Debbie McGrath Debbie McGrath

The 3 "A's" of Employee Engagement

February 1, 2014

Posted to by Wally Hauck, president, Optimum Leadership;

Employee-engagement levels have the attention of many C-Suite executives. The latest research by Towers Watson, a human-resources consulting firm, confirms that employee engagement is a critical element for high levels of financial and operational results.

Any executive who doesn’t pay attention to employee engagement might be accused incompetence and/or malpractice. This is especially true in light of the Towers Watson research, which shows that a mere 35 percent of employees are “highly engaged.”

We need improvement. Here are three good ideas that will help.


Anxiety often is considered a negative force (emotion) that causes stress and stagnation. Positive anxiety, on the other hand, is the urgent emotional need to act before an opportunity is lost. Positive anxiety proves useful for learning and development. A balance between the challenge a person experiences performing a task and the skills he uses to perform those tasks will generate positive anxiety. This positive anxiety is required for engagement and necessary for learning.

Unfortunately, feeling comfortable (or satisfied) usually does not create development. Neither does negative stress. But, the stress most employees feel today is negative and caused by pressure to perform using threats or bribes. Pay-for-performance policies or performance-appraisal ratings are substituted for the required positive stress and results in a reduction in engagement.

Positive anxiety is intrinsic (internal), self-imposed and naturally healthy. People can use positive anxiety to make positive change. A great example of positive anxiety in practice is seen in the process of learning speed reading. Many speed-reading teaching techniques require the student to push themselves to reading speeds five or even 10 times faster than their normal pace. This push creates positive anxiety and trains the eyes and the brain to adapt to a much higher speed. The push creates positive change even though during this push the student feels anxiety.

It not only is permissible for leaders to create positive anxiety in the work environment for employees, it is their obligation. Leaders have the most influence over the messages that come from the work environment.


The second “A” is for autonomy—the freedom to determine actions and decisions. Autonomy is a higher standard than just empowerment. Empowerment gives power to someone, and suggests that there must be an authorization by management to perform a task or responsibility. Autonomy is about freedom for self-government or self-management. With autonomy the employee decides when and how to act to solve a problem—no authorization by management required.

Autonomy is best provided when employees understand the principles under which they can make decisions on their own. This does not mean specific processes or detailed steps are missing.

Toyota, for example, establishes four principles employees must follow to work toward improvement in their plants.

• All handoffs between internal suppliers and internal customers must have clear steps in a specific sequence and these steps are defined by the customer.

• Every supplier-to-customer handoff must be direct and unambiguous.

• The path for these handoffs must be simple and direct.

• Improvements can be made by anyone at any time as long as those changes are done using the scientific method. This final principle is the most influential for allowing employees to demonstrate autonomy.


The final “A” is for advancement. Employees need to see how their efforts truly make a difference. This advancement must not just be progress for the sake of progress. It must be in context of a higher purpose and vision. In order for advancement to happen the progress seen by employees must be toward a vision and aligned with the values of the organization.

Three elements are needed to achieve advancement.

First, we must understand the aim of our actions. The aim also is often known as the mission or purpose. We must be able to answer the question, “Why are we taking this action? What’s the point?” For example, if our task is to clean a table we must know for what purpose the table will be used. Is it a table to clean fish or to perform open-heart surgery? The purpose will determine the method used to complete the task.

Secondly, we must receive immediate (or as close to immediate as possible) and frequent feedback from our tasks. Without immediate and frequent feedback, we will lose motivation. The delay between action and information must be as short as possible to optimize engagement and minimize frustration.

Finally, we must see progress toward achieving our aim. Without progress frustration will emerge, and frustration will damage engagement. The combination of taking action toward a clear compelling purpose, receiving feedback and seeing credible progress will create the experience of advancement.

The experience employees have with anxiety, autonomy and advancement generates powerful employee engagement. The “A’s” create a recipe for success and will help executives to achieve the organization results they seek. All three elements work as a system. They must all be present. Too often leaders leave out one or more of these “A’s.” When they do engagement and results suffer. MF

Technologies: Management


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