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Expert Kevin Kruse Spills All the Secrets About Employee Engagement

Kevin Kruse presenting

Kevin Kruse is the New York Times best-selling author of Employee Engagement 2.0 and We: How to Increase Performance and Profits Through Full Engagement.

His interview with SafeStart was conducted over the phone on April 6, 2018. It has been slightly edited for length.

Interviews with other experts on this subject are also available on our engagement page.


There are several different definitions of engagement and a lot of confusion surrounding what engagement is. Can you please provide your best definition of it?

When I talk about and sort of evangelize employee engagement, to me it’s the feeling of emotional commitment to the organization we work for and its goals. It’s this emotional feeling that we care about the company and its goals. And I think where some of the misunderstanding comes in, is that a lot of people think that employee engagement means that we’re trying to make the workplace fun and everyone happy—and I’m not against fun or happiness—but sometimes when you’re engaged you might feel a little tension or stress. It’s not about balloons, parties and picnics, it’s about caring about the mission of the organization and its goals.

It also gets confused with employee satisfaction, which is similar but doesn’t raise the bar high enough because there’s a lot of people who are satisfied at work but they’re still going to take that headhunter phone call, go on that job interview, if it means they can make 5 or 10 percent more pay. So engagement is really that caring beyond the paycheck, beyond the perks, caring about what the organization is trying to accomplish.

How do you measure engagement? How can you determine whether your employees are engaged? Alternatively, what is not effective in measuring engagement?

I think the classic way, which I do think is effective, is employee surveys. Asking questions that are really proxy questions to get at engagement because if engagement is a feeling, we can’t x-ray each other to see what our engagement level is on the inside. We have to ask questions that kind of get at that.

I once wrote an article about comparing measuring engagement to measuring how much we are in love with our husband, wife, or significant other.  There’s no scientific way to look inside of us and see our love-o-meter is at a 10 versus a 5 or whatever it is. But if I asked you questions about if you’re married and if I asked you whether you’d recommend to your best friends that they also get married. The odds are if you’re still madly in love with your spouse you’d be more like to recommend marriage to your friends. If you’re really satisfied in your marriage you’re probably less likely to be thinking about cheating with other people.

And that in the business world is the same correlation as: am I likely to refer my friends and family members to come and work at this company? And how often am I thinking about looking to get a job elsewhere, you know, cheating on my employer? So it’s just the classic employee surveys that use good questions that are proxy questions at these emotional feelings. Sometimes companies don’t survey at all and other times they survey but they never really ask those kinds of questions. So you need both.

You say that engagement comes from the ground up and that employees and front-line managers are the key. How do you work this with the more traditional top-down approach seen in many organizations?

The reason why most organizations fail at their engagement efforts is that they’ll do the survey, but, just as you suggested, those survey results are sort of only shared at the highest levels of the company. Or even if they’re shared throughout, the ideas for improvement only come from the top level of the company.

So let’s say the survey suggests that communication is the weakest item, you know on the survey, that’s the thing that we should focus on the most. The traditional top-down approach is that the head of HR will tell the CEO, you need to send out your newsletter every month instead of every quarter, that’s going to improve communication, you know it’s these kinds of ideas.

The grassroots says, listen, we’re going to do the survey. Every manager gets her own scores and sees how she compares to the rest of the company, so there’s none of this blaming like well it’s not my fault they’re disengaged we have a crummy healthcare plan, or we had a bad quarter or the CEO is a jerk. Well, when you all have the same jerk CEO and the same benefits and the same everything, you all had the same bad quarter and yet you’re below average, well then other people are finding ways in your company to still get higher results.

Every manager needs to get his or her own score, see how it compares to the other managers, and then the ideas for improvement if I’m told if I’m a manager and my lowest score is communication, I need to have that action plan meeting with my own team and say, hey listen, we need to do a better job on communication, that’s clearly what we’re all saying in this survey, what would great communication look like on our team?

And you can obviously see how unlike the frequency of the CEO newsletter, even if everybody in a company had communication as the lowest item, which is unlikely, but let’s say they did, you know improving communication in the IT department might look different than improving it in the sales department. The issues, the failures of communication and what that means will be different department to department, team to team. You’ve got to just push those scores down and ask the teams to come up with their own solutions.

In your opinion, how does engagement tie into safety?

It ties directly into safety and anecdotally the companies that call me in the most to help them with their results or do talks are the ones where safety is paramount. So it’s numerous hospitals and health care systems, who are trying to reduce medical errors and patient slip and falls and avoidable infection rates because somebody forgot to change a catheter or something like that. It’s the elevator companies, it’s the Union-Pacific railroad, who makes safety job 1 and then knows that an engaged team member is going to be one who basically cares.

If I show up at work engaged, I’m going to be more mindful of my environment, I’m going to care more about the safety procedures around me whether that’s wearing a hard hat on site or whether it’s tying off to the pole when I’m doing repairs, whether it’s not looking at my cell phone while walking down the tracks, whatever it might be. Obviously, safety is different in each organization but in organizations where safety is paramount, there’s a direct link between engagement and accidents. Whether it’s healthcare, manufacturing, etc.

There are studies that show that engaged workforces have significantly lower injury rates. Do you have any theories as to what aspects of employee engagement would be driving these positive safety outcomes? More specifically, can you explain the correlation between engagement (or lack of engagement) and business measures?

The connector is just discretionary effort. When you are engaged you are exhibiting discretionary effort in all aspects of your job. That does mean you’ll sell a little harder if you’re a salesperson, you’ll be a little more patient and provide better service as a service professional but it also means you’re going to care about the safety goal of the organization, you’re going to care about the policies and procedures, the safety procedures and requirements of the job so that extra effort goes into all areas including safety goals and mindfulness around safe practices.

Through all of the research and writing you’ve done on the topic of employee engagement, what has been the biggest “aha moment” for you where you discovered something counterintuitive, highly insightful or impactful?

I think my “aha moment” was the personal impact that engagement has, the spillover and crossover effect. The fact that the people who are disengaged at work have lower marital quality than people who are engaged at work is pretty mind-blowing. The fact that people who are disengaged at work, their children are more likely to misbehave in school—that was really hard for me to believe. That like my mood about work has some impact tomorrow on what my kids are doing in school.

It’s just that our emotion, as much as we wish we could bottle them up and keep them at work, it doesn’t work that way. So when we come home from a bad day at work or we’re disengaged you know we’re more likely to ignore or to even yell at our family members. And they, in turn, internalize that. They’ll withdraw or act out in their own way in the next day or two. So I think that was the part that surprised me most.

In your experience, what do you feel has been the most impactful way of getting leaders inspired to work on and improve engagement?

I don’t think it’s a mystery, it’s just that you have to make it a priority for them. We’re all so overworked and overwhelmed, and doing more with less. And so if a manager’s quarterly objective, annual objectives, annual bonus is tied to volume output, number of units or number of sales, or producing a certain number of reports in less time and that’s it, that’s what they’re going to spend most of their time thinking about and working on. When you actually then include, hey by the way you’re also going to be measured on and compensated partly on your employee engagement results, miraculously they put more attention on those results and their team engagement improves.

A lot of people confuse engagement and culture, can you explain the difference between the two?

I think culture can drive engagement. To me, I think again engagement is a feeling we have culture is the spoken and unspoken values, rules and norms that an organization has that sort of defines what’s acceptable behavior.

Do you think there is any one person responsible for engagement at a company?

There’s no one person but the Gallup research is clear that over 70% of the variants in engagement has to do with who our immediate manager is. The buck really does stop with the front-line manager. It’s not the only variable, he or she is not the only one, but the vast majority of our engagement comes from our relationship with our boss.

What would be the drivers for engagement?

In most of the big consulting companies and research companies, they all see about a dozen drivers of engagement, they give them different names. The big ones that get you over 70% of what you need are growth, recognition and trust.

Growth is we all want to be learning and doing challenging work and advancing in our careers. Recognition is just feeling appreciated by our boss and our peers. And trust isn’t really, I’m not talking about ethical trust, that’s sort of the low bar to jump over. This is the need to trust that our leadership has a plan for the future, the future is bright. We know where we’re going, we’ve got a good leadership team that’s taken us there. So it’s trust in the future it’s really a future confidence.

So when you do growth, recognition and trust right you’ll get over 70% of what you need in terms of driving those feelings of engagement.

Once you have garnered a good level of engagement, is it something that companies need to continually strive to maintain it or does it tend to sustain itself once the organizational framework has been developed?

You need managers who have developed habits of engaging leadership. That includes saying thank you when it’s deserved and showing recognition when it’s deserved. It means giving effective feedback, both positive and constructive, always. It means reminding everyone of the mission of the company, the big hairy audacious goal of the company all the way down to the annual or quarterly objectives.

If you stop working with people on their growth and development, if you stop recognizing people, if you stop talking about the future then engagement will drop. You need to really continuously do all three of those things.

Speaking of the company’s vision/mission, how does that factor into their engagement?

There’s no data that I’m aware of that a mission statement or a vision statement, you know the thing on the wall, has any impact on engagement. What has an impact on engagement is when we know what the future plan is. Where are we going? What is the plan? And we believe we’re getting there.

So it’s less about the mission statement and more about, is my manager, is the leadership talking about it, reinforcing it, laying it out. It’s something that needs to be done over and over again. You can never over-communicate that strategic plan or priority.

Could this be compared to safety messages like a vision/mission statement that comes from the top? If the company decides: we want zero injuries or “safety is all” but they don’t actually have the workers involved in the creation of the safety messaging or in the creation of the values and mission, then the workers are not really feeling that they contributed to it and so they’re not engaged in it.

You know, we kind of a leadership fundamental is: we will fight for and protect the things that we have built ourselves. So the more that this is my company, not just your company, the more likely it is that I will be engaged and do all the right things and care about safety. So I think one way to do that is to help in the creation of those goals, help in the dissemination of those safety goals, I mean the more you can get the team members involved the better.

Is there a difference between engaging the younger generation and the older generation of the more tenured staff? If so, what must be done differently to bridge the gap between the two?

Managing and engagement with the generations has been such an in-demand topic over the last couple years and yet I have still not seen one piece of evidence that there’s any generational differences. What you do see is an age difference or a tenure difference. So the 20-somethings, for example, care more about growth and development than people who are in their 30s, 40s or 50s. People who are in their 50s care more about recognition than anyone in their 40s or 30s or 20s.

Now is it because they come from different generations? No. It’s because when we all are in our 20s, we’re just starting our careers, so that’s the time where we do want to learn and develop and to be hard-charging and all that. When we’re in our 50s or 60s we’re less interested, doesn’t mean we have no interest, but less interested in learning new skills for the next decade or two but we want people to recognize that we just put in a solid decade at this company or look what I’ve done for this company thus far. We care a little more about recognition in our final few years. So it’s more an age thing than a generational thing.

If employees become disengaged, is it really hard to re-engage workers?

There’s a subtlety in the answer in that there really isn’t just engaged and disengaged. There’s levels of engagement and if you go to Gallup, they have three buckets. There’s engaged, there’s disengaged, but most people are in the middle just not engaged, they’re not all in and they’re not actively disengaged.

In most organizations that most negative group actively disengaged is around 10%, you know maybe it’s 8% maybe it’s 14%, something like that. It’s very, very difficult to ever get that lowest group of disengaged people engaged. They’re the opposite, so it means they don’t like the company, they don’t like the company’s goals, they don’t like the company’s mission. They would never tell anybody to apply for a job there, they are actively looking for a job elsewhere. It would be really hard to move them all the way to the other side.

However, in most organizations, the bulk of your employee base, probably 50% give or take, is going to just be the not engaged—so not disengaged but not engaged. And that’s the group that you can move. They’re going to cluster around average managers. And so you get the average managers to start doing some of these leading for engagement habits, leading for engagement behaviors and you can move that middle group into the engaged group at the higher end.


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