We had the pleasure of welcoming David MacLeod OBE to one of our ‘Expert’ events recently. Speaking on how to improve employee engagementw and what makes it transformational, he drew on employee engagement theory and research, and offered fascinating insights mixed with first-hand anecdotes. Here’s a summary of some of the key themes and takeaways from his presentation.

The role of engagement surveys

Despite becoming pretty commonplace in businesses, MacLeod makes a distinction between how employee surveys are viewed in different organisations, saying:

“Where employee engagement is transactional, the organisation sees the survey as ‘the hero’ – what it’s all about [getting a high score]. Where it is transformational, the survey is merely the tool that directs us to areas in need of attention. It is the starting point from which we can together decide how best to address things.”

Trust and transparency

The current VUCA environment is, MacLeod says, affecting both businesses and individuals in equal measure. And where there’s an almost constant state of flux in workplaces, he says that employers need to think more about what employees expect at work.According to MacLeod, above all else, employees want two most basic human instincts: trust and fairness. But currently these aren’t being met in many cases, which is shown by the fact that 31% of employees do not trust senior managers.

A higher meaning or purpose

Employees today have different expectations of both their career and employer. MacLeod points out that they want a sense of meaning and purpose at work – to know what they are achieving. This, he says, tallies with research by McKinsey, which found that the cornerstone of engagement for people is making progress in meaningful work, getting to the next level and having an understanding of what it all adds to. Employers then, for their part, must provide the bigger picture.

Empowerment and enablement

Employees also want to be empowered. Their manager has the greatest influence here in providing some autonomy and control. MacLeod explains:

“People don’t want to be told what to do all day, every day… I want some sense I can bring myself to work.”

Inclusion is equally important as employees now expect to be treated with respect and they want a voice in organisations. And yet MacLoed highlights that just one in three managers are regarded as ‘good’ at empowering their people, and that, the number of people who feel like they have a voice at work has gone down from 36% to 27%.

UK lagging behind

While employee engagement issues certainly aren’t unique to the UK, too many organisations here are still failing to listen to and understand what employees need. And, as a result engagement remains low while, against other key measures, businesses also continue to struggle:

  • Wellbeing – UK 9th out of 12 in a study of developed countries; also a 42% rise in mental health issues
  • Trust – has never been lower for employees
  • Employee engagement – only one third of UK employees are engaged. The UK is 19th equal in a list of
  • 20 developed countries with the lowest employee engagement levels
  • Productivity – UK productivity is 19% lower than the other seven of the world’s most developed economies.

MacLeod sums this all up, saying:

“The outcome of this is lower confidence, less people prepared to take ownership and tackle issues in front of us, less innovation, less efficiency and less agility.”

The key enablers of engagement

To turn this around, MacLeod says organisations must focus on four key enablers of employee engagement. He describes the following four factors as being common in virtually every successful organisation he and his team has ever researched.

1. Strategic narrative

A ‘strategic narrative’ means having a story that your employees can hold in their heads. Where this exists, people can see where the organisation has come from in the past, have a sense of where it is currently and, importantly, see what it is aspiring to be in the future.MacLeod also explains the importance of authenticity here saying that this isn’t something you should send away your PR team to create. Instead you should get employees collectively involved in creating it. This, naturally, will increase their buy in, providing a sense of purpose to their work.

2. Managers

Line managers have a huge bearing on our satisfaction and engagement at work. But, according to US research, 62% of employees would prefer a new boss to a pay rise! So, what makes a good manager?MacLeod describes a ‘good’ manager as being someone who sits down with their people to discuss what success will like and who is clear about what they want to achieve. They give respect and offer team members scope to bring themselves to work. This, he says, resonates with Gillian Stamp’s ‘Tripod of Work’ model of task, trust, tend.Furthermore good managers are skilled to coach and stretch people constantly – in a good way. MacLeod describes two perspectives of manager coaching:

  • Catching people doing something right and giving spontaneous enthusiastic praise and showing appreciation, where warranted
  • Spotting someone doing something dysfunctional, and addressing it. Too often managers look the other way, avoiding the difficult conversation. But managers must address such things quickly, otherwise it affects rest of team.

3. Employee voice

Giving employees a voice means enabling people all across the organisation – from those on the front line to those in the back office – to have a genuine say in the business and its direction. This, MacLeod says, is a trait of organisations with both high employee engagement and high performance.MacLeod describes employee voice as being where an organisation sees its people not as the problem, but rather as being central to the solution. Such organisations, he says, typically look to involve and listen to employees wherever possible, inviting them to contribute their experience, opinions and ideas.

4. Integrity

Organisational integrity happens when cultural values and behaviours are being lived by leaders and managers. It is they that must lead by example and role model these things. MacLeod explains:

“Where organisational values are reflected in the behaviours of managers and your peers – or when these overlap, you get integrity. There’s no say/do gap.”

Ultimately this is all about building trust – the ‘employee-employer contract’. Integrity is essential to building this trust. And trust, in turn, is needed in order to build higher engagement and improved performance.


Engage for SuccessMcKinseyWERS (Workplace Employee Relations Study)Gillian Stamp – ‘Tripod of Work’ model