Employee engagement is one of the most highly discussed topics in the corporate world. Peruse any business media site and you'll quickly find stories about the best places to work, the coolest companies, and the cultures that are doing phenomenal things to capture the hearts and minds of their employees.

From a leadership perspective, focusing on engaging employees makes perfect sense, and research from Gallup has been proving it for over a decade now. But, here's where I see a lot of leaders missing the point of engagement. As I travel and speak, or talk to managers over the phone, one of the questions I often get asked most is, "How do I make people engage?"

The truth is, you can't. Engagement is a choice employees make and not something you can force. As an example, I can't force you to engage in reading the rest of this post. I can't demand that you read it to conclusion, or demand that you think about it later today, or demand that you like or share it. The only thing I can do is provide you with all of the right elements that you'll want to finish reading-interesting insights, snazzy words, and some actionable items you can use to improve results today. 

Of course, I can't promise to use too many extravagant words in this post. I'm not that smart. But I can promise insights based on global studies, and I can offer actionable items based on the fact that my colleagues and I, and my organization have been practicing these insights for 90 years. 

We've acquired wisdom throughout those years-so much that I could ramble on for days about how things like autonomy, having a best friend in the office, feeling safe, knowing your organization cares about your wellbeing, and, yes, even some of the dazzling perks you read about (onsite yoga, snacks, ping pong etc.) can and do increase engagement to varying degrees.

But, with a list that can feel initially daunting to undertake, I'd like to offer just three key insights my colleagues and I have found, that without these, the others seem to fall flat. 

Connect on purpose. 

Seeping to the forefront of business discussion is a concept many leaders still struggle to grasp because it can feel esoteric. I like to think of purpose in simpler terms than pondering the meaning of your life. If you think back to childhood when people asked what you wanted to be when you grew up, you may have answered with astronaut, athlete, doctor, rock star or comedian. And, whether you became those things or not, those roles tell us something about ourselves-that we want to discover new things, influence and inspire people, help people when they are in need, or make people smile. 

To connect your employees with your organizational or team purpose, it's important to have conversations about why they wanted to work for your organization or team in the first place. It may feel a little squishy at first, but if you think about why you wanted your job, or to work for your company, you'll most likely remember that there was a meaningful reason. 

Provide great work opportunities. 

This might be the most overlooked piece of the engagement puzzle. However, think about this for a second. Being engaged doesn't automatically produce results. Loving a culture, your team members, or your organizational purpose doesn't automatically lead to results. Actual work needs to happen. Energy and effort need to happen. Struggles need to be overcome. And, your people need to be engaged in their actual work. They need to feel energized that their efforts are creating value. They have to like some aspect of the work itself. 

Of course, not all of our daily duties can be blissful. But if some aspect of our work inspires us to try harder, and become the best version of ourselves, then we're far more likely to not only be engaged, but also create great results for our team and organization. People need opportunities to do great work.

Appreciate and recognize. 

Often considered a softer side of leadership, feeling appreciated is critical when it comes to engagement. No matter what position you hold in an organization, we all want to feel like we are necessary, valuable, and that our work is being noticed. And, when it comes to being a great leader, the problem is not that they don't appreciate their teams. Instead, it's that they're not so good at communicating that appreciation-by recognizing efforts, achievements, and career milestones. 

If you still think appreciation and recognition is a soft skill, global research by the Cicero Group and the O.C. Tanner Institute says otherwise-that it's the number one thing employees say their boss or company could give them to inspire great work.

As tempting as it may be ponder how we as leaders can make people engage, we need to remember that engagement is a choice. All we can do as leaders is give our people every reason to choose to engage. 

Published on: Mar 30, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.