If you're new to the employee engagement conversation, I'll cut to the chase and break it to you like this: Since 2000, Gallup research has shown that roughly 70 percent of the U.S. work force is "not engaged" or "actively disengaged" at work.

If your company is part of this dismal predicament and your strategy is to implement material perks like climbing walls, free food, and bring-your-pet-to-work policies, stop right there.

The research says these approaches, while certainly a good start, are superficial Band-Aid solutions that do not address the real long-term drivers of engagement. If leaders want to see sustainable change that directly impacts their bottom line, they should be asking the question: "How do I really motivate my employees?"

That's a great starting point for powerful discussions to take place in the C-suite. If I'm in the executive conference room with them, here's what I would say:

1. Motivate your employees by giving their work meaning and purpose.

Studies have revealed that workers who have a sense of purpose are more focused, creative, and resilient. It behooves any conscious leader to make a practice of reminding their employees how their work makes a difference, changes the lives of people, and impacts society. Studies say employees report feeling both happier and healthier because they were able to connect to the deeper meaning of their work, and how their work ties into the company's mission or big picture, or personal and professional goals.

2. Motivate your employees by showing fairness.

Studies indicate that when selfless and fair leaders focus more on their employees than themselves, caring and providing for their needs, workers show up more inspired and with greater dedication to their work, which increases productivity. Furthermore, you'll find that these exceptional bosses share their power and even status. They'll get down in the trenches and work alongside their tribe daily or weekly, connecting to them on a deeper level, which builds trust.

3. Motivate your employees by creating a positive work environment.

Start by developing a feeling of acceptance and an atmosphere of encouragement, and praising good work. Pump the fear out of the room by offering employees plenty of freedom and ownership of their work, giving them a voice to express their ideas, and allowing for risks to be taken and mistakes to be made as part of their learning and growth. Offer them feedback and be consistent about giving guidance and mentoring. But don't be timid about giving constructive criticism (positive and negative) when necessary, to keep employees on track with high performance.

4. Motivate your employees by rewarding them.

You'll find that high-performing cultures are typically diverse in their people. This means leaders must determine the rewards valued by each employee. The task is simple:

  • Ask employees what they desire and match it to the performance you, the leader, desire.
  • Be perfectly clear in your own mind what performance level or behavior you want so that you can clearly tell employees what they must do to be rewarded.
  • Make sure the performance level is attainable. If employees feel that the target is too high, motivation will be low.
  • Clearly link rewards to performance. To really work, rewards must be seen as associated with successful performance.
  • Finally, make sure the reward is adequate. Small rewards are small motivators.

5. Motivate your employees with clear expectations.

Employees are motivated by communication and knowing, as a result of communication, as much information as possible in meeting a shared goal. And great leaders provide leadership by communicating consistently about where the bus is headed. A Gallup research study that I have mentioned before measured the top reasons employees are disengaged, leading to turnover. One of the top five reasons? Their not having clear goals and expectations. Every leader should be asking the question: Do my team members know what is expected of them?

6. Motivate your employees by coaching them for excellence.

In the sports world, it's essential for top athletes to have a coach. But when it comes to the business world, coaching is a rare commodity. Managers typically don't have the time or knowledge, or see the value in it. The belief around coaching needs to change because, truthfully, managers who are good coaches will produce greater results in less time, increase a team's productivity, and ultimately develop more leaders out of their followers. Coaching in its best form doesn't have to be a formal and fancy process requiring a big budget. Once you nail down the basics, it's simply a process of mutual and positive dialogue that includes asking questions, giving advice, providing support, following through on action planning, and making time to help grow an employee.

7. Motivate your employees by allowing them to make decisions.

If organizations want to keep the needle moving on employee satisfaction or engagement metrics, their first priority should be to give them decision-making privileges. Allow them a seat at the table to exercise influence over things that matter. Think of projects and important meetings about strategy to involve your people. Take a cue from global insurance company Acuity, rated one of the 100 Best Companies to Work For in Fortune magazine. It drives loyalty by regularly letting its employees decide the charities to which Acuity will donate its millions.