Secrets of the highly-engaged employee

The solution is simple: Build a culture of trust

Rajesh Srivastava

[Photograph by Jay-P under creative commons]

Do you feel that your employees are unproductive, lack motivation, are neither self-driven nor engaged with their work and are not committed to the enterprise?

This frustrates you because this is in spite of being given fair compensation.

Your enterprise is not alone in facing this problem. A survey done by Gallup between 2011 and 12 revealed that in India, a mere 9 percent of employees are engaged, 60 percent are not engaged, and 31 percent are actively disengaged.

There is a solution to this intractable problem, that too at near zero cost.

Watch a video of this episode or continue reading

Episode 6: New Rules of Business


If you recall Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it postulates that human beings have five types of needs: physiological—the basic need for food, water, and sleep; safety—the need for security of employment etc; love and belonging—the need for friendship and belonging; esteem—our desire to feel confident, strive for achievements and seek self-respect; self-actualization—the need to be creative, to be a problem solver.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Maslow's heirarchy of needs

Could it be that your enterprise merely fulfils your employees' physiological need by providing them a salary that takes care of their basic requirement of food, water and shelter? That it does precious little to satisfy the next three needs— safety, love and belonging, and esteem?

Yet, you expect your employees to perform at levels that are expected when they reach the self-actualization level, where they become more productive, more engaged and cooperate with each other.

Let us go back to the three unmet needs. When they are not adequately met, employees do not display any overt discomfort, but internally become anxious and stressed. In this state they cannot be productive or apply themselves wholeheartedly to their work. They become wary of the enterprise. Their energies are diverted from performing their jobs to protecting their narrow self-interest at the expense of the enterprise’s interest.

So what should you do?

Simple. You are already fulfilling their physiological need. Now focus on fulfilling the other three unsatisfied needs as well.

Take safety. An enterprise should ensure that employees experience job security. It should be demonstrated through actions and not merely through words and intentions. During a downturn, pink slips should not be distributed under the garb of right-sizing. Be honest and open about the need for this and how many jobs need to be cut. On other occasions, when your bottom line is under pressure, employees should not be asked to make sacrifices to bolster the bottom line. Once an enterprise indulges in such behaviour, the remaining employees feel insecure and anxious. They will cease to be self-motivated, believing what has happened to their colleagues may befall them too.

The next two hierarchies of need—love and belonging, and esteem—can be addressed by focusing on one element: trust. When employees are trusted, a hormone called oxytocin gets released. This facilitates intimacy and social interaction among colleagues, resulting in better cooperation and engagement, improved productivity and higher energy levels at the workplace.

As trust takes deeper root, so does the reputation of the enterprise. Higher reputation brings in its wake myriad benefits to an enterprise:

  • Increased customer loyalty

  • Higher rate of repeat business from loyal customers

  • Higher level of brand advocacy, which leads to greater believability of the brand message and lower advertising and sales promotion expense;

  • Greater ability to command a price premium, better credit terms from vendors, and attractive interest rates for borrowings from financial institutions

  • Increased productivity of employees

  • A lower attrition rate.

When all these factors are added up, they will lead to higher revenue and lower costs, resulting in improved bottom line. And the investment required to achieve this? Zero. The only investment needed is in building trust.

How is trust built? It is a process and requires walking the talk. Just words or intent will not suffice. Here are some steps you can take to establish trust:

Absence of fear of failure: Create trust among employees that they will not be castigated, humiliated or in extreme cases fired when they fail while attempting to do their job. Instead, a supportive and nurturing attitude would be displayed towards them.

Autonomy: Behavioural economics suggest that trust begets trust. When an enterprise trusts its employee to do their job, the employee reciprocates with putting in all effort to accomplish it. This is because the onus has been transferred to them.

Establish a fair and transparent system: This system should be robust and  trustworthy, one that does not get influenced or manipulated by a section of self-seeking employees to suit their own goals. Nothing creates more distrust than violating this tenet.

Honour promises: Employees trust the enterprise that honours its promises and therefore display greater commitment and passion while doing their jobs.

Open communication with employees: The enterprise shows trust by sharing complete information with the employees.

Will some employees misuse the trust reposed in them? Yes, some might. The solution is to follow the Russian saying, "trust but verify". This means, trust your employees but also put in place a system to identify those misusing it. The enterprise should come down heavily, decisively and swiftly on these black sheep.

At Wipro, a senior person was caught padding up the expense statement. He was immediately asked to leave despite his stellar professional performance. Everybody in the company was transparently informed about the circumstances leading to the person’s departure. HP too asked its chief executive to leave when he violated the trust reposed in him as head of the company.

Now for the good news. Empirical evidence indicates that employees likely to misuse trust are unlikely to exceed 5 percent of the workforce. Now should you plan a system, which will favour 95 percent of your employees who are trustworthy or focus on the 5 percent who may not be?

How can you know that trust reigns supreme in your enterprise? It is akin to atmosphere. When present, it will be experienced but its absence gets noticed too.

I speak from my own experience.

Some years ago, as president of JK Helene Curtis, I was attending a board meeting and had switched off my phone. When I switched it back on, a saw a message that a colleague had met with a road accident and she was admitted in a hospital. Thankfully, the message also indicated that she was recuperating well. On my way back to the office, I decided to visit her at the hospital. However, I reached after visiting hours and wasn't permitted to see her. I then requested a meeting with her doctor. On hearing my name, the doctor smiled and said, "Oh, so you are Mr. Rajesh Srivastava. Just before she went off to sleep, she mentioned, 'My sir will certainly come to see me, no matter how late it will be'."

I am happy I lived up to her trust.

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About the author

Rajesh Srivastava
Rajesh Srivastava

Author and Visiting Faculty

IIM Indore

Rajesh Srivastava has 3 decades of corporate & academic experience. He has reenergised companies, including J K Helene Curtis Ltd., & nurtured brands like, Bagpiper whiskey, Royal Challenge whiskey, Blue Riband gin, Blue Riband Duet, Park Avenue range of deodorant & personal care products. He is part of the Visiting Faculty at IIM Indore. He is an alumnus of IIT Kanpur & IIM Bangalore. He is currently working on his first book.

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