Employee Engagement: Defined and Debunked

employee_engagementHaving spent many years designing and delivering leadership training for managers specifically tied to influencing employee engagement, I’ve encountered all manner of engagement “experts.” In fact, I’m finding it’s rare to meet a speaker, author, blogger, coach, or consultant who doesn’t claim to have expertise in this area. It also doesn’t help that there is widespread dispute as to what employee engagement is and how to leverage it to improve performance. Much of this is driven by competing interests. Google “employee engagement” and you’ll find hundreds of organizations each with their own definition, their own assessment tool, and their own team of experts with a solutions package that **“gets results!”**

(And yes, I did just use “Google” as a verb. It’s sort of been a thing since about 2011.)

So here, dear reader, for the purposes of clarification and education, is a quick primer on what employee engagement is, what it isn’t, and why you should care about it. Be warned though: along the way you’ll have to endure some terribly boring terms like key performance indicators, metrics, and quantifiable. I promise to use them sparingly. 

Employee Engagement defined.

Much of the existing body of research on employee engagement has been driven by Gallup. They’ve surveyed millions of employees at thousands of organizations over more than 3 decades. While there are many doing credible and quality work on this topic, Gallup’s efforts remain at the fore. They define employee engagement as the degree to which “employees are invested in and enthusiastic about their work and thus act in a way that furthers the interests of the organization.”

Pretty sexy definition, huh? Yeah…not really.Let’s put it another way: employee engagement is the degree to which employees CARE and TRY. And if you’ve been in any kind of front-line leadership role for any amount of time you know that these things make all the difference in the world, day in and day out.

Employee performance relative to engagement is often categorized in 3 ways: actively engaged, not engaged, and actively disengaged. What causes employees to land in one of these categories? There are a handful of workplace conditions that, when present, lead to actively engaged employees. A discussion on these specific elements requires more time and space than we have here, but recognize the larger point: Teams and organizations looking to influence employee engagement need to understand the workplace conditions that lead to engagement.  

Engagement is not satisfaction.

When employees are happy, when they are satisfied, when they like coming to work, that means they are engaged, right?

Bzzzzt. Nope. Wrong.

Engagement and satisfaction are not the same thing. After years of investing time and resources to measure job satisfaction, companies are finally getting wise to the idea that there is very little correlation between job satisfaction and performance. Why? Quite simply: there are many who are fully satisfied to remain unchallenged at work every day, going through the motions, doing the minimum, and collecting a paycheck.

These folks are your sleepwalkers and daydreamers. Have any of these people in your workplace? I bet you do. While you’re busy giving your all, they’re clock-watching and making their grocery list.

Engagement and happiness aren’t the same thing. Satisfaction isn’t an indicator of engagement. For some their satisfaction at work may actually be contributing to a lack of engagement. Yikes.

EE is not “soft.”

This idea of engagement – of CARE and TRY- might sound a bit squishy to some. Fear not…employee engagement is quantifiable. It’s measurable. It can be observed, documented, and tracked. How? By identifying behaviors associated with engagement along with the organizational metrics that demonstrate the presence of those behaviors.

One of the behaviors most commonly associated with engagement is discretionary effort.  What is discretionary effort? It’s the difference in the level of effort one is capable of bringing to an activity or a task, and the effort required only to get by or make do. If, as I suggested above, you searched the term “employee engagement” it wouldn’t take you long to encounter this concept. There are many who preach that engagement is the key to unlocking discretionary effort.

Maybe. But I, like many, believe that discretionary effort is but one of the numerous ways employee engagement manifests itself. It’s one of the behaviors that showcases proof of engagement. There are many, many others – initiative, problem solving, energy level, and continuous improvement among them. What’s key to recognize here is that teams and organizations looking to influence employee engagement need to understand how it manifests itself in employee performance.

Furthermore, many of the key performance indicators companies and teams use to gauge performance are metrics that reflect engagement. They include turnover, productivity, absenteeism, retention, customer satisfaction, and profitability to name a few. This means that teams and organizations need to understand how engagement impacts performance across all layers of an organization.

The boss matters.

Finally, research suggests that the quality of the local workplace manager, and his or her ability to meet a complex set of emotional and professional requirements, is the single most influential factor in employee engagement. In fact 75% of people leaving a job indicate that their manager is part or all of the reason why. People don’t quit their jobs…they quit their bosses.

Don’t believe me? Ever work for a bad boss?

Enough said.

An employee’s direct supervisor has a profound amount of influence over their work experience every single day.The degree to which the employee experiences challenge and support, work that aligns with their talents, and sees evidence of their impact – all key components of an environment that leads to engagement – depends heavily on their direct supervisor. Teams and organizations looking to influence employee engagement need to understand the crucial role direct supervisors play.

Expertise and Evidence.

So there you have it. The next time you encounter someone who claims to be an expert in how to “engage” employees, ask them to elaborate. Do they discuss the conditions that lead to performance, based on existing research? Can they describe the particular ways engagement manifests itself and the impact it has across all layers of an organization? Do they describe the central role supervisors play? If not they may be operating from a caricatured understanding of the subject, not an evidence-based one.

[Want to learn more? Join me in Pittsburgh on Saturday, June 21 for a half day workshop titled “Engaging Your Sleepwalkers and Daydreamers: Strategies for Front-Line Managers and Clinical Leaders.”  Sponsored by RTConnections, attendees will learn how to create the specific workplace conditions that lead to actively engaged employees. If you want to receive all the benefits of employees who CARE and TRY, day in and day out, don’t miss this workshop! Contact hours available for nurses in attendance. Click the link above for more info or to register.]

I am the President and Founder of Ally Training & Development. I design and deliver leadership and management training for healthcare managers. If you want healthcare teams that work hard, get along, and wow patients, I can help. Visit allytraining.com.



2 thoughts on “Employee Engagement: Defined and Debunked

  1. Excellent overview of the importance of employee engagement. I love how you make the case for engagement being a quantifiable metric! Organizations that don’t recognize this do a huge disservice to their employees.
    Thanks Joe!

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