Rethinking Employee Engagement: It’s Not A One-Size-Fits-All Solution

The traditional playbook is history. A step-by-step guide to identifying each employee's work style and engaging him or her based on that unique profile.

Work has radically changed. Offices are empty. Kitchen tables and sofas are the new work cubicle. Daily commutes have changed from 45 minutes on the highway to four minutes walking from a bedroom to a home office. Interactions with co-workers, vendors, and clients are completely virtual. Zoom is now both a verb and a noun.

In this environment, is it even possible for employees to be engaged? Yes.

However, it requires a new approach to employee engagement.

• Rethink the framework of the employer–employee relationship.

The employer–employee relationship is a social contract. And, as a social contract it can be described in terms of social exchange theory, which proposes that social behavior is the result of an exchange process. It is about give-and-take or balance and reciprocity.

Social exchange suggests that it is the valuing of the benefits and the costs of a relationship that determines whether we chose to continue a social association. The exact same thing happens in your relationship with your employees.

In healthy relationships, both parties evaluate the benefits and costs of the relationship. However, frequently in organizations it is a one-sided evaluation. As a result, companies institute one-size-fits-all employee engagement strategies that only marginally enhance engagement.

Now is the time in your company to define the employer–employer relationship as a social contract that empowers and equips employees to identify and own what they need to be engaged and fulfilled in our new world of work. Once your employees have clarified what they need to be gratified at work, invite them to participate in a thoughtful conversation about how to create a mutually beneficial way to work that supports both parties in achieving their goals.

• Cultivate positive social interactions and relationships.

Human beings are social animals with a fundamental need for connection. Social needs are treated the same way in the brain as the need for food and water.[1] This is why positive social interactions and relationships are considered primal needs. Social connections motivate your employees and fuel innovation, creativity and productivity.[2]

To create more positive social interactions, use the Platinum Rule. You approach people with the intention to first understand how they want to be treated and then adapt your interactions with them to meet their needs. The Platinum Rule is a powerful way to foster mutual respect and understanding so you can build vibrant relationships. It also can help you avoid making a negative assumption about someone’s behavior, which undermines constructive social interaction.

To help understand how your employees wanted to be treated, let’s explore the concept of work styles. Your work style[3] is the way you think about, organize, and complete your tasks.

In any office you will find four types of work styles:

• Logical, analytical, and data-oriented

• Organized, plan-focused, and detail-oriented

• Supportive, expressive, and emotionally oriented

• Strategic, integrative, and idea-oriented

Think about the following questions to determine the work style of your employees:

• Does she consistently complete work early, in advance of deadlines, or wait until the last minute?

• Does he send emails with only a few words or write novels?

• Does she gesture and use her hands while talking? Or is she more controlled and stoic in her movements?

• These clues, both subtle and overt, will give you insight to your employee’s work style.

Once you have identified your employee’s work style, tailor your communication style to align with how they want to communicate.

• Your logical, analytical, and data-oriented colleagues want you to focus on data and the facts. Be brief, succinct, clear, and precise. If you send an email, keep it short.

• Your organized, plan-focused, and detail-oriented colleagues want you to stay on topic, present your ideas in a sequential, organized manner and provide detailed timelines. If you send an email, outline your main points and clearly state next action steps and due dates.

• Your supportive, expressive, and emotionally oriented colleagues want the conversation to be informal, open, and warm. If you send an email, include a salutation and connect with them personally before you transition to the topic of the email.

• Your strategic, integrative, and idea-oriented colleagues want you to communicate with minimal details, provide the big picture with visuals and metaphors, and articulate how the project aligns with the organization’s strategy. If you send an email, provide the context and avoid too many details.

Empower employees to be active designers and creators of their professional experience.

Encourage your employees to be active designers and creators of their professional experience by shaping their work in the following three areas: task, relational and cognitive.

Task: Employees make behavioral changes to how they perform their set of assigned job activities. They either adjust the scope or nature of assignments involved in their job or take on additional responsibilities.

Ask your employees to consider the following two questions:

• What job duty could I modify so that I can more fully use my strengths to add more meaning to my job?

• What strength am I not using that I want to use to unlock more significance in my work?

Relational: Employees make changes to their professional relationships. They either alter the extent or nature of your affiliation with their colleagues or develop and build new associations.

Ask your employees to consider the following two questions:

• Who want to connect with to create an opportunity for more significance in your work?

• Or who do you want to connect with who has a skill you want to develop or has held a position in your company you want to have?

Cognitive: Employees make proactive psychological changes to their perceptions of their job. They redefine what they see as the type and nature of the duties or relationships involved in their job. And employees reframe their job to see it as a meaningful whole that positively impacts others rather than a collection of separate responsibilities.

Work has fundamentally and radically changed. Rethink the framework of your relationship with your employees. It is a social contract and both parties are responsible for the vitality of the relationship. Promote a culture of positive social interactions. Identify the work style of your employees and tailor your communication to how they want to interact. Empower your employees to active designers of their professional experience. A one-size-fits-all approach to employee engagement is no longer viable.

[1] M. D. Liberman and N. I. Eisenberger, “Pain and Pleasures of Social Life,” Science 323, no. 5916 (February 13, 2009): 890–91.

[2] Shawn Anchor, The Happiness Advantage: How a Positive Brain Fuels Success In Work and Life (New York, Crown Business, 2010).

[3] For additional information on work styles, please reference my first book, Work Simply: Embracing the Power of Your Personal Productivity Style. And if you want to take my assessment to identify your work style, please go to

Carson Tate is the founder and managing partner of Working Simply, Inc., a business consulting firm that partners with organizations, business leaders and employees to enhance workplace productivity, foster employee engagement, and build personal and professional legacies. She is the author of Own It. Love It. Make It Work.: How To Make Any Job Your Dream Job. For more information, please visit,