Every employee comes to work with a choice about how much effort they will contribute. We all intuitively know how much effort we have to put in so others don’t ask us what’s wrong or call us out. We refer to those that rarely go above this baseline level of effort as disengaged employees.

Disengaged employees range anywhere from 40-60 percent of the workforce, according to the data collected in our 28-question online engagement assessment.

Engaged employees, on the other hand, consistently volunteer their discretionary effort (and lots of it). This is one of the most valuable benefits of a high-performance workplace, where the majority of employees are freely giving their exemplary effort in their daily work.

Research involving more than 7 million employees globally found that firms with the highest engagement scores have a revenue stream on average 4.5 times higher than those with the lowest scores.

How Do You Create the Conditions Where Your Employees Want to Volunteer Their Discretionary Effort?

When the limbic system senses conditions it identifies as safe, available metabolic resources increase. As a result, individuals experience better focus, increased creativity, and more prosocial conduct. On the other hand, when conditions are perceived as unsafe (inconsistent, unpredictable social resources, punitive, bullying, or shaming actions from peers and leaders), the chemical processes that respond to threats take precedence and can devastate mental capacity for work-related tasks. When working in a psychologically unsafe environment, the results can be devastating. IQ’s drop, peripheral vision collapses, and the ability to care and know what’s going on for other people goes in decline.

Managers need to provide safe conditions to enable employees to do their best work. Looking at the results of our own employee engagement survey, I can say that key conditions of a safe environment where employees are highly engaged include predictability, consistency, fairness, recognition, and secure connections with others.

Here are some simple and highly effective actions you can take to increase engagement and discretionary effort among your employees:

Make the conversation overt.

Have a meeting with each of your employees to ask what they think would improve the team’s overall engagement. Sample questions you might ask include:

What does a highly engaged/high-performance team look like?

What would it take for our team to have those (or similar) characteristics? Are we missing anything currently?

Then, work with employees to turn those descriptions into best practices for the entire team. Because employees are taking part in the conversation, it’s more likely to prompt them to think about their own work behaviors and focus on performing at a higher level.

Move toward a more relational environment.

Demonstrate that you value your employees for more than just the work they produce. Provide them with regular validation, recognition, and feedback. This will help you build a trusting relationship with them. It will also signal to them that the work they do is driving your organization forward.

Validation is the simple process of letting someone know they are seen and valued.

Good morning, Laurie! I saw the Pirates won last night! Did you get to watch?

How was your beach trip this weekend, Alexa?

Javier, good to see you today. I heard you were under the weather. Are you feeling any better?

Recognition is different than validation in that it highlights what someone has accomplished.

Darrell, I appreciate what you’ve done here. I know it wasn’t easy.

Carol, thanks for staying late yesterday to complete that project. It means a lot to me and the team.

Josh, well done pulling together that new budget report! I’m grateful for these new insights we have to work with. Outstanding job!

Feedback should be a supportive, one-on-one, confidential conversation that occurs every month (not once a year).

I know you gave this assignment a lot of effort. We fell short of our goal, so let’s talk about ways we can alter our approach next time.

I am a little worried about our team dynamics. Can we talk about possible actions that can bring the team into better alignment?

Be accessible to your employees.

The primary nutriment of engaged employees is attention – typically the attention of their immediate manager. They want you to see them doing their work and provide feedback on it. Make sure you’re accessible and give them face time. If you’re managing remote employees, they still need that face-to-face interaction. Use video chat programs like Skype or Slack video conferencing to connect regularly with team members who telecommute.

Anything that creates limbic resonance – tapping into our emotional need for social resources, validation, and meaning – will lead to more lasting, positive outcomes. Some leaders might think it’s all about making employees more productive, but that’s just the icing on the cake. It’s about creating a place where people look forward to coming to work because of the quality of the relationships they have and the meaning and purpose they find when they get there.

For more tips on building a highly engaged workforce, read my book, Thrive By Design: The Neuroscience That Drives High-Performance Cultures.

Key Takeaways:

  • The key conditions that make a workplace feel psychologically safe are predictability, consistency, fairness, recognition, and secure connections with others.
  • When you make the conversation around engagement overt, move toward a more relational environment, and make it a priority to be accessible to your employees, you’ll quickly see an increase in engagement on your team.
  • Engagement isn’t just about making employees more productive – it’s about creating a positive place for your employees to thrive, make connections, and find meaning and purpose.