Business leaders have tended to follow the pack when it comes to employee engagement over the past decade. It’s rare to find a company that hasn’t jumped on the employee engagement bandwagon, with 78% of companies having a documented employee engagement strategy. Organizations spend more than $1 billion each year in an attempt to boost employee engagement, which makes sense when you consider its importance:


But if businesses are investing so much of their time and budget towards building engagement programs, why are only 36% of U.S. employees engaged? The short answer: companies are going about engagement all wrong.

Below, we’ll share some practical tips to help your company create a competitive advantage by addressing substandard employee engagement in, shall we say, a more engaging way. First, though, let’s briefly review why so many companies are discovering the answer goes beyond Margarita Mondays.

Why Companies Haven’t Solved the Employee Engagement Problem

Employee engagement means more than smiling employees and a weekly happy hour.  It involves making employees feel as if they’re working for something more than a paycheck. To understand what we mean, let’s consider the central challenges organizations face when developing programs to improve employee engagement:

1.) Many employee engagement programs introduce superficial changes to address deeper problems, focusing on perks and tactics that confuse happiness and pampering for engagement.

2.) These programs don’t get at the root of the issue…emotions.

3.) They’re focused on boosting short-term engagement scores instead of addressing long-term people needs. Engagement scores typically fail to address the cultural issues at the root of employee engagement.

Employee engagement goes beyond employee happiness and satisfaction. It’s the degree to which employees are emotionally committed to the goals and well-being of the organization. Instead of counting down the minutes until they can close their laptops and go home, engaged employees are fully committed to the success of the organization and the people within it. According to a Gallup study, employees report that their key engagement drivers include:

  • Having a sense of purpose at work
  • The opportunity for development
  • A focus on the employees’ strengths
  • Ongoing conversations
  • A caring manager

The Ultimate Perk: an Emotionally Intelligent Manager

So, how can companies improve employee engagement? By successfully hiring—or training—to provide that last item on the list: caring managers. A caring manager can help provide the engagement drivers referenced above. The Gallup study further underscores how essential the right management skills are to building a highly engaged staff:

Now the picture becomes clearer. Gift cards and free pizza won’t persuade employees to stay with a company if their manager fails to give them a sense of purpose or makes them feel disrespected.

Creative company perks might temporarily relieve some of the stress a burnt-out employee is feeling. But if that employee reports to a manager who demonstrates poor leadership skills, the management problem will ultimately cause that employee to disengage—and eventually quit. That’s right: all that free pizza could be wasted.

Why Emotionally Intelligent Managers Have Highly Engaged Employees

So, what skill set allows a typical manager to become a caring manager—the type of leader who runs happy, engaged teams that are more productive and profitable than others? The vital but often-overlooked skill is emotional intelligence (EI).

Whatever other strategies a manager uses to improve their teams’ effectiveness and job satisfaction—communicating regularly with the team, offering constructive criticism, praising employees’ successes—they’ll need to employ all of these strategies using emotional intelligence. If they don’t, any one of these approaches to team building could backfire. This is why emotional intelligence is foundational to employee engagement.

Here are a few examples of how emotionally intelligent managers can make all the difference in a business like yours.  

1. They help make their employees’ work meaningful.

One study published in Harvard Business Review found that 90% of employees are willing to earn less to do more meaningful work. Another study, cited by Harvard’s Professional Development Department, found the biggest motivator for changing jobs is the promise of purpose.

Employees want to know that what they do matters. Emotionally intelligent bosses know how to give this gift to their employees—no matter what product or service the company sells.

A poor manager will tell employees to “Get these blueprints updated and back to the general contractor by Thursday or we’re going to miss our break-ground deadline.”

But an emotionally intelligent manager will have a much more positive message: “When we turn those final blueprints in on Thursday, you’ll have set the ball in motion to deliver high-quality housing for 485 families. You should be proud of what you’ve accomplished.”

Now there’s a team not thinking about finding another job!

2. They create psychologically safe environments to collaborate and take risks.

According to research cited in Entrepreneur Magazine, employees who feel safe taking risks and being themselves with their teams are five times more likely to stay on and do their best work. Moreover, 96% of employees want their managers to create safe spaces for them to work.

Emotionally intelligent managers understand the importance of fostering a team culture that makes every employee feel welcome, valued, and able to experiment and innovate in their jobs. When employees feel comfortable proposing novel ideas or asking teammates for help—and don’t need to worry about unconstructive criticism or mockery—those teams become the high-performers we discussed earlier.

And those successes often start with an emotionally intelligent manager who knows how to create an environment where every employee feels safe to push their limits.

                    Put the Mood Meter Guide from Oji Life Lab to work for you

3. They treat employees as the unique individuals they are.

A manager with low emotional intelligence views employees as “resources,” “roles,” and “positions,” not as individuals with unique gifts, challenges and quirks. These managers often manage everyone on their team in an identical way as well, failing to learn how best to connect with and motivate each individual person.

And when these employees feel as though they’re not being heard or valued as individuals, they join those worrisome statistics we discussed above—becoming disengaged and then leaving the job in search of a manager who will treat them well.

Emotionally intelligent managers treat every person on their team as a one-of-a-kind individual. They listen, deliver news, offer praise or criticism, and ask questions in ways tailored to each team member’s unique personality and communication style.

For example, when the team kicks off a new project, an emotionally intelligent manager will speak with each member of the team and ask them for a candid assessment of how they feel about the new initiative. These skilled leaders know that some employees might have concerns about the project and might not want to voice those concerns with the whole group. By giving each team member a safe space to discuss their feelings, without fearing judgment, emotionally intelligent managers can uncover roadblocks to their teams’ progress—and find ways to work around them—much more quickly.  

These emotionally intelligent managers even look for opportunities to help each member of their staff gain relevant new skills—both to help them succeed in their careers and simply to make their current jobs more fulfilling based on their interests.

And because these lucky employees realize they have a boss who truly knows and cares about them, they tend to stay far longer—and produce far more for their company—than employees whose managers lack these all-important skills.

That’s how you boost employee engagement—by elevating the emotional intelligence of your managers at every level. And the quickest, most cost-effective way to make that happen is to give your managers access to the emotional intelligence learning program used by world-class companies like Google and Johnson & Johnson.

Assess your emotional intelligence now to find out how you and your organization score. Ready to start the conversation? Speak with an Oji Emotions Specialist.