Piecing Together the Engagement Puzzle

Jan 24, 2019

By AMA Staff

The gestalt principle tells us that the sum of the whole is greater than its parts, and that may be particularly true for organizations seeking to piece together the “engagement” puzzle. Since employee engagement is influenced by work, people, and environment, firms are using well-thought-out selection, assessment, and onboarding techniques to engage employees right from the start.

First, identify the four cornerstones

Employee engagement can start even before a candidate submits a résumé. The employer’s brand—as defined by its products and services, its community involvement, and its Website—can serve as that important “first corner” in the engagement puzzle. It tells the world what kind of individual might be drawn to—and engaged by—this employer.

When organizations carefully define the competencies and credentials that will prepare a candidate for a successful work experience, they are, in effect, creating a picture of the skills and attributes that an engaged, challenged employee will be using on the job. Thus, the “second corner” has been placed. Once a firm has identified a candidate who appears to match the criteria, it can then go beyond that to determine if the candidate will deliver on the promise his or her paper credentials make.

Structured behavioral interviews are one vehicle for discovering whether candidates will do what they say they can do, and this can be the “third corner” of the puzzle. HR consultancy Development Dimensions International maintains that interviewing for traits such as adaptability, emotional maturity, and positive disposition can produce applicants who “are 14 times more likely to be highly engaged employees” (“Searching for the Holy Grail,” 2005).

Some firms are going one step further and tapping technology to take potential employees on a test run. Electronic simulations, sometimes called “virtual job auditions, virtual job tryouts, or realistic job previews,” are representative of the high-tech tools that companies such as Toyota Motors, Sun Trust Bank, and Quest Diagnostics are using to supplement hiring decisions, according to Connie Winkler (2006), author of two books on high-tech careers. While Winkler estimates that only about 5% of firms used such simulations in 2006, these tools might be the “fourth corner,” as their value in determining candidates’ likelihood of success might also, by extension, help identify those who will be engaged by their work.

Next, provide the frame

Another factor influencing employee engagement is the degree to which an individual “fits” the framework of the organization. A good fit with the culture of the firm is as crucial to engagement as a good fit with the challenges of the job. A psychological assessment is one tool that some companies are using to help determine if the candidate’s profile is a likely match for the organization. A February 2007 practitioner consensus survey conducted by i4cp in conjunction with HR.com on the topic of psychological assessments found that about half (51.8%) of the 180 organizations that participated in the survey assess candidates for “virtually all management/supervisory positions.”

An organization’s ability to attract and identify employees whose values closely match the corporate culture will become an increasingly important factor in engaging employees, maintains Keith Jones, cultural assessment practice leader for BrassRing. “If my values and preferences are met by the organization, I am more likely to be an engaged, satisfied, and motivated employee,” says Jones (2005).

The middle’s more complicated

Giving employees the right start and keeping them engaged and motivated is sometimes a product of trial and error. A well-designed onboarding process can help simplify this part of the puzzle. Dr. Seymour Adler, senior vice president of Assessment Solutions, Inc., discussed executive onboarding at i4cp’s 35th annual Issue Management Conference in 2007, but the principles can extend to the successful assimilation of any new employee into the organization. Adler suggests an approach that combines mastering the job (its goals and activities), the organization (names, faces, titles, roles, and reporting relationships), the relationships (with both internal and external constituents), the culture (values, conduct, and language demonstrated in the business environment) and the tools (technology, administrative support, and other resources). Assigning a “buddy” and providing new hires with frequent feedback and coaching are other suggestions Adler offers for successful onboarding.

A positive onboarding experience can give employees a head start toward engagement. Engaged employees not only become more productive more quickly, they tend to be more satisfied with their jobs and, therefore, stick around longer. “We found that when new employees are onboarded well, they are 15 to 20 percent less likely to turn over,” says Recruiting Roundtable’s Brian Kropp, a practice manager with the Washington, DC-based membership organization (BNA, Inc., 2006).

Is the picture complete?

Even when a company’s hard up-front work produces an engaged employee, its job is not yet done. Organizations must continuously stoke engagement levels of employees with key skills who fit well in the organization’s culture. One way to accomplish this is by knowing those employees’ individual preferences and customizing reward programs to suit them. Such a customized approach might be the finishing touch needed to complete the engagement picture.


Adler, Seymour. The Ropes to Learn and the Ropes to Skip: Facilitating Onboarding. Human Resource Institute/i4cp Issue Management Conference, St. Pete Beach, FL, February 8, 2007.

BNA, Inc. Onboarding: New Methods for Integrating New Hires into Organizations. Washington, DC: BNA, January 2006.

Institute for Corporate Productivity. Survey Results: Psychological Assessment [www.i4cp.com]. February 2007.

Jones, Keith. “The Culture Quandary: Creating an Organizational Fit.” Workspan, October 2005, pp. 12–13.

“Searching for the Holy Grail.” Management-Issues [www.management-issues.com]. December 2, 2005.

Winkler, Connie. “Job Tryouts Go Virtual.” HR Magazine, September 2006, pp. 131–134.

About The Author(s)

American Management Association is a world leader in professional development, advancing the skills of individuals to drive business success. AMA’s approach to improving performance combines experiential learning—“learning through doing”—with opportunities for ongoing professional growth at every step of one’s career journey. AMA supports the goals of individuals and organizations through a complete range of products and services, including seminars, Webcasts and podcasts, conferences, corporate and government solutions, business books and research.