Putting People First for a Strong Employee Engagement Framework

Employee engagement is a hot topic as the workforce increasingly diversifies based on race, ethnicity, sexual preference, disability, and age. Employee engagement is truly people engagement when you consider the great diversity in the workforce and the different needs of employee groups. You depend on your workforce to get the job done, but productivity increases when you engage people first rather than direct employees. Managers and supervisors can sometimes forget that the people they are leading are people first with work and home lives, family demands, caregiving requirements, and financial worries. People work because they need and want to, but they have expectations about work, the workplace, and their employer. Those expectations involve more than leaders developing goals that must be met. People want to feel valued and appreciated, which is the key to a strong employee engagement framework – treat your employees like people first, and employee engagement will follow.  

People are People First, and Employees Second 

The CEO at DecisionWise developed the employee engagement acronym MAGIC after developing a database of over 50 million survey responses. MAGIC stands for Meaning, Autonomy, Growth, Impact, and Connection; five essential universal employee needs IRI Consultants has discussed in detail in various blogs. Now, we would like to add to the MAGIC with a fundamental concept and perspective – PEOPLE. Your employees are people first. That's easy for your leaders to forget at times when they are pressured to produce more from their teams and experience burnout from dealing with constant disruptions that seem to identify the workplace today. When Marcus Buckingham said, "People leave managers, not companies," he was saying that people leave people.  

People are people first and employees second. When employees are treated like the proverbial cog in a wheel, seldom get recognition, and have no say in the organization concerning their work and procedures, people join the Resignation Nation, which is still going strong. The latest U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Job Opening and Labor Turnover Summary (JOLTS) for November 2022 (the latest figures) showed there were 4.2 million people who quit their jobs, a number similar to October 2022. The industries that saw increases were healthcare and social assistance; transportation, warehousing, and utilities; and information (publishing, telecommunications, broadcasting, and data processing).  

Motivational speaker Ty Howard's advice to people is, "Work where you're continuously accepted, respected, appreciated, encouraged, inspired, empowered, and valued." For your employees to experience these qualities in the workplace, your leadership must have a perspective of people first, and from that follows employee engagement. Sure, higher pay and better benefits are attractive, but an Indeed survey found that HR successfully attracting and retaining workers who are satisfied with work also focuses on people's overall well-being. Despite improvements compared to prior surveys, 39 percent of employees said they were "very likely," and 47 percent said "somewhat likely" to switch jobs in 2023.  

The ones who want to stay want the employer to meet their needs which are flexibility on days worked (79 percent), flexibility on hours worked (73 percent), and social opportunities (94 percent). The conclusion was that more employees might be willing to stay (61 percent), but managers should recognize that the reasons people leave jobs are different from the reasons people leave. They leave due to a lack of learning opportunities, fair pay, and management support. Some people stay in their jobs due to uncertainty about the economy, but many stay because their employers are meeting their needs which are flexibility and social opportunities.  

So you can attract the right people, but how do you engage them, so they stay in their jobs and perform at their highest level? Following are six keys for putting PEOPLE first in order to have a strong employee engagement framework. This ensures they become satisfied employees who make your organization an employer of choice and not just a necessity.   


Participation includes some of the most important steps leaders can take to retain employees. It includes:  

Many studies demonstrate the importance of these three steps in employee engagement. But there is another side to these steps. Are your employees mentally and emotionally connected to the workplace and willing to contribute to company success? You can hire diverse people, give people a voice and encourage collaboration, but that doesn't mean the people will invest themselves in your organization. They must be willing to participate because they feel a sense of belonging – use their voice, share unique perspectives, and collaborate. Are your people doing all three of these? If not, there is a need for leadership skills upgrading.  


Energizing people is an important element of employee engagement. Work must be interesting and motivating because boredom, say the neuroscientists, is a warning sign that something has to change. Boredom is wanting to be engaged when unable to do so. How frustrating!  

Professor James Danckert, author of Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom, and his colleagues scanned the brains of people while they were watching a boring video or static image and found the bored brain "looks like an unengaged, unhappy brain. In one study, people were found most likely to be bored at work or school where monotonous tasks are performed or where autonomy is constrained, including being unable to spend time with coworkers. The conclusion supported other cognitive studies that say boredom emerges from "situations in which engagement is difficult." Social psychologist Erin Westgate said boredom is a "signal that whatever it is we're doing either isn't meaningful to us, or we're not able to successfully engage with this." 

Boredom makes people want to do something. It's easy to imagine the options. They search for a new job if they're bored long enough at work. If unhappy at work and unable to find a new job, people risk becoming agitators, which could lead to a disrupted workplace or unionization. Neuroscientists say that reacting to boredom instead of being mindful will likely lead to boredom again. Instead, people should look at their options and goals. They need to reflect on why what they are doing is meaningful, even if it doesn't appear meaningful.  

Your leaders play an enormous role in energizing people and reducing boredom by communicating the meaningfulness of each job in the workplace. People in your organization should connect their effort to business success, plus have goals that may range from getting a promotion to increasing productivity to finding more efficient ways of completing tasks. Energize people by also making work fun and offering socialization and collaboration opportunities. 

Everyone is bored at times, but it shouldn't be a major element of the employee experience.  

people first employee engagement


Your leaders should be introspective and ask if people believe they are supported. There needs to be more than an open-door policy. In fact, a weak leader could use the policy as a cover for not being personally open as a leader by claiming there is a policy. Saying there is an open-door policy and being an open leader are different. Each team of people must believe they are supported and can bring the leader good and bad news without repercussions. 

How do leaders promote openness? They listen to what the employee says with an open mind and respond fairly and helpfully. Openness and transparency go hand-in-hand and build trust. People want to work with an approachable leader who believes that people and their ideas, needs, and concerns are important. The leader solves problems with employees. 

The five-factor model of personality (FFM) says there are five primary personality dimensions: extroversion (sociability), agreeableness (kindness), openness (creativity and open-mindedness), conscientiousness (thoughtfulness), and neuroticism (level of emotional stability). Leaders with high openness are willing to listen to varied viewpoints, imaginative, curious, creative, and willing to try new approaches. Your leaders need a high openness to engage today's workers.   


There is much talk about authenticity, but how does that relate to employee engagement? The focus of many discussions is on the need to create a workplace culture where diverse people can thrive. Employees don't feel the need to hide their life experiences because they think conforming will get them a promotion or enable them to avoid bias. They are comfortable speaking up on Teams or at meetings, being honest in interactions with peers and feel respected. 

However, people at work can only be authentic when they work for authentic leaders. Authentic leaders understand the importance of engaging employees as people first. No one can fully separate their personal and work selves, and they shouldn't have to in the modern workplace. Neider & Schriesheim developed a four-dimensional model of authentic leadership. The four dimensions and how they impact people are: 

  • Self-awareness – have an awareness of your impact on others. 
  • Relational transparency – present your authentic self to other people; promote trust through "disclosure, information sharing, and expression of true thoughts and feelings." 
  • Balanced process – willingness to ask for and consider views different than your own 
  • Internalized moral perspective – you behave and make decisions consistent with internal values and standards  

A leader may prefer to use a command-and-control leadership style but must balance that natural approach with a leadership style that fits the desired workplace culture that is collaborative. This balancing act explains the importance of leadership development because engaging people may not feel natural to a leader. But the leader must learn how to use an authentic leadership style in every sense of the word.   

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Do your leaders understand all the factors involved in being influential people leaders today? It's hard to assimilate, but there are four or five generations of employees in the workplace, in addition to increasing diversity. Lotus Buckner, the Director of Human Resources at Northwest Community Healthcare and a Forbes Councils Member, writes, "Gone are the days of one size fits all; gone are the days of best practice leadership styles; gone are the days of moving up the ranks just because you rock at your job; gone are the days of "fair is equal."  

Good leaders lead with intention, adopt different leadership styles, and build a team of people who complement their leadership behaviors. They develop an environment where diverse people thrive. They address problems immediately, provide honest feedback, and encourage healthy conflict. Intentional leaders, says Buckner, are in their positions because they genuinely want people to succeed, so they lead with purpose.  

It's difficult for people today to step into leadership positions without appropriate development. Engaging people with purpose requires leadership training. For leaders to engage people in a way that satisfies employee needs for autonomy and the ability to make positive contributions to the organization means ensuring leaders have access to the appropriate leadership development opportunities. In other words, engaging all people in your organization means encouraging leaders and their team members to value learning and all it implies.   

Deloitte's report, Designing for Impact: Prioritize Human Outcomes, talks about a boundaryless world in which leaders must evolve in a business environment where business and social shifts are changing the agenda. "Leadership in a boundaryless world is less about formal authority and more about use of insight, personal accountability, connection to values, and action." It goes on to say that in organizations, "…workers are gaining more influence and choice than ever before—and are willing to use it to shape and steer company behavior, or just to determine their level of engagement and productivity, as witnessed by the "quiet quitting" phenomenon."  

Are your leaders prepared to lead people who have more choice and want organizational values and strategies aligned with personal and societal values? Or have you let them struggle to find a way to engage their teams based on pre-pandemic business circumstances? Continuous learning and development are important for the success of your leaders and for engaging the modern worker.   

Leaders must learn to engage people in a positive workplace culture that recognizes worker influence and choice. One of the top reasons Gallup found for a decline in employee engagement was a lack of learning opportunities. For employees, learning is more than upskilling and reskilling. It also gives people the confidence to share ideas, collaborate, express different perspectives, and meet goals. Sharing ideas and collaboration are key to innovation, and innovation is key to business success.  


Though esteem is not always included as a significant contributor to employee engagement, it is as important as the other factors. Esteem is the respect and admiration given to a person, and self-esteem is confidence in one's abilities and worth. A leader with high self-esteem can better focus on the development of other people and better understand their needs, creating more effective working relationships, a more cohesive workforce, and greater team satisfaction. Think emotional intelligence 

Esteem in the workplace is given by leaders to people and resides within a person (self-esteem). Self-esteem is more challenging to maintain in the workplace today because of the pace of change, but it can make a difference between negative and positive thoughts and actions. When employees decide to join a union organizing effort, they often use words that reflect feeling a lack of esteem from their employer and in their jobs. They want respect, recognition, reasonable work hours, and a holistic approach to physical and mental wellness. When people start thinking negative thoughts, the thoughts drive negative behaviors. How do you build esteem in the workplace?   

Your leaders are the people who can help people feel good about their work, their role in the organization, their future with the company, and their team efforts. Your leaders can help people feel good about their diversity, sense of belonging, and efforts. In fact, helping people understand that even failures are times for learning and determination builds self-esteem.  

people first

Increasing Employee Engagement With People Skills  

In this day of constant external business disruption and internal employee activism, it's easy for your leaders to get off course because they spend so much time putting out fires, stumbling from day to day. Building employee engagement is really about putting people first, helping them see the purpose of their efforts, harnessing their creativity and energy, and showing esteem. It begins with leadership development approached as a continuous learning process.   

Are you wondering why your employee engagement score is stuck on low, no matter what you do? Chances are that your leaders need to develop the skills that better match what people want and need from work. IRI Consultants can help you identify the issues and develop a strategy for engaging people first.  

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