It’s unusual to find an executive today who isn’t aware of the benefits of engaged employees. Research links engagement with improved productivity, profitability and customer loyalty. But despite its being a priority for nearly every leader, with billions invested in recent years, engagement gains overall have been minimal. Many leaders are wondering what they might be missing.

What’s Preventing Real Progress on Engagement?

First of all, engagement is complex. Once focused on identifying individual drivers of engagement, research now suggests the entire employee experience plays a role in engagement. It can also be overwhelming for companies trying to decide where and how to dedicate their time and resources.

Secondly, since the focus on employee engagement is no longer new, leaders approach it with their own set of related experiences. These experiences shape their beliefs about engagement, which in turn drive their actions, whether consciously or not. Some leaders have become passionate advocates for engagement, but others are unconvinced, resulting in varying levels of commitment to employee engagement initiatives.

Finally, too many organizations are simply paying lip service to the idea that engaging their employees matters. While most company leaders say engagement is an important strategic priority, Dale Carnegie & Associate research has found that just 31% of frontline employees and managers strongly agree that their organization is actually making engagement a top priority.

What’s the Missing Piece of the Puzzle?

Many things matter to employees: connecting to a purpose, doing meaningful work, opportunities for professional development, flexible work and competitive compensation, just to name a few. People also appreciate efforts that genuinely make them feel their well-being matters to their employers — hence the trend of employee wellness programs. Yet even with all these initiatives in place, engagement isn’t guaranteed. The problem is that if the person you work with daily, whose approval you want and need, makes you feel less than valued, connected, empowered and confident — even inadvertently — everything else feels insincere.

Each interaction, especially with leaders, has the power to make employees feel these positive emotions or their polar opposites. To make real progress, engaging people has to be second-nature for every leader at every level in an organization. In another study by Dale Carnegie & Associates, supervisors who say they think about, plan for and work on engaging their employees every day were more than 3.5 times more likely than others to say their employees are always willing to do what it takes to accomplish their goals, even if it means going “above and beyond” (53% versus 14%). Even in comparison with people who work on it frequently, leaders who prioritize engagement every day retained an advantage of more than 2.5 times (53% versus 19%).

This type of data suggests there is an important difference in mindsets between leaders who see employee engagement as one priority among others and leaders who see it as the primary way through which they will achieve results, including the realization of other priorities. They make a commitment to engage their employees through every activity that involves them.

Making Engagement a Daily Priority

Dale Carnegie research shows that supervisors who feel their organizations make engagement a top priority, support them in engaging their employees and work to engage them as leaders are far more likely to make engagement a daily habit. Aligning rewards and recognition has a powerful impact as well. The leadership behaviors that elicit the positive emotions that drive engagement aren’t second-nature for everyone, but managers can learn them. To start with:

1. Make People Feel Valued

Show that you value their opinions by listening to and respecting them. Demonstrate that you value their contributions by sincerely appreciating them.

2. Make People Feel Confident

Protect their self-confidence even when they make mistakes. Create a psychologically safe environment, and talk about mistakes as part of the learning process. Show that you believe in them by giving them a great reputation to live up to.

3. Make People Feel Connected

Convey your regard for them as individuals by taking a genuine interest in them. Encourage positive relationships with others, and help people expand their professional networks.

4. Make People Feel Empowered

When the objective is clear, empowered people will naturally innovate new and better ways to accomplish. Give them the freedom to exceed your expectations.

Employee Engagement Takes Courage

Maximizing the entire employee experience is no simple task, but when it comes to improving engagement, most companies need look no further than their own leadership for their best starting point. Leaders who don’t actually believe in their employees as a competitive advantage will never make the leap; the temptation to relegate employee engagement down the list of business priorities will be too great.

Clearing the way for leaders to put engagement first takes courage, because it means reorienting their daily activities and aligning leadership performance metrics. The companies that don’t make it an overarching priority for the organization and a daily habit for every leader are missing a key piece of the puzzle. Organizations can’t buy engagement. Leaders at every level must live it in every interaction they have with employees — every day.