If efforts at impacting employee engagement in your organization have been a bust, you’re not alone.  Over the last two decades, most organizations have launched engagement initiatives or programs at their worksites with minimal success. What those efforts focused on depended primarily upon how the organization measured the concept of employee engagement to begin with, often using the dimensions advocated by the Human Resources consulting firm they were working with at the time.

In fact, what companies have historically been shown to be especially good at is measuring employee engagement. Improving employee engagement? Not so much.

How else could you explain the fact that there has been very little overall change in the number of engaged and disengaged employees in the workplace over the last 20 years?  Only three of every ten workers today are“engaged,” giving full discretionary effort on his or her jobs today—a statistic that, according to The Gallup Organization, pretty much hasn’t changed over the past two decades. About half of all employees are “disengaged” at work, that is, “going through the motions,” but not committed to giving their best effort in their jobs, and the remainder of employees (18 percent) are “actively disengaged,” even to the point of being counterproductive to the goals of the organization.  

Since committed employees reportedly deliver 55 to 57 percent more discretionary effort than uncommitted ones (Gallup, WillisTowersWatson), driving greater employee engagement is critical for all organizations today. Doing it well can make the difference between achieving an organization’s mission and goals, its ability to attract and retain talent, and its desired financial results or not.

Simply stated, employee engagement is the alignment of individual aspirations and organizational goals to better drive both business results and personal ambitions.  Ever elusive, it seems the more companies strive to attain it, the more it slips from their grasp. But the quest continues, for the topic has proven to be too important to ignore.

Employee engagement captures the spirit, drive and discretionary energy on the part of all its employees.  It’s one of those fuzzy terms corporate America like “employee empowerment” before it, and “employee satisfaction” before that—meant to address all things relevant to the employee experience and yet, as a consequence, often specifically defines nothing.  

Without an engaged staff, managers have a tough time accomplishing much—let alone the best—work possible. Human resources consulting company WillisTowersWatson has noted: “Four out of every five workers are not delivering their full potential to help their organizations succeed” and The Gallup Organization has estimated that disengaged employees cost the U.S. $450 billion annually.

If employees are engaged in their work, they have a greater desire to work harder, to be more productive and to be more responsible in completing work to the best of their ability. When organizations make employee engagement a priority, they can obtain increased organizational profitability, productivity, flexibility, and employee retention, and better be able to attract talent as well. Employee engagement also creates trust between the organization and its employees so that both parties can better work together to be adaptive to changing needs and circumstances of the environment in which they operate.

So what are the secrets to getting greater employee engagement?  My research points to the top three variables as being: 1) Recognition, 2) Career Development and 3) One’s Immediate Manager. Those are the first three chapters of my latest book, 1001 Ways to engage employees with each chapter identifying specific real-life examples of what that dimension looks like in practice in today’s highly successful companies.

Recognition, or more specifically, recognition for high performance, has been shown to drive 56 percent of engagement for employees.  It’s a simple concept: “thank workers when they do a good job,” yet only 12 percent of employees report receiving such thanks or praise where they work. Contrast that with the findings that 85percent of today’s workers feel overworked and underappreciated and you start to see the grim reality most employees face in the workplace.

Career Development, or, more specifically, a continual focus on career growth and development, makes up the second most important aspect of employee engagement. This isn’t an occasional training class or periodically being promoted, but rather the daily journey of learning, job skills and networking that puts you on the course you most want to travel in your career—and your manager’s help in getting you there.

One’s Immediate Manager rounds out the top three drivers of employee engagement.  One’s manager is the most important person at work for almost every employee and if that person shows through his or her behavior that you are important, that is, how the person listens, encourages, and supports you, it allows you to do your best to excel on a daily basis. “If you have a good boss, you have a good job” is true the world around.

Focusing on these three elements can serve as a great starting point for organizations who truly want to“move the needle” in creating greater employee engagement in their organizations, not just measure the topic year after year.