Employee engagement is a topic that many executives and corporate learning and development (L&D) leaders have been thinking about for a long while. The discussion has ramped up over the last three years as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic — a situation unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes. Employee engagement is an important factor in business success, because, as research shows, when employees are more engaged with their work, they are more likely to perform better.

As employee engagement continues to grow as a popular conversation in enabling better performance, the ideas haven’t become clearer, but instead distorted like the sounds that come from a blown-out speaker. In other words, while we talk about employee engagement, we fail to adequately define it. To test my point, I asked the artificial intelligence (AI) tool ChatGPT, to tell me what employee engagement is.

Here is part of what it told me:

At its core, employee engagement is about creating an environment in which employees feel valued, respected and supported. This involves providing meaningful work, opportunities for growth and development and a positive workplace culture. When employees feel like they are part of a team that is working towards a common goal, they are more likely to be engaged and committed to their work.

Not surprisingly, that is pretty much what I’ve read and heard from clients. Unfortunately, at best, it’s only half right. If we believe this definition as is, we won’t successfully drive employee engagement.  This definition perceives employee engagement backwards. Engagement isn’t something we “do” — it’s something that each individual employee chooses to partake in. Learning leaders must understand how to define engagement to increase it and improve performance as a result.

Engagement Is a Choice

The last sentence of the ChatGPT paragraph gets us closer to the idea of choice with the italicized words: When employees feel like they are part of a team that is working toward a common goal, they are more likely to be engaged and committed to their work. It can increase the likelihood of engagement, but it doesn’t guarantee they will be more engaged. If we want engaged employees (and wanting that is a very wise thing), we must stop thinking about it being something we do to them and remember that it is a choice people make.

Most people want to be committed, want to make a difference and want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. In a Gartner study, employees cited having a sense of purpose and feeling connected to their work as very important. In other words, employees want to feel engaged. The Great Resignation and “quiet quieting” happened, in large part, because people weren’t feeling connected to their work. So, we must shift the statement to: “How can we help people choose to be engaged?”

Why Do People Choose?

During the height of the pandemic, as lockdowns persisted and remote work soared, many leaders began to worry about engagement and how this could affect the business. Creating a culture of engagement can be harder in a hybrid or remote work model, and it can be even harder to encourage connection among employees. In-office benefits like game rooms and snacks also wouldn’t apply to dispersed teams, so leaders had to become more direct with their engagement strategies.

To engage hybrid/remote employees, employers have leveraged L&D opportunities to connect employees with their sense of purpose, like upskilling and reskilling, coaching and feedback and setting clear goals.

When people make the choice to be engaged with their company — to be committed to their work and the team they are a part of — they’re more likely to:

  • Enjoy their work and see their contributions as valuable to the business.
  • Have stronger relationships and build better connections with their team.
  • Have a greater sense of purpose in the organization.
  • Produce better business outcomes and perform at their best.

In other words, when our people choose to be engaged, good things can happen to the business: increased employee retention, a better competitive edge and creative innovation.

Now What?

As L&D leaders we have a responsibility and an opportunity to help our organizations rethink what engagement really is. More than that, we have the tools to facilitate the shift of focus on how to help people choose to be engaged. An important first step is establishing accountability to your leadership team.

Look at your leadership development programs: Does it include (and does it prioritize and amplify) the skills that help people choose engagement, including:

  • Understanding what engagement is — and how they can help people make that choice.
  • Helping people discover and find meaning in their work.
  • Building relationships with team members and across the team.
  • Connecting the dots between company vision and purpose and the ability of individuals to contribute to it.
  • Removing barriers between departments and work groups so people have a line of sight to how their work makes a difference.

For your team members, look at the messaging and skills in both onboarding and continuous learning opportunities. Do they support, reinforce and facilitate:

  • The value and personal benefits of engaging.
  • How to choose to engage.
  • How to be accountable and proactive in their work.
  • How to be a better teammate (and not just an individual contributor).

The importance of shifting the focus to helping employees choose to be engaged is also educating your employees on how to make that choice. You must also hold employees accountable by training them on how to connect and engage with the company. Once you help your organization make this shift in mindset, you can adjust and refine your tools, resources and processes to support the valuable choice your people can make to be engaged.