Cracking the Employee Engagement Code

Rather than trying to engage employees with workplace perks, give them something even more rewarding—the ability to tie their work to the clearly defined aims of the organization.

Who isn’t rushing to the idea that just one more perk or break-room game table would boost employee engagement these days?

The latest Gallup data suggest we have an emergency on our hands with just under 32 percent of U.S. employees feeling engaged. Worse still, nearly 1 in 5 state they are “actively disengaged”—pointing to the fact that something must be done.

The solution across nearly every industry? Employers are rushing to entertain their employees in an effort to engage them. Of course, none are abandoning the time-tested traditional means of pay, time off, and annual bonuses, but somehow these just don’t seem “perky” enough for today’s business climate.

Instead, they introduce often-astonishing non-traditional “incentives” (can we just call them “bribes”?) in an effort to interest, engage, and retain employees. But once started, where do you stop? Perhaps more importantly, are you seeing a return on this investment?

Walk, Don’t Run

Rather than wait for your people to grow tired of Casual Fridays, foosball tables, or bring-in-your-pet days, we want to show you a simpler, less expensive, and ultimately higher impact approach to employee engagement. If you’re like us, you want employees who will:

  • Stick around through thick and thin
  • Truly take pride in being a part of the team
  • Give it their all each and every day
  • Contribute to (if not own) the results you want from your business

Our time-tested approach, developed across over two decades and producing high-impact results for thousands of organizations, is simple:

1. Clearly describe 3 to 5 key results your organization must achieve. Not by team. The same 3 to 5 key results across the entire company. In fact, in a study we just completed on Workplace Accountability, we found that 85 percent of employees weren’t even sure what their organizations were trying to achieve, resulting in lower levels of alignment and focus. This is a clear opportunity for every organization leader.

Key results are those most important objectives that are prioritized as strategically essential to the organization’s success and that must be achieved. They should be memorable, measureable, and meaningful for everyone in the organization—every person in the organization should be able to connect his or her daily work to these few results:

  • Meaningful results are prioritized.
  • Measureable results can be effectively quantified and frequently checked. If you can’t measure it, you can’t move it.
  • Memorable results can be easily remembered and regularly used to guide daily actions. Everyone should be able to repeat what the key results are.

We know that not every leader has a special genius in this area, and yet defining key results in a meaningful, measureable, and memorable way can give everyone in the organization the benefit of knowing exactly what they are accountable to deliver.

2. Help your employees connect the dots between their own job descriptions and these key results. Ask managers to realign where needed to ensure everyone can find a direct connection to the key results. Our study further revealed that only 30 percent of employees felt confident their organization would achieve their organization’s key results driven by the necessary levels of engagement and ownership. The other 70 percent? They worried their organization’s key results were in jeopardy of being achieved or might actually be doomed.
In fact, our research consistently shows that people who have a crystal clear understanding of their organization’s key results consistently demonstrate higher levels of accountability for achieving those results than do people who have a less clear understanding of their organization’s key results.

If you inspect this even just a little, you’ll likely find there is a genuine hunger across your organization (among leaders and employees alike) for more conversation about how their jobs, responsibilities, teams, projects, and priorities could be better aligned with the organization’s key results.

3. Ask employees to take ownership for those results. Create a culture where everyone wants the same 3 to 5 things.

This is a simple framework for an age-old concept we and thousands of organizations call “accountability.” When done right, accountability gets your people invested in a personal and meaningful manner. It gets their hearts and minds involved in ways that traditional and non-traditional offerings will never do. With hearts and minds on board, engagement is automatic.

Sound Familiar?

Here’s how one company re-engaged its workforce. In early 2009, the parent company of Chili’s, Brinker International, faced massive business challenges. The economy had collapsed. The company’s business sector, casual dining, was experiencing one of the sharpest downturns of any industry. A 35-year-old organizational culture had slipped into a blame-game culture, where no one would take responsibility for anything that was going wrong. Finger pointing, confusion, cover-your-tail, and other denial behaviors abounded.

This was an undeniably bad time for Brinker. Profits were down and shareholders were concerned with company stock dipping to an all-time low of $3.99 per share. Consequently, employee engagement dropped through the floor at below 50 percent, while turnover rates rose as a result to 110 percent annually.

At the time, Brinker had no fewer than 40 key performance indicators (KPIs) across the organization that were inadvertently used as key results. It’s easier for company execs to admit now than it was then, but they knew they were experiencing a high degree of confusion around what to measure and there was no way to remember easily at the team level just what they were accountable to produce.

Brinker execs knew the company had to change to survive. For a company where a new “initiative” usually involved introducing a new fajita menu item, stepping up to an all-encompassing culture change would be the mother of all initiatives. What could be true for many organizations was particularly true at Brinker: There was a genuine hunger evident among leaders and employees for more conversation about how their jobs, responsibilities, teams, projects, and priorities could be better aligned with the organization’s key results.

In our meeting with company leaders, they agreed to define just a few key results and then redefine accountability. They wanted real engagement—a company where people understood and owned delivering the key results of the organization.

Reflecting on this later, Brinker Chief People Officer Tony Bridwell had this to say about the importance of clearly defined and well-communicated key results: “While at first we were chided for an over-simplistic version of our key results, this approach has rocked our world. Since beginning this exercise, we have returned almost 20 percent to our shareholders. Our current low level of turnover is industry leading. Our engagement scores and team member participation also lead the industry.” Not to mention a 52-week high for Brinker shares of $55 per share (February 2014)—a tenfold improvement!

Lay Claim to Your Future

It could be argued that it’s impossible to hold everyone accountable. But it is possible for people to hold themselves accountable—to engage. Defining key results won’t create instant accountability nor will the exercise broadly convince everyone to take accountability—but it’s an essential first step.

Clearly, like Brinker, the best organizations lay claim to a culture where people demonstrate high levels of ownership to think and act in the manner necessary to achieve their key results. That starts by everyone knowing what those results are.

The defining characteristic of this kind of culture is that people voluntarily assume their own engagement. Rather than drawing them out with workplace perks, give them something even more rewarding—the ability to tie their work to the clearly defined aims of the organization.

Roger Connors and Tom Smith are the four-time New York Times bestselling authors of an extensive body of knowledge on workplace accountability and are considered experts on the subject. Their company, Partners In Leadership, is a premier provider of accountability training and culture change services and has enabled thousands of companies and millions of people to achieve dramatic results. Learn more at