Who Drives Employee Engagement In An Organization?

When I began developing our employee engagement strategy at The Generous Group, I realized that it would be helpful to focus our efforts on the areas of the company that would have the greatest impact.  This of course led to the following question:

Who drives employee engagement in an organization? Although every person in an organization has some impact on employee engagement, my research suggests that those with the greatest impact are direct supervisors, followed by senior leaders, mid-level managers, human resources / people ops team members, and co-workers.

While direct supervisors appear to have the most significant impact on employee engagement, a direct supervisor’s ability to positively influence employee engagement is deeply interconnected with the actions of the others listed above in some ways you might find surprising.

Who drives employee engagement?

Why Direct Supervisors Have Such an Impact on Employee Engagement

You’ve likely heard the saying that “employees don’t quit companies, they quit their bosses.”

Although there is some debate around this idea in terms of the degree to which direct supervisors affect employee engagement and how they do it, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that direct supervisors have the most direct impact on employee engagement.

Research from the Gallup organization, perhaps the most recognized name on the topic of employee engagement, estimates that direct supervisors account for approximately 70% of the variance in employee engagement levels.

This stands to reason.  In most cases, the direct supervisor has the most influential relationship with an employee.

Almost everyone can reflect back on a job they had where all other factors were satisfactory, or even excellent, but because we had a terrible boss, we dreaded going to work.

How Direct Supervisors Drive Employee Engagement

My research and personal experience both suggest that successful leadership comes down to one simple factor: prioritizing the long-term well-being of a team member ahead of short-term metrics, including our own short-term self-interest.

We must truly care about out team members.  If we want team members to be committed to our organization and its goals, we need to be equally committed to our team members.

When the long-term well-being of a team member is our number one priority, we have a positive impact on all of the factors important for employee engagement.

Here are five key examples: 

Interpersonal Relationships

When we truly care about our team members we’re more likely to develop positive interpersonal relationships with team members, which may be the most important driver of employee engagement.

When interactions are consistently positive and contribute to the experience of positive emotions in a team member, coming to work is a much more pleasant experience for that team member (and for us) than when interactions with a team member contribute to unpleasant emotions for her or him.  

Investing in Personal and Professional Growth

When we truly care about our team members, we’re more likely to be invested in and committed to the personal and professional growth of our team members.  Being committed to team members in this way is a key element of ensuring team members are committed to our team.

Supporting Team Members and Removing Road Blocks

When we truly care about our team members, we’re more likely to check in with team members to ensure they have everything they need to succeed on the job, and to remove obstacles to their success like unnecessary red tape.

Employees are more likely to be engaged when they believe their chances for succeeding are not limited by unnecessary obstacles or a lack of resources. 

Commitment to Excellence

When we truly care about our team members, we help them to be the best that they can be.  We don’t accept mediocrity because we know that’s not in the best interest of a team member.

This is important for many reasons, including the fact the best employees want to be on high-performing teams that help them reach with their goals and grow.  For high performers to be fully engaged, they need to be appropriately challenged.


When we truly care about our team members, we give them as much authority and autonomy as possible.  We’re willing to give up control and experience short-term disruptions because we know that in the long term, it’s much better for a team member, for the team, and the organization to develop team members into leaders.

How Senior Leaders Drive Employee Engagement

Senior leaders in an organization set the tone for the entire culture of an organization and play a huge role in determining how engaged employees will be.

Impact on Direct Supervisors

The most obvious impact is the impact they have on direct supervisors.

Although direct supervisors may have the most direct impact on employee engagement, the impact those direct supervisors have on employee engagement depends largely on how those direct supervisors are led.

If direct supervisors are not being led well, it will be very difficult for them to lead their team members in ways that sustain high levels of engagement.

At the most simple, high-level, if senior leaders do not make their top priority the long-term well-being of the managers they lead, as described above, then those managers are not likely to do so for the team members they lead.

Also, senior leaders need to inspire managers with a clear, compelling vision if they expect managers to be fully engaged.

Perhaps most important, senior leaders need to live the core values of the organization every day, and quickly acknowledge and correct any failures to do so.  This is essential for ensuring that direct supervisors live the core values, which is essential for a culture of high engagement.

When core values are not consistently lived, leaders will be seen as hypocrites, and trust and engagement will decline rapidly.

Impact on The Emotional Climate of the Workplace

A key factor of a highly-engaged culture is the emotional climate of that workplace.

In a workplace where emotions like fear, anger, apathy, and anxiety are the norm, sustaining high levels of engagement will not be possible.

Conversely, when positive emotions like joy, gratitude, interest, pride, amusement, inspiration, altruism, affection, cheerfulness, confidence, enjoyment, optimism, and happiness are the norm, engagement levels are much more likely to be high.

Senior leaders set the tone for the emotional climate for the workplace.

Some research suggests that this is true even for leaders who almost never leave their office, and only interact with direct reports.  The emotional impact they make on those direct reports then spreads like a virus (good or bad) throughout the organization.

Impact on Culture

Senior leaders also have a huge impact on other important aspects of the workplace culture, such as shaping and living the mission and core values of the organization, communicating an inspiring vision of the future for the organization and approving budgets for training and benefits, all of which can make a huge statement regarding how much senior leaders truly care about team members.

How Mid-Level Managers Drive Employee Engagement

The role of the mid-level manager is similar to that of the senior leaders in that they have a significant impact on the ability of the direct supervisors to lead team members well.

Just as senior leaders, mid-level managers need consistently live the core values of the organization, and they need to prioritize the long-term well-being of the direct supervisors they lead over short-term metrics and their own self-interest.

Mid-level managers need to be very skilled at communicating in open, honest, transparent ways.  The direct supervisors they lead need to be able to trust that they’re getting all the information they need to make good decisions for their team members.

Also, when mid-level managers prioritize the long-term well-being of the direct supervisors they lead over short-term metrics and their own self-interest, they are able to engage in an extremely important leadership behavior, that is often hard for people to develop.  They are able to really focus on the leadership development of the direct supervisors, grooming to take a mid-level management role if they choose to do so.

How Human Resources (HR) Drives Employee Engagement

Human resources (people ops) team members play a very important role in creating and sustaining high levels of employee engagement in an organization.

Hiring Practices

The impact HR has on engagement begins before an employee is even hired.  HR can and should take the lead on recruiting candidates who are top performers in their field as well as very likely to be great culture fits.

Ideally, ideally HR should be weeding out any applicant who is not highly qualified for the open position so that hiring managers can focus on interviewing for core values and culture fit.

An organization that can consistently bring on talented employees who are great culture fits is going to have a much easier time sustaining high levels of employee engagement.

Measuring Engagement Levels

There is an old axiom in business that is easy to overlook: What gets measured, gets done.

Employee engagement levels need to be measured frequently and precisely, even in organizations with great cultures and high levels of engagement.   If they’re not, engagement levels simply won’t be a priority for anyone in the organization.

There will always be areas that can be improved.   This is a natural, expected element of any organization.

By identifying issues quickly, they can be addressed before they do serious damage to the culture and create problems that are much harder to fix.

Also, by simply taking the time to ask employees about their experience of the workplace and their jobs, we’re sending a message that we care.  Of course, the message becomes stronger if we follow up on the feedback and take positive steps to addressing issues.

Training and Development

HR can and should also take the lead on training and development, which are key factors in employee engagement levels.

Team members are much more engaged when they know that leaders are committed to helping them do their best in their current roles, and grow both personally and professionally.

People ops team members should be proactive about presenting the need for training to senior leaders, making a good business case for training and development.  This is especially true in organizations led by people who tend to be very focused on the bottom line.  They tend to forget that long-term success is affected positively by investing in team members.

People ops team members should also take the lead in identifying outside training and/or designing in house training programs that will meet the needs of the organization.

How Co-Workers Drive Employee Engagement

Co-workers also play a really important role in employee engagement.

When people like the other people they work with, and those people are high performers who inspire others to perform well, they are much more likely to be fully engaged at work.

Co-workers may have just as much impact on employee engagement as do direct supervisors.

In fact, some research suggests that co-workers are the number one driver of employee engagement.  The reason I don’t list them as the number one factor here is that all of the roles listed above have a tremendous influence over who the co-workers are, and how likely they are to be a positive influence on the people around them.

How Love Drives Employee Engagement

Ultimately, the question is not so much “Who drives employee engagement?” because every member of the organization drives employee engagement to some degree.

The real question is, “Do we have an organizational culture in which people love each other?”

Of course, I’m not talking about love as a feeling.  I’m talking about love as a verb.  Love is treating others with respect and kindness, and helping people thrive.

If we focus our energy on creating and sustaining a culture in which people consistently love each other well, employee engagement will follow quite naturally.




Matt Tenney is the Chief People Officer of The Generous Group and the author of Serve to Be Great: Leadership Lessons from Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom.  He is frequently invited to provide keynotes and training on leadership by Fortune 500 companies and other recognized brands.