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What separates engaged employees from the rest?
Illustration by Grey Vaisius

4 min read

What separates engaged employees from the rest?

Engaged employees aren't wired differently. They're engaged because their organization makes it possible.

It’s news to no one that we tend to favor engaged employees over those who aren’t. Engaged employees help boost productivity, increase retention rates, and lead to a more connected and healthier company culture. The higher employee engagement is, the better off your organization will be.

But there are different degrees of engagement. Let’s break them down into three personas.

1. The engaged employee is absorbed in and enthusiastic about their work. They’re a dedicated problem-solver and true believer in their organization, coming close to the living embodiment of its core values. Their mission is to commit themselves completely to their work and the success of their organization. You might only have a handful of employees like this in your workplace.

2. Then there’s the semi-engaged employee, who’s still pretty absorbed in their work, enjoys the projects they’re working on, but maybe isn’t as gung-ho or vocally passionate about the company’s success or values. They show up, do great work, but don’t quite go the extra mile that engaged employees do.

3. Finally, there’s the last group: the unengaged, emotionally deflated, burnt out employee, who spends the day shirking responsibilities and contemplating quitting in spectacular fashion. This employee coasts in their work, doesn’t believe in or care about company values, and is, without a doubt, bad news for any organization. Unengaged employees can drag organizational morale through the mud.

What separates engaged employees from the rest?

Are engaged employees wired differently? Are they predisposed to work harder, faster, better—all out of an inherent dedication to their employer? Definitely not. Sure, an employee’s personality, work ethic, background, and drive will all play a role. But even the most driven employee might not turn out to be as engaged as you’d expect.

The truth is: engaged employees believe in their work and organizational values because their organization has given them good reason to. Reports show that employers who go the extra mile to reward contributions, develop a healthy company culture, and create a positive employee experience have higher levels of engagement.

People’s engagement—and disengagement—level shifts depending on a number of factors, primarily the company’s culture, performance, and their unique employee experience. And because these factors are changing every day, the engagement personas above are always in flux. An employee that falls into one group one day, is capable of moving between them on the next. Yes, even the most engaged employees can disengage if the company culture, performance, and employee experience start to deteriorate.

How to bridge the engagement divide

If you take a look at your organization and notice an engagement problem, your first thought shouldn’t be “I’ve hired unengaged people!” but rather “What factors are driving their lack of engagement?” or “What can I change to promote engagement?”

Employees become less (or more) engaged the longer they work at a company. People who might’ve been absorbed in their work and committed to living company values on Day 1 of their employment will be at a different level on Day 400. It’s your job to understand what led to that change in behavior and perception.

Engagement troubles vary from organization to organization, but I’ve put together a few tips to help you bridge the engagement divide.

1. Reward and recognize good work. Often the only thing separating a semi-engaged employee from an engaged employee is an acknowledgment that their work matters, that they’re making a difference, and that their role has a greater purpose. This can be as easy as making a public shout-out when someone does exceptional work or achieves a career milestone. Regular acknowledgment of your people is always welcome, plus the payoff can be huge.

2. Make small but significant changes. The divide between unengaged and engaged might seem like a vast chasm, but it’s really not. If you’re dealing with an unengaged employee, it’s likely because they don’t feel challenged, accepted, understood or heard. In fact, when you neglect unengaged employees, that only suggests that you’ve given up on improving their employee experience.

Instead, try some small changes to shake things up a bit. For example, you can set goals together, give them a new challenge, flexible working hours, or clearer expectations. Don’t treat them like outcasts or cast their negative employee experience as somehow invalid. Try giving them opportunities to show how they can contribute in a more meaningful way.

3. Take a close look at your company culture. Do your company values align with the ways that people currently work in your organization, or more importantly the ways they want to work? If not, it might be difficult for semi- and unengaged employees to become more engaged.

For example, I once worked for a company that was going through layoffs. The morale was extremely low because the company, whose core values included “transparency”, was concealing what was going on. Colleagues would just disappear one day and no one would explain why. This contradiction left many formerly engaged people feeling like the culture no longer reflected what it once stood for. Morale sank further and people’s motivation dropped.

If this anecdote sounds familiar, it’s time to reevaluate the core values behind your company culture. Do your values still ring true? Do they need an update? Bridging the engagement gap is sometimes just about listening to your people and making adjustments to realign your culture with your people.


An important thing to remember about the three engagement personas: the goal is not to get everyone into the first group. That’s not the point (and also probably not possible). The last thing your people want is to be put into one of three boxes. Improving engagement is really about identifying systemic problems and making small strides to repair them: improving employee experience, aligning culture with people, and showing your people that they matter.

Want more tips on how to boost employee engagement?

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Corey Moseley

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