Guest Interview: NYT Best-Selling Author, Kevin Kruse on Employee Engagement

September 15, 2014by Darryl FeldmanEmployee EngagementLeadership and Strategy


At Vignette, we’re all about fostering an engaged workforce for our clients. Along the way, we admire and love to learn from respected thought leaders in the industry. One of our favorites is Kevin Kruse. He’s The New York Times bestselling author of several books on employee engagement, including: “WE: How to Increase Performance and Profits Through Full Engagement,” “Employee Engagement 2.0,” and “Employee Engagement for Everyone.” He’s also a Forbes columnist, entrepreneur, and a keynote speaker on Wholehearted Leadership for Employee Engagement. After you’re done with Kevin’s Q&A, be sure to follow him on Twitter at @kruse.

It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to get to know you, Kevin. Thanks for taking time to share your insights for our readers and for all you do. Keep up the great work!


Q) What are some common misconceptions around employee engagement? How do you define “employee engagement?”

“Well, many people think that engagement and satisfaction are the same thing. They’re not. You can be a satisfied employee and show up at 9 o’clock every morning, you can be a satisfied employee as you take your breaks and your lunch hour, you can be satisfied as you clock right out at 5:00 PM. You can be a satisfied employee taking those head hunter calls getting pitched a raise in pay an extra 5% to go across the street. You might say, ‘Well I’m satisfied here, but for an extra 5%, sure, I’ll take that interview.’

So satisfied isn’t enough. The bar is set too low. Others think that employee engagement is the same as trying to make our employees happy. I’m not against making people happy, but happiness doesn’t necessarily mean people are working hard on the company’s objectives. Someone might be happy because they don’t have any work to do and they’re glad about that. You might be happy playing smart phone games underneath the desk.

What employee engagement really is, is an emotional commitment to one’s organization and organization’s goals. It’s feeling connected to the company—committed to the company. And when you’re committed, you give discretionary effort.

Discretionary effort is the magic potion that makes great things possible. We don’t just want employees to be engaged for the heck of it. We want them engaged so they will give discretionary effort. An engaged salesperson will sell just as hard on Friday afternoon as she will on Monday afternoon. An engaged service professional will be just as patient at 4:59 PM—trying to solve an angry customers issue—as he would be at 9:01 AM. Engaged factory workers will be more productive, make fewer mistakes, and have fewer accidents.

It’s because of discretionary effort that organizations ultimately experience increased sales, increased profits, and even eventually increased share price.”

Q) Employers used to (and many still do) give their employees an annual engagement survey to see how they were doing. Now, the school of thought has shifted to continuous, holistic, and innovative approach to engagement. What is your opinion? What have been some new tools and techniques you’ve come across or can recommend for HR and Internal Communications leaders?

“I guess I’m a little bit old-school on this topic. If you want to improve something, you should measure it. Doing an annual survey is a good idea, but that’s just the first step in a larger engagement process.

And the more frequently you survey, the better. In all of my startups, I used to do them at least every six months. The faster your company is growing, the faster things are changing, the more frequently you should give the survey.

I believe we’re moving to a time where employee engagement will be measured in real time, continuously. An ideal system will survey a statistically significant sample of your employee base every day or every week. So you’ll actually have a real time rolling picture of engagement.

Where surveys get a bad rap, is when they are sent out and the employees never hear anything again. They disappear into a black hole. They think they just wasted their time and don’t want to take the next one.

Another common problem is when survey results are only looked at by senior management and the solutions from up in the ivory tower are disseminated down. To truly improve employee engagement, you need to share team results with each individual manager. Jane needs to know what her own score is, and how it compares to the other managers in her company. Further, Jane needs to share her results with her direct reports so that they can action plan improvements.”

Q) In his April 2014 Forbes article, “It’s Time to Rethink the ‘Employee Engagement’ Issue”, Josh Bersin suggests the word “engagement” limits our thinking. He says, “It assumes that our job is to reach out and ‘engage’ people, rather than to build an organization that is exciting, fulfilling, meaningful, and fun (one he later refers to as an ‘Irresistible Organization’)… We want them to be ‘married.’ That is, fully committed.” What do you think about his observations?

“I don’t think our collective efforts to improve employee engagement will be improved by introducing new terminology that nobody has ever heard of before. I’m not sure what Bersin thinks the current definition of engagement is. Obviously there is no official definition. But to me it already means being committed.

As people suggest new ways to drive engagement includingthings like nap rooms or doing away with managers completely, I would say, “Who knows!” Let’s measure and see if there’s a correlation. So far, I haven’t seen any research that shows perks, parties, or ping-pong tables do anything to improve engagement.”

Q) Millennials are increasing part of our workforce. It’s documented they’re more challenging to gain engagement with than previous generations of employees. What practical advice do you have for employers today to engage their Millennial employees? Or, what does “engagement” mean to millennial employees?

“Actually, the research is mixed on thisquestion. I know one racquetball study that suggests that Millennials are much less engaged than other generations. I also know of other reputable studies done by Gallup and The Great Place to Work Institute that shows the opposite. Most of them data I’ve seen shows engagement and generations map as a U-shape. Meaning Millenials are actually more engaged than average, then it’s beaten out of us as we enter our 30’s and 40’s, and then it starts to rise again as we near retirement.

And of course the bigger point is that all generations have an engagement crisis. Less than half the people in any age group, in any demographic, are actually engaged at work. So rather than fuss around a few point spreads in a sub-group, I think focusing on how organizations and front-line managers can foster a culture of engagement for everyone is the right way to go.”



Wow. Lots of great, thinking from Kevin about employee engagement. What do you think about his thoughts? Have you experienced or applying any of this at your company?  We’d love to hear!


Darryl Feldman