Manager Mysteries & Mishaps Podcast

What are drivers of employee engagement, and why do they matter?

This episode explores what drivers actually are, the top drivers of employee engagement, and what drives manager effectiveness. 


Employee engagement is the strength of the mental and emotional connection that employees feel toward their jobs, teams, and places of work. You can be disconnected, or disengaged, from some or all of those factors, all the way to being highly connected, or highly engaged. If you’d like a more detailed breakdown of that definition, and of what engagement is and isn’t, I’d encourage you to listen to episode 3.

Engagement is typically measured using surveys. You know, engagement surveys. So say you administer a survey, and results come in. You now know how engaged your employees are, and it’s kind of low. So you want to increase employee engagement. How do you do that? Where do you start?

Well, that gets into this episode’s topic – drivers of employee engagement. It’s one thing to measure engagement, but it’s something else entirely to drive engagement.

I’ll be going over three mysteries throughout this episode. The first is exploring what drivers actually are. Next I’ll go over the top drivers of employee engagement. Finally, I’ll review what drives manager effectiveness.


What Drivers Actually Are

Engagement surveys are often made up of two types of survey items: engagement outcomes and drivers. Engagement outcomes are how we measure employee engagement. They help reveal the current state of employee engagement within organizations. But here’s the thing - outcomes are not actionable.

What do I mean by that? Of outcomes not being actionable? Let’s take two survey items as an example. The first item is “I’m proud to work here,” and the second is “My manager is a good listener.” The first item is an engagement outcome. Because it’s an outcome, it’s not actionable. In this example, you cannot take direct action on someone’s pride. You can’t tell someone “Hey – feel more pride for working here!” Well, I mean, you could, but that wouldn’t work and would probably backfire. What I’m getting at is that there’s no direct way of increasing other peoples’ pride, so it’s not actionable.

What is actionable, however, is the second item. Of you—a manager—being a good listener. You can take direct action on that item. Or put another way, if your team’s perceptions of your listening abilities were low, then you’d know that you need to be a better listener. That is actionability – you know what general or specific steps to take to make perceptions more favorable. Yet with the item about pride, you don’t really know what to do to increase pride in your team.

That’s where drivers come into play. Drivers are survey items that tap into topics that can influence or drive engagement outcomes. They can tap into all sorts of topics, like trust in leadership, manager effectiveness, individual needs, feeling valued, communication, change management. Really any topic that isn’t specifically engagement.

So you have one group of items, engagement outcomes, that you can’t take direct action on. Then you have another group of items, drivers, that you can take direct action on. What’s done next is to compare responses using correlational analysis, or a driver analysis.

I won’t get into the statistical details, but this driver analysis allows us to see how drivers relate to engagement outcomes. The more strongly a certain driver relates to engagement, the more safely you can assume that that actionable item will directly influence engagement.

To make it more concrete, imagine that the survey item “My manager is a good listener” strongly correlates with, strongly relates to, engagement. This means that when a manager is not a good listener, their team likely has lower levels of engagement. On the flip side, if you as a manager are a good listener, then your team likely has higher levels of engagement.

The main takeaway from this first section is that engagement itself isn’t actionable. Drivers are. So you can indirectly influence engagement by focusing on topics that most strongly drive engagement. Overall, drivers answer the question “How can I increase employee engagement?”


The Top Drivers of Employee Engagement

Now that you have a better understanding of drivers in general, this naturally leads to the question of “Okay, which drivers should I focus on?” These are called key drivers, or top drivers, of engagement. They’re called that because they are what matter most if you want to increase employee engagement.

Let’s say you have an engagement survey that has 40 driver items in it. Each one of those items relates to engagement, yet focusing on all of those different ideas and topics would be overwhelming. By aiming at everything, you would hit nothing. So the benefit of focusing on the top drivers of engagement is that you narrow your scope to only those topics that will have the most positive impact across your team or company.

Also by focusing on the top drivers, you get more bang for your buck. Because if those top drivers are what most strongly relate to engagement, then they have the highest likelihood of influencing engagement. If you were to focus on topics that are moderately or weakly related to engagement, you may not see as strong of a return on your efforts.

You can think about the journey toward higher engagement like a road trip, and you need gas to get where you’re going. By focusing on the top drivers of employee engagement, that’s like having more gas for your road trip. You can go further. In other words, focusing on the top drivers allows you to make more progress toward higher engagement than if you were to focus on drivers that aren’t as strongly linked to engagement.

Top drivers of engagement will change from company to company and survey to survey. With that said, I conducted some analyses to discover which drivers in our engagement survey tend to be top drivers most frequently. You can think of these as the most typical key drivers of employee engagement. That means you yourself can use these items, these ideas, to enhance engagement in your team.

Across the ten most typical key drivers, three themes came out.


Theme #1: Career Growth and Development

This group includes four items, which are:

  • I find my job interesting and challenging.
  • My job allows me to utilize my strengths.
  • This job is in alignment with my career goals.
  • I see professional growth and career development opportunities for myself in this organization.

So one way to increase employee engagement is to focus on the career growth and development of your team. Find out whether each of your team members are interested and challenged by their jobs. When considering all the various tasks and responsibilities in a job, it’s rarely interesting or challenging all the time. This means you should try to uncover which parts of their jobs do interest and challenge them, and work with them to understand why those are interesting and challenging.

There’s a pretty good chance that the responsibilities or projects your team members find most interesting and challenging also tap into their strengths. You can get a better understanding of the kinds of roles and responsibilities your team members might thrive in by getting to know your team. This can be done in weekly check-ins, monthly one-on-ones, or even observing them during team meetings. You can use what you know and learn about their interests and strengths to help them set developmental stretch goals, as well as help them craft responsibilities that are more in line with their interests and strengths.

Finally, as you’re getting to know your team members more, you’ll probably also become familiar with their career goals. It’s not enough to know what they’re good at now – you should also cast an eye toward their future. Think about opportunities they could do that might push or pull them in a certain direction that would align with their interests.

And if it seems like a team member might be limited or wants to look at another function, reach out to other teams for possible job shadowing opportunities. You shouldn’t think about a team member’s future as being limited to the function they’re currently in or even in your team – it’s about what works best for their interests, strengths, and future possibilities.  


Theme #2: Future Outlook 

This group includes three items, which are:

  • I believe this organization will be successful in the future.
  • I trust our senior leaders to lead the company to future success.
  • I know how I fit into the organization’s future plans.

This theme is kind of tricky because you don’t have as much control here. I mean, if you’re a VP or in the C-suite, then yeah, you have more control, but most managers don’t have direct control over organizational communication.

And to me, that’s what this theme of future outlook is about – communicating openly, consistently, and transparently with employees about the organization’s wins and losses, history and future, and reasons for decisions and changes. If this kind of communication doesn’t exist at your company, as a manager you should reach out to HR or leadership for better line of sight, which you can then share with your team. Or elevate your concerns about greater transparency to perhaps bring about change toward stronger organizational communication. In this way you’re advocating for all employees, not just for yourself or your team.


Theme #3: Feeling Valued

This group also includes three items, which are:

  • My opinions seem to count at work.
  • If I contribute to the organization’s success, I know I will be recognized.
  • The senior leaders of the organization value people as their most important resource.

The third item is the trickiest of all because there’s little you can do as a manager to change someone’s perceptions of senior leaders. Unless, you know, you’re part of top management. Sure you can try to be an advocate for senior leadership to your team, and you can be an advocate for your team by elevating concerns to HR and leadership. But ultimately this one item is mostly out of your control. You can help shape perceptions a little bit, but you can’t, and shouldn’t, try to excuse away leadership decisions if even you yourself believe that leadership doesn’t value its employees.

The other two items are in your control, however. In fact, I’d argue that managers are the main drivers of whether employees believe their opinions matter and that their contributions are acknowledged. For employee recognition, I’d encourage you to check out episode 14. In that episode I discuss how you can give SMART recognition, or recognition that’s specific, meaningful, authentic, relevant, and timely.

To show employees that their opinions matter, you can do a few things. First, make sure you’re giving your team members opportunities to voice their opinions. Whether through an email, a quick chat in the hall, during a team meeting, you should make it known to your team that you’re open to ideas on how things can be done or improved.

Second, when you listen to others’ ideas, keep an open mind and be attentive. Not all ideas are good, and very few are great. But by at least even listening to others’ ideas being expressed, that shows you’re trying to branch out beyond your worldview or way of doing things.

Finally, after you’ve established more of a listening culture in your team and have gotten used to hearing more ideas from your team, you should think about how you respond to ideas. One of the worst things you could do here is to say you’re open to any and all ideas, but then as soon as they’re mentioned you immediately shut them down or criticize them. Some ideas take time to mature, and some ideas are better suited for another task or for another time. Showing your team that you’re invested in their ideas, or at least hearing their ideas out, can go a long in letting your team members know they’re valued.  


The main takeaway from this second section is that top drivers of engagement help focus your attention and your effort. And the most common key engagement drivers fall under the themes of career growth and development, future outlook, and feeling valued. By focusing on those three themes as best you can, you’re more likely to see a positive impact in your team and a stronger sense of engagement.


What Drives Manager Effectiveness?

When I was analyzing the data to find the most common drivers of employee engagement, I wondered what else could be predicted. Given the focus of this podcast, I analyzed which items, if any, drove manager effectiveness. So really, this analysis is just flipping the previous driver analysis on its head. Instead of having the outcome be engagement, I calculated what’s called a regression to see which drivers predicted manager effectiveness.

I found that three items together account for 56 percent of variance, of changes, in manager effectiveness. This is actually huge, because this means you could just focus on these three items and you’d probably see a positive change in how your team members view you. Those three items are:

  • Goals and accountabilities are clear to everyone on my team.
  • My opinions seem to count at work.
  • If I contribute to the organization’s success, I know I will be recognized.

The second and third items should sound really familiar because they’re in the feeling valued theme in top drivers of engagement. That means you could kill two birds with one stone by focusing on just those two items. By making sure your team members believe their opinions are listened to, that they have a voice, as well you recognizing team members for a job well done, you can increase your team’s engagement and their perceptions of your effectiveness as a manager.

Because I already covered the second and third items in the previous section, I’ll just review the first item. Goal setting and goal tracking are important. In fact, I spent an entire episode, episode 13, talking about SMARTER goal setting, so check that out if you haven’t already. For the item of interest here, you should make sure everyone on your team knows their goals. These include individual, day-to-day goals, individual goals that are attached to performance, and individual developmental goals like stretch assignments, attending a workshop or conference, things like that.

At the same time, it helps if all team members are also aware of others’ goals. This can give everyone an idea of what kinds of tasks their team members are accountable and responsible for. And this isn’t just for awareness – this knowledge can help people notice things for improvement, send opportunities to their teammates that would help with individual goals, and so forth. Knowing about your own and others’ goals can help create a more networked and integrated understanding of how everyone fits into the team in different ways.

Finally, you have team goals. Overall number of sales, overall number of product releases, quarterly website traffic, and so on. Team goals provide guidance for everyone on a team, aligning their understanding of how everyone’s individual goals contribute to the greater good of the team.

The main takeaway from this final section is that just as you can analyze what drives employee engagement, you can analyze what drives other topics, like manager effectiveness. And the items that most strongly drive manager effectiveness relate to employees feeling valued, as well as goal clarity.



As a recap of this episode, I defined drivers of employee engagement, described the most common topics that drive engagement, and reviewed the strongest drivers of manager effectiveness. Drivers are actionable items that are linked to engagement, to the point that if you increase the favorability of employee perceptions around drivers, you have a better chance to increase employee engagement.

The top or key drivers of engagement are your best bet for improving engagement. Those key drivers at a high level revolve around career growth and development, future outlook, and feeling valued. That said, specific key drivers will always depend on your specific engagement survey and your organization.

Finally, drivers of manager effectiveness also include two items about feeling valued, as well as communicating clear goals and accountabilities to your team. If you’re wondering where you should start with drivers of engagement, I’d say to focus on topics that let your team members feel more valued. Let them voice their opinions and know those opinions will be listened to. Recognize and acknowledge your team members for a job well done, or whenever they do something that models great behaviors and values, or whenever they show that they’ve grown in some way. 

If you’d like even more ideas on how to increase employee engagement, check out our resource with the straightforward title of How to Increase Employee Engagement.

And that’s it for this episode! Join me next time on Manager Mysteries & Mishaps, where I’ll discuss emotions in the workplace.

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