Steven Forth is a co-founder of TeamFit. See his TeamFit skill map here.

Employee engagement is a hot topic these days. According to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace Report for 2017, only three out of ten workers feel engaged. Company leadership is getting concerned.

The driver is the growing recognition that only a motivated workforce can deliver the change that companies need to survive and that the key to motivation is not primarily financial incentives (in today’s world that is just table stakes). Instead, people want to be part of a mission they believe in. They want to see their abilities recognized and their potential realized. They want to be given the opportunity to contribute and have an impact. If they cannot do these things, they will drift away, find a job that has more meaning, or mentally ‘check out’ from work.

This is not new. In the July 2013 issue of the Harvard Business Review John Baldoni wrote about how Employee Engagement Does More than Boost Productivity. It is the foundation of performance and should be a strategic imperative for the CEO.

Unfortunately, many of the current approaches to employee engagement are not meaningful or effective. The two most common tactics for improving engagement are surveys and rewards. Yes, there are some ‘cool’ new ways to do this. Surveys are becoming ‘pulse surveys.’ Rewards and recognition programs are becoming more creative and responsive. These are good things, but they seem to miss the real drivers of engagement.

Pulse surveys are short, one or two question surveys meant to ‘take the pulse of an organization.’ They are most often sent out week, sometimes in the context of an weekly update, sometimes as a separate activity. There is nothing wrong with this. Getting insight into what people are thinking can be useful. But surveys tend to be broadcast. They do not promote conversations, and without conversations there is no engagement. A better approach is something like Thoughtexchange, which moves from surveys to structured conversations. Conversations, especially ones that are respectful and responsive, are more likely to promote engagement than any number of survey, short or long, frequent or annual.

We need to ask ourselves what types of recognition and reward really work, especially for the knowledge workers who create a disproportionate amount of value at most companies. The most important recognition we can receive is a place on a project where we can make a difference and that will make a difference to our career. Other awards, experiences, bonuses (OK, cash is always nice) are not directly connected to pride we have in the work that we do.

What do knowledge workers really want from work? I think it boils down to three things: people, relevance, growth.

People – smart capable people want to be connected to and work with other people who share their passions. There are few things that damp down engagement more than bringing a new idea, a new skill, to a company and not getting a hearing. Most of us want to work with people who will listen to us, take our ideas and make them better, and then help us to make them a reality. The best recognition, and the best way to build engagement, is to give people great opportunities to work with other people that they can learn from and whom they can mentor.

Relevance – we want to work on projects that are relevant. What does ‘relevant’ mean? Work that is relevant to our values, to our sense of who we are and who we want to be. Work that will make a difference to the organization we are committed to. Work that uses our skills, especially the core skills, who so define who we are.

My own core skills, as I show them on TeamFit, look like this.


Growth – the most important form of recognition for most knowledge workers is the opportunity for growth. To get better at what we do. Given that most learning takes place through experience, see 70:20:10 learning, the best way to give people opportunities for growth is to put them on projects that give them a chance to build their target skills.

My target skills look like this.

People, Relevance, Growth. These are central to the design of TeamFit. The best implementations of TeamFit support employee engagement. They do this by connecting people who will work well together or who can be coaches or mentors for people. Then be helping people get on the projects that will use their core skills. Even this is not enough though. The best companies go a step farther and help people develop their target skills.

If you really care about employee engagement, and you want to go beyond surveys and rewards, contact us. Let’s start a conversation.