Challenging Work as a Driver of Employee Engagement


We often hear the term employee engagement being spoken about in various contexts. We are often told by management experts that engaged employees are a source of sustainable competitive advantage. During earlier periods of organizational theory and practice, it was common for the HR (Human Resources) function to take care of administrative aspects such as payroll and mediate in the industrial disputes between labor and management.

Not anymore. With the rise of the services sector and the advent of the knowledge economy, employees are no longer yet another factor of production and instead, they have become the key factor, which makes or breaks the firms. Indeed, one of the icons of the Indian Software Industry, Mr. NR Narayanamurthy has gone as far as to say that employees are the only capital that the software industry has.

In this context, it is important to connect the terms employee engagement and its use in the actualization of the concepts introduced in the previous paragraphs. Therefore, this article examines how engaged employees can contribute to not only their careers but also become sources of competitive advantage for the firms.

Is Pay the only Motivator ?

As mentioned earlier, for a long time, HR experts believed that pay was the only motivator for employees and hence, as long as they are paid well, they would perform the work to the satisfaction of the managers.

However, in recent decades, the emphasis has shifted to what motivates employees and whether pay is the only motivator. Extensive studies done in this regard reveal that as humans, we are motivated by external rewards such as pay and benefits but at the same time, we are also driven from within which means that change and motivation arise from inside the individual in addition to being driven by external forces.

Therefore, the current generation of management experts is of the opinion that for this internal motivation or what is known in jargon as intrinsic motivation to actualize, the employee must be able to connect his or her needs for challenges to the kind of work that is being given to them.

This is the key aspects as research has shown that once the employee’s pay and perks are to his or her liking, the other ways that he or she looks for is how interesting and challenging the work is.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Employee Engagement

Indeed, the above points have their basis in behavioral theories as well as can be seen from the famous Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory. Abraham Maslow was one of the pioneering management experts of the 20th century and his theory is used extensively to determine what motivates individuals.

According to this theory, the base needs for all of us are food, clothing, and shelter. Therefore, this stage is the starting point for all of us as we embark on our careers. At this stage, we need the money to satisfy these basic necessities and we strive towards fulfilling them.

The next stage is when we build a family and a network of friends and well-wishers who share in our successes and our sorrows as well. At this stage, the need to have familial relationships dominates our consciousness and hence, we strive to fulfill the aspirations as well as needs of our families and ourselves.

The third stage is when we aspire for recognition and fulfillment wherein the kind of work that we do and the kind of recognition that we get for such work is what matters. This is where the employees often tend to find that challenging work is rewarding and more so, when they are recognized for their contributions.

This ties into the topic for this article which is that employees tend to favor challenging work once the basic needs are satisfied and once they have a decent bank balance or have built a home and married and what is known in informal language as having settled down in life.

At this stage, it is no longer enough for employers to increase the pay packages and expect the employee to do the same work over and over again. Instead, the need for status, achievement, and power are the key imperatives for the individual who now wants work that is stimulating, exciting, and fulfilling.

The final stage is when individuals are no longer concerned with their own lives but seek to make a difference to the world. for instance, Bill Gates who has now shed his career and responsibilities and instead, focusing on charitable work as well as fulfilling the role of a social messiah is an example of how this stage called self actualization by Maslow plays out.

Engaged Employees and Fulfilling Careers

As can be seen from the points made so far, once employees reach a state where they find that challenging work and fulfilling work is more important than pay and perks, they tend to find jobs that cater to these aspects.

It is no wonder that many middle level executives often quit big companies and launch startups or join other companies in the senior management positions because one, for pay, and more importantly the other reason is that they have reached a stage where their need for fulfillment is more.

It is also the case that many junior employees and especially those fresh out of college or in their twenties favor startups and other companies for the kind of work that is being offered rather than solely for pay and benefits.

This is a clear indication to the current generation of HR experts that pay and benefits are not the only motivators. This is the reason why many companies identify employees’ early on as high potentials and fast trackers wherein they are monitored and mentored for higher responsibilities because the HR managers and the line managers see the potential in these employees as well as the innate need for fulfillment that these employees have. The reason for such preferential treatment is that when two employees at the same level are compared, it is often found that those in the category mentioned earlier tend to add more value to the company than the latter.


By this time, it would have been clear that to create engaged employees, HR managers and the senior management must devise ways to tap into the innate potential of employees and their need for challenging work. This is the reason why many appraisal forms in companies tend to have points for innovation and invention as these are attributes that those employees who can motivate themselves from within have which the others do not.

In conclusion, when we as individuals seek challenges, we are bringing to the fore the hero within all of us and hence, providing challenging work is the best way to create an engaged workforce.

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