The mass migration to remote work during the coronavirus pandemic gave employees a taste of a new way of working — a way that provided them with more autonomy and flexibility in how they do their work and manage their work-life balance. As a result, organizations are under significant pressure to adapt their cultures and processes to align with employee values if they want to keep and attract a highly engaged workforce.

To gather insights on how leaders can engage employees more effectively and create a culture that encourages employee retention, Dale Carnegie & Associates conducted a global study in May and June 2022, surveying over 6,500 full-time employees in 20 countries, to identify what factors increase employee engagement. The responses emphasized a need for flexible, values-based, human-centered leadership.

“Empowered Employees,” Defined

Empowered employees seek more from their work and their employers. They want to be seen as individuals with professional and personal goals. They desire meaningful work and want to know how it contributes to the company’s external impact. They’re no longer constrained by geography. The pandemic didn’t alter the core of what creates engaged employees. Instead, it showed countless employers and employees that a new work model is possible — one with the potential to expand their autonomy and support their values and emotional well-being. Organizational leaders who fail to recognize this shift in employee expectations risk losing high-value employees.

Why Employees Are Quitting

The Dale Carnegie research found that employees reject work cultures that are indifferent to them as humans and only address them as employees. Seventy percent of respondents said they’re satisfied with their employer and immediate manager. Then why do so many leave? Their responses to deeper questions revealed a different picture:

  • Only 29% trust senior leadership.
  • One-quarter (26%) value the relationship with their immediate manager.
  • One-third (33%) believe in the purpose and direction of their organization.

Leaders must develop trust with employees. Senior leaders must empower managers with the tools they require to address the emotional and human-based needs of their employees. Employees need to know how to measure the impact their work has on the bottom line. They need to see how their values align with the purpose and direction of the company and how their efforts yield results. According to the study, engaged employees feel a high degree of emotional satisfaction. Specifically, they feel confident, secure and hopeful (see graphic below).

Combining these results with research from Deloitte’s finding that only 56% of employees believe leadership cares about their well-being, indicates that when company leadership builds an authentic emotional connection with more employees, it will inspire them to be loyal, hard-working employees.

How to Drive Employee Engagement

Human-centered leadership inspires engaged employees by approaching them as people, not only as workers. A human-centric framework fosters the positive employee emotions that foster engagement, developing a work culture in which employees feel confident, hopeful and safe.

To evoke these emotions from employees, leaders must focus on these organizational drivers that lead to the emotional connection for employees:

  1. The quality of their relationship with their immediate manager. The adage that “people leave bosses, not jobs” remains true.
  2. Their belief and trust in senior leadership. When employees believe senior leadership cares about their well-being as well as their productivity, they trust what senior leadership has to say.
  3. They sign on to the company’s purpose and direction. These employees take pride in contributing to the organization successfully executing its vision and mission.

Manifesting a human-centric work culture requires leaders at every level of the organization to create value-based systems that consistently strengthen these organizational drivers.

How Senior Leaders Can Engage Employees

Savvy senior leaders recognize that for the company to meet its business objectives, they need strategies that include goals outside the walls of the organization. This mindset includes consideration of employees’ priorities for their own well-being and need for emotional satisfaction with their work. For example, companies can develop systems to provide flexible work environments that enable employees to thrive and remain connected. It might include strengthening transparency throughout the organization, adapting the approach to providing ongoing skills development, and ensuring an atmosphere of psychological safety for employees.

While some leaders may not align these strategies with business goals, they support leadership’s recognition of employee engagement needs. Engaged employees are more productive, and stay with the company longer, which drives bottom line results. In this environment, employees become more eager and capable to deliver on their responsibilities towards achieving the company’s business goals and overall success.

How Immediate Managers Make or Break Engagement

An employee’s immediate manager is the most impactful resource to forging human connections, building trust and boosting engagement. This is true at every level of the organization. Immediate managers need to be empowered to improve transparency as conduits of communication between employees and senior management, and to be clear with employees about team goals and the role those goals have in organizational success. Immediate managers need training and resources to build skills to help them express empathy with their team members’ struggles, build their confidence and motivate initiative. Additionally, immediate managers need the resources to provide practical support for employees to work through those struggles, and to design personalized training plans supporting their team members’ professional and personal growth.

Engaged, Empathetic Leaders Develop and Attract Engaged Talent

The path to engagement runs through a strong leadership that boosts employees’ emotional satisfaction with their work and workplace. Today’s empowered workers know they don’t have to toil in a workplace culture where they don’t feel appreciated and valued. They’ll move on to organizations with leaders who establish human-centric systems that provide a flexible work environment and demonstrate care for employees’ well-being. This applies as well to keeping and attracting immediate managers. This pivotal layer of leadership must have access to the tools and support they need to meet employees’ needs and build collaborative teams.

Organizations that seek engaged employees need engaged leaders. Accordingly, having leaders who implement strategies that accomplish these goals is as critical for long-term organizational success as is any plan for growth or innovation.