you have much of an impact,” Scott said.

Additional CGMA resources:

How to develop a strong and interdependent team”: One of the roles of a finance leader is to be the developer of the team’s skills and talents. To be successful, leaders must enhance their skills in developing a strong and interdependent team.

Rebooting business”: Valuing the human dimension: The human dimensions of business—for example, customer and supplier relationships, talent development as well as intellectual capital—will be the focus in the months ahead.

Neil Amato ( is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.


Global workers about their jobs: Blah

Global workers have grown weary of the workaday world.

More than one-third of the global workforce feels disengaged, with roughly the same percentage of workers believing that barriers at work keep them from excelling, according to research from Hay Group, a global management consultancy.

The study of more than 1,600 companies in 46 countries shows workers lacking motivation, possibly looking for another job—and dragging down company performance.

Read more in CGMA Magazine