Attract, Engage, and Retain Employees—Create a Workplace People Love

Leaders need to provide the autonomy and flexibility for employees to find ways to love the job. And allow different people to have different ways of loving the same job.

In my “Leading Edge” column in Training’s June online issue, I explained how I was going to write a series of articles on Marcus Buckingham’s latest book, “Love + Work.” Buckingham is on the podcast circuit and I was able to catch up with him for my podcast, Becoming a Sage. It will be posted in the next few months. But until then, I will share what I learned in “Leading Edge.”

Plenty has been written about the Great Resignation in which people are quitting their jobs in record numbers. At the same time, most industries are struggling to fill jobs. Buckingham is adamant that it is time to design work people love. He believes we have created loveless workplaces.

Buckingham defines “love” as work that gives energy, nourishment, and strength. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow”—“a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.” When you are in the state of flow, time flies by. Buckingham refers to these flow activities as your “red threads.” Life (at home, work, school, community) is made up of many threads and some of them are red—an energy gain rather than drain.

Help Employee Find Their “Red Threads”

To help motivate and engage employees, Buckingham says leaders need to help employees find their red threads. It starts with treating employees as whole human beings rather than a set of hands or just workers.

Buckingham believes it starts by paying attention to employees. Loneliness was an epidemic before the pandemic and has only gotten worse. In the May-June 2022 issue of Harvard Business Review, Buckingham had the cover story “Designing Work that People Love.” He states, “The most powerful predictors of retention, performance, engagement, resilience, and inclusion do not include pay or liking one’s colleagues or work location or even a strong belief in the mission of the organization.” These three questions were better predictors:

  • Was I excited to work every day last week?
  • Did I have a chance to use my strengths every day?
  • At work, do I get a chance to do what I’m good at and something I love?

Based on decades of research working with individuals in organizations, Buckingham concluded that when leaders help people link what they love—red threads—to their activities, it results in higher performance, higher engagement and resilience, and lower turnover.

Workers don’t have to love every aspect of their position. Buckingham says 20 percent is a rule of thumb. Leaders need to provide the autonomy and flexibility for employees to find ways to love the job. And allow different people to have different ways of loving the same job.

But the most effective leaders are the ones who have found their red threads. They know when they are in the flow and have found love in their work. They then can help others find love because they found it themselves.

Questions that Can Help

Here are some of the questions from Buckingham’s Red Thread Questionnaire to help you find your red threads:

When was the last time …

… you lost track of time?

… you felt completely in control of something?

… you surprised yourself by how well you did?

… someone had to tear you away from what you were doing?

… you wanted the activity to never end?

Jann E. Freed
Jann E. Freed, PhD, is an author, speaker, coach, and leadership development consultant. Her forthcoming book is “Breadcrumb Legacy: How Great Leaders Live a Life Worth Remembering” (Routledge Publishing, 2023). For more information, visit