The 5 Levers of Employee Engagement

By Michael Cardus

The work of managers and employees has increased in complexity due to globalization, a faster work-life pace, and instability in the world’s economy. The need for employees to be engaged in their work has increased. And when they handle the complexity of factors thrown at them, engaged employees will innovate and improve ways of doing the work by default.

Managers, when asked, tell you that employee engagement is a must for the survival of their company. Employees tell you that they want to be engaged in their work and feel that work and work-life suffer if people are not engaged in the work. But when you ask either party how to achieve employee engagement? The responses are lost in a sea of psychological babble and blame for incompetent management or lazy employees.

This article will illustrate that achieving employee engagement is a systems solution. It can arise from adjustments to how the work is assigned and monitored and the placement of the right people into the right positions with the proper accountability. Creating a system that drives needed innovation and allows people to make progress on their work creates a reinforcing loop of innovation and progress. This leads to an increased perception of competence, which leads to increased competence. Greater competency leads to autonomy in completing the work and increased engagement with the work and the company.

5 Levers of Employee Engagement

Five levers can lead to employee engagement.

All levers need to be in place in the management system for engagement. If any lever is missing or under-functioning, the result will be less than engagement. Table 1 shows the outcomes when all levers are in place and when each lever is absent.

5 Levers of Employee Engagement

Table 1 The 5 Levers of Employee Engagement

Competent Manager

Management is well understood as a necessity in any complex organization. A competent manager can add value to your work and enhance your decision-making and judgment. A competent manager can judge your effectiveness and allow you to do your best work. They can illustrate an understanding of the work and let you know that ultimately they are accountable for your output… all that you are expected to do is your best. S/He can move a team along in collaboration enthusiastically engaged with each other and the work.

To be seen as competent, managers must understand the organization’s goals, how those goals affect their manager, how those goals will affect your work, and then be able to supply you with sufficient information and resources to allow you to do your best.

Competent management happens when the organization sets the proper separation between managers and subordinates. The organization allows for a manager who is “big enough” (see Table 2) to fill the needed complexity and develop and delegate plans to the team. The organization develops systems for needed communication and supplies the manager with needed resources to get the work done.

Without a competent manager, employee engagement will not happen, and underperformance will plague the organization and team.

Table 2 Having a Competent “Big Enough” Manager

Organizational Effectiveness and management training
Contextual Goals

Goals drive everything in an organization…without goals, there is no work.

Setting goals must be ‘just right’ for the person. They cannot be so broad in scope that the person is drifting aimlessly like a plastic bag in the wind, and they cannot be so narrow in scope that the person feels constrained and cannot do their best work. A competent manager also knows how to set goals within the proper time frame, with the proper quality and quantity requirements.

Without a contextual goal, frustration, false starts, and late/early finishes will disengage employees from the organization and team.

Objective Metrics

Employees must be able to objectively, on their own, measure progress and regress on work that is meaningful to them. This is accomplished by the competent manager setting contextual goals and the employee working to determine the needed small steps, how to accomplish those small steps and how to know what progress looks like. If metrics are established based on the “feeling of the manager,” you will achieve misery, anger, and fear…which are mutually exclusive of engagement. The measurements must be co-established by the employee and manager about the goal set; the employee has the final say over how to complete their work, with the knowledge of the manager’s goals in context.

If the employee’s objective metric (a standard for progress and regress) is not known and established, anger and fear can freeze them in disengagement. Developing metrics based on goals and the quality and volume of work to be completed will further engage employees.


The employee must have the appropriate resources to do the work to get the work done. This does not mean that a manager needs to supply the employee with all the resources they desire, but it does mean that the manager has to supply the employee with sufficient resources. Resources can include materials, consultants, training, staff, etc.; without the proper resources, frustration will occur, leading to disengaged employees.

Some questions to consider regarding resources:

  • What resources does the employee currently have?
  • Can the contextual goal be completed in the time frame required with the resources available?
  • Does this contextual goal warrant the resources required by this employee?

Adequate resources are required for innovation and engagement to be able to occur.


Autonomy is synonymous with self-directed behavior. It can be a lever that drives employee engagement into full implementation, but autonomy must be tied to the other areas mentioned; competent manager, contextual goals, objective metrics, resources… only then can autonomy happen. An autonomous employee understands that there are choices and ultimately feels responsible for the choices. They can do their best work and gain wisdom from making decisions and solving problems while doing the work.

There will come a time when an autonomous, engaged employee will hit an obstacle around which cannot be navigated. This is when a manager can increase the employee’s engagement by coaching and developing the employee to improve problem-solving skills, reinforcing both autonomy and engagement.

If employees feel micro-managed, the engagement will be sucked out like a rapidly deflating balloon. This creates an “I just do what I’m told, if anything goes wrong, it’s not my fault” behavior.

For employees to be engaged in their work 5 areas must be focused on and cared for:

  • Competent manager
  • Contextual goals
  • Objective metrics
  • Resources
  • Autonomy

Each builds and leverages the others to drive innovative and successful work of organizations and staff.

Often managers are mistaken in their belief that a person’s psychology or personality drives engagement. No, it is the work system that drives behaviors, and it must be developed to keep people engaged in work that is meaningful and in which they can make progress.

Understanding that the manager controls the process and works to set the system will adjust to engagement. Everyone wants to do their best work and feel connected and engaged with their organization, work, manager, and coworkers. By focusing on the 5 areas above, you will create a system that drives engagement and innovation.

  • Table I: Inspired to create the ‘5 Levers of Employee Engagement’ table from a similar chart developed by the work of Dr. Richard A. Villa,
  • Table 2: ‘Having a Competent Big Enough Manager’ was inspired by the work of Elliott Jaques and Stephan D. Clement “Executive Leadership” Cason Hall & Co. Publishers, 1994


About the Author

team building, leadership organization development expert micahel cardusMichael Cardus

Michael Cardus has focused expertise on team building, managerial, leadership, and organization development working with various businesses, teams, and individuals. Michael is frequently asked to create pragmatic solutions to address the development of high-performance teams, retention of talent, innovation of product and profit streams, interpersonal and intergroup conflict, coaching of leaders, and developing systems to drive positive behaviors and development of skilled knowledge to increase organizational and personal effectiveness. Working primarily with teams and management within these organizations, his role has been honed to coach, counsel, facilitate and conduct focused group work.

You can find out more about Michael at