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Most HR leaders list driving employee engagement as one of their top 3 priorities, trusting that highly engaged employees will innovate, delight customers, and work better, smarter, and faster. The problem is, with so many new ways of measuring and driving engagement, fueled by so many new analytical tools and technologies, no one is stopping to ask the salient question: What if engagement can’t be “driven” at all?

Consider this fact: if employee engagement stands for things like passion, commitment, and enthusiasm, then real engagement is voluntary. No silver bullet solution, or quick fix technology, can compel or drive people to donate their passion, commitment, and enthusiasm to your company. That’s the bad news. The good news is, a company can earn these things by becoming more engaging instead.

The next HR innovation, then, is not a specific HRIS system, learning methodology, or leadership building tool. Rather, it’s a shift in mindset from trying to “drive” employee engagement to building workplace cultures people want to engage with.

What’s the difference?

A workplace trying to “drive” engagement can spend years aimlessly trying to guess what will make people happier at work. Seeing low engagement scores, companies may unwittingly treat employee engagement exactly the same as employee satisfaction-chasing employee happiness with endless random perks and costly benefits.

A workplace trying to become more engaging has an entirely different focus and intent. Great companies know employee success is everything. They understand that what employees want most, in a workplace context, is to strive for greatness, to do work they’re proud of, and to make a difference. At first blush, this may seem obvious, but the impact of focusing on greatness is profound.

For a long time, the assumption has been that engagement causes people to do great work (innovate, solve problems, and make a difference). However, a new study by the O.C. Tanner Institute has revealed that it is often precisely the other way around. The study showed only 80 percent of engaged employees are actively doing great work (as defined parenthetically above). But an amazing 95 percent of employees who are involved in doing great work are highly engaged.

Those statistics change everything. If great work leads to engagement, then leaders need to do all they can to make sure their workplace enables, rather than inhibits, greatness. That’s why a culture-building platform focused on influencing greatness is what’s next in HR. Because corporations that do all they can to become places where people make satisfying contributions, accomplish career goals, and do work they’re proud of, will become irresistible to talent.

Companies can build cultures that enable greatness by valuing what’s really important to employees: opportunities to learn, grow and contribute, recognition for their work, celebrating career accomplishments, well-being programs with goals defined by users themselves, and sharing in the achievement of major company milestones. When it comes to winning over employee hearts and minds, there’s no substitute for helping people do great things.

  • If employees feel empowered to be innovative-by asking questions, making an effort to see the impact of their work on others, going outside their normal circles to get feedback, taking risks, and making a difference- they are twice as likely to be doing great work, and significantly more likely to be engaged (60 percent vs 41 percent).
  • When employees champion greatness among their peers by giving, receiving, and observing recognition, there is a 536 percent increase in employees who are innovating.
  • When employees feel appreciated for doing great work, they are more than twice as likely to be actively working toward company goals, proactively seeking new ways of doing things, and going out of their way to make customers happy. And they are two times more likely to be engaged.
  • A great culture also rewards employees who strive to be their physical, social, and emotional best. When employees feel a high sense of wellbeing, they have 52 percent increased work output, and 157 percent increased engagement.

The research shows that feeling encouraged, supported, and celebrated in the pursuit of greatness at work yields employee engagement. So focus time, attention, resources, and HR solutions on creating a culture that enables and celebrates greatness. And engagement will take care of itself.