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Employee Engagement and Alignment

Employee Engagement and Alignment

Difficult economic times have brought the need for greater employee engagement and retention very firmly into the spotlight in recent years, especially with issues such as there being not enough talented employees to go around, the mass and on-going retirement of the “Baby Boomers” and the ever-growing concern about attracting and motivating people who can make a significant contribution in the new “knowledge economy.” The key factor here is that attracting and keeping engaged employees is even more critical to any organization than ever and is crucial to creating competitive advantage in the marketplace.

Several recent research studies show a clear correlation between employee engagement and retention (and don’t forget, engaged employees stay for what they can give-while disengaged employees stay for what they can get). A 2011 survey of over 11,000 people across over 20 countries stated that 31% of employees say they “fully engaged” (and it should be noted are then 3 times more likely to work hard and stay with their organization). The same research tells us that although the US, for example, has one of the highest proportions of engaged employees worldwide, 17% of employees say they are “disengaged”, and a further 26% are only “minimally engaged” or 43% in total. (See for full details of the study and where you can get a free download of the full report). And, when employees report that they are “fully engaged,” does that mean they are happy?  The answer is, probably, but more importantly, engagement has to do with willingly and fully performing at your best.  So, happy is good but not in itself enough.  That means that we have to engage the heart and soul of the people we manage, or we will not get their best.

How should we go about engaging and aligning our employees?

According to authors David Macleod and Chris Brady in “The Extra Mile: How to Engage Your People to Win” (see for a useful summary), there are 9 key factors that come together to create well-aligned employee engagement. They suggest that an engaged and aligned employee: understands how their job contributes to the organization’s success, understands how their role is related to the organization’s goals, objectives and direction; is personally motivated to help with that success; cares about the future of the organization; is willing to put in effort beyond what is normally expected; derives a sense of personal accomplishment from their job; would recommend their organization to a friend as a good place to work; believes that their company inspires them to do their best work; is proud to tell others that they work for the organization. All this boils down simply to each employee wanting to feel valued and recognized. Unfortunately however, this important need often goes unmet  A 2010Gallup poll found that 65% of Americans surveyed said that they hadn’t received any recognition whatsoever from their boss in the past year (either in tangible reward ways or even intangibly through verbal recognition for example).  Similarly, a recent U.S Dept. of Labor study in 2012 found the number one reason why people leave their organizations is they just don’t feel appreciated.

The familiar pyramid you see below was developed by the American psychologist, Abraham Maslow more than 60 years ago now, and shows his famous “hierarchy of needs.” According to Maslow, human needs consist of five types:

  1. Maslow PyramidPhysiological:  basic needs such as the need for food, water, shelter, pay, etc.
  2. Safety/Security: the need to be free from minor or major threats and danger.
  3. Social (Love/Belonging): the need to care and be cared about and to be part of a group.
  4. Knowledge and Esteem:  having self-respect and the respect of colleagues.
  5. Self-actualization: developing personal skills and fulfilling one’s potential.

Maslow suggested that basic needs — physiological and security at the base of the pyramid — must be met before higher level needs become important.  That means that if you don’t have enough money to pay your rent/mortagage, you are not going to be worried about the higher-order needs shown on this chart, like safety, social needs, gaining the esteem of others, or self-actualization.  The implications of Maslow’s work (and the work of later academics such as Alderfer, Hertzberg and McClelland) on leaders’ efforts to motivate their employees (especially through rewards and recognition) is that issues such as pay are foundational, but only important when it is insufficient.  Much more important are factors like independence on the job, promotional opportunity, time off, and the chance to do interesting work. Likewise, once a secure working environment has been attained, then other measures, such as working as part of a team, or on an important task or project are extremely important in motivating employees. Maslow strongly suggested that workplace leaders would achieve considerably better general results by understanding the individual human needs of the people they supervise and then encouraging them to develop and grow in their capacity to ultimately self-actualize.

Employee Engagement and Alignment – A Model for Action

In their book mentioned earlier, David MacLeod and Chris Brady developed a simple model to help every leader to better appreciate what could be done in the future, by helping to better understand where people may fall today and where they could progress in the future. In the chart below, you can see these two factors laid-out in a grid showing all four combinations when engagement and alignment are plotted on two different axes.

Employee Engagement and Alignment

Let’s start in the bottom left quadrant with what the authors call employee Bookends.  Think of a team in which employee engagement is present at very low levels – that is, employees are not very energized or excited about their work (and may be disengaged or even completely disaffected); their performance is poor, not enough is getting done and a bad attitude may prevail.  There is also low alignment.  That is, employees’ performance goals are not lined up to support organizational targets, OR employees are unaware of service or commercial goals for the organization, so they work on activities that may be unwanted or of low value.  This type of environment has employees who are activity focused. They are doing the minimum and in a sense, standing still.  This team is most likely collectively disorganized and inefficient; they may be in a safe unchallenging niche (at least in the short term).

Now let’s look at the bottom right quadrant where the authors call these employees Tin Soldiers.  Here we have high alignment, but low engagement.  That is, employees who know the team and organizational goals, and are working in a well-coordinated way towards them, but at the same time are not very personally interested or excited about their work. Collectively the team may be orderly and quite efficient, but it lacks dynamism; to imagine this, think of the worst kinds of bureaucratic organizations.

Then there is the top left quadrant, where the authors deem employees to be Headless Chickens. These employees have high engagement – everyone is very busy and energetic, and maybe even excited about their individual work and goals. However, alignment is low; people are running in many different directions, not sure which is most important or critical and the team has no cohesion or even organization.  This is a chaotic environment often with high levels of individualism (people running in many different and often conflicting directions). In such a climate performance standards and control are often lacking.

The ideal quadrant (top right above) is one with high engagement and high alignment, which is what the authors call the High Flyers, simply because it is the “best-practice” place to be. Everyone is individually and collectively motivated and working together as a fully coordinated team; think of a well-oiled and experienced emergency medical team in a crisis -everyone is there for the same purpose – to preserve and promote life.


It is not realistic to expect every employee to be engaged and aligned at the top right of the above chart (and the earlier research data suggests that we are a long way from achieving this on average in most organizations today). However, the chart does provide a useful framework for all leaders to think about not only how many of the employees on their team fall into the bottom left quadrant (and then what they may want to do to move them out of it as quickly as possible) but also what actions they may want to take to either boost engagement strategies and tactics, or to increase alignment through better organization and control.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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