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Boosting and Sustaining Employee Engagement

In today's competitive workplace, employee engagement is critical for organizational success. Engaged employees are productive, innovative, and committed to their employer's mission. However, research shows that only about one-third of employees report feeling truly engaged at work. As a leader, it is up to you to foster high levels of engagement among your team.

Today we will explore some of the key things leaders can do to boost and sustain engagement over the long run.

Understanding Employee Engagement

Before delving into strategies, it's important to have a clear definition of employee engagement. Employee engagement refers to an employee's emotional and intellectual commitment to their organization. Engaged employees feel a strong personal attachment to their company's vision and values. They work with passion and put discretionary effort into their work beyond what is required.

Research has found several qualities that characterize engaged employees:

  • They are eager to go above and beyond the call of duty for their company.

  • They feel a deep connection to their company's mission and want it to succeed.

  • They thrive on challenging work that allows them to grow and develop new skills.

  • They feel empowered and trusted to make decisions about their work.

  • They regularly receive feedback, recognition, and career development opportunities.

This sense of personal investment in one's job and company is what separates engaged employees from disengaged or actively disengaged ones. With this framework in mind, leaders can implement specific strategies to inspire engagement.

Strategy #1: Communicate Vision and Values Effectively

One of the most impactful things a leader can do is clearly articulate an inspiring vision for the future and communicate how each employee contributes to that vision. Regular communication of core company values also allows employees to see how their daily work aligns with and supports those values.

A Clear Vision at Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines is renowned for its high employee engagement levels, largely attributed to CEO Gary Kelly's ability to communicate a compelling vision. Kelly regularly talks about the company's goal of "connecting people to what's important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel." This overarching vision is supplemented by core values like hospitality, integrity, and fun.

In all-hands meetings, Kelly relates specific initiatives and challenges back to how they will further the company's mission of serving customers and shareholders. This creates a sense of higher purpose that inspires Southwest employees to deliver superior customer service while keeping costs low. Employee surveys consistently show that Southwest workers feel proud to work for a company with such an inspirational vision and values-driven culture.

Another engagement booster is cultivating a workplace culture where employees feel trusted, respected, supported, and appreciated for their contributions. This involves both managerial styles and company-wide practices.

Zappos' Holacracy Model

Online shoe and apparel retailer Zappos has gained fame for pioneering an unconventional holacracy management model that creates a uniquely open and supportive culture. Under holacracy, there is no traditional top-down hierarchy - instead, self-organizing employee teams operate with a high degree of autonomy.

This trusting and flexible model empowers Zappos employees to drive projects according to their interests and skills rather than top-down directives. They feel ownership over their work in a low-pressure, fun environment where even failures or mistakes are seen as learning opportunities rather than punishments.

As a result, Zappos boasts stellar employee satisfaction, retention, and engagement scores. Its holacracy system shows that unorthodox cultures can highly engage employees so long as they foster trust, support, and autonomy rather than strict oversight.

Providing regular feedback and recognition regarding job performance, milestones achieved, and general appreciation are proven engagement boosters. While feedback should focus on performance and behavior that can be improved, effective recognition acknowledges specific contributions, reinforces good habits, and makes employees feel valued.

Starbucks' Approach to Recognition

Global coffee giant Starbucks has created an employee culture where workers feel truly recognized for their efforts. Store managers are expected to personally learn details about employees' lives outside of work and commemorate milestones like graduations, marriages or new babies with small gifts.

Leaders also send hundreds of handwritten thank you cards each year to employees nominated by customers or coworkers for exceptional customer service. Starbucks' approach shows that meaningful, personalized recognition does not need to be elaborate or expensive - simple personal touches help employees feel seen as valued individuals rather than replaceable cogs.

This fosters strong employee loyalty, pride in the brand, and willingness to go the extra mile each shift. Starbucks' recognition culture clearly engages its large workforce by acknowledging contributions both professional and personal.


Leaders have considerable power to boost and sustain high engagement among their teams through both strategic and tactical efforts. Communicating an inspiring vision, cultivating supportive cultures with trust and appreciation, and implementing meaningful feedback and recognition programs are among the most impactful engagement tactics for today's employers. Consistently implementing even a few of these strategies can help foster an engaged and productive workforce.


Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.

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