Employee Engagement and the promises of greater productivity, quality, innovation and performance is a topic that has captured the interests of the business world, and the Amazon bestsellers lists (a quick search for “employee engagement” returned over 2600 books). In “The Best Place to Work“, Ron Friedman praises companies like Google and SAS for their immense investments in food, fun and fitness opportunities for their employees, quoting studies that suggest companies that have a highly engaged workforce are twice as successful as those who don’t. Similarly, the Gallup group claims “that companies with highly engaged workforces outperform their competitors by 147% in earnings per share” (Gallup, 2015), with a meta-analysis of 263 research studies finding a significant positive correlation (ρ = 0.42) between their Q12 dimensions and the 9 business success metrics measured. While there appears to be no question as to whether employee engagement counts, the question of what engagement actually is, how it can be measured, and most importantly, influenced is not clear, often mentioned interchangeably with other similar, yet distinct constructs such as “employee satisfaction” or “employee motivation”.
So what is the difference? There is a lot of research around the topic, and a good starting point in definitions of engagement can be found in Macey and Schneider’s review of the literature “The Meaning of Employee Engagement” (2008). Perhaps the easiest way to illustrate some of the differences however is by way of example. Imagine we were to ask 3 positive employees the standard HR question “If offered a better position at another company with similar pay and benefits, I would leave”, they each strongly disagree, but for very different reasons:
- Satisfied employee: I am comfortable with my work, hours are good, pay is good, get on well with my colleagues, my boss lets me do what I want, too much effort to make a change.
- Highly motivated employee: No, I just got that promotion and pay raise I requested, so at the moment I have a good deal going on, and as long as the money and benefits continue to roll in, I am fine. Of course, nothing against a little competition so if a great offer should present itself this will be yesterday’s news!
- Highly engaged employee: No way. I have too much respect for this place, and what it’s trying to achieve. I have the chance to make a real difference here, and I won’t stop until I do. So, gotta go, I just had a great idea for how we can save 50 million in code-reuse, oh and another idea for how we can optimize those long canteen lines!
Of course, each of these represents my own personal translation of the ideas, so feel free to translate into your own words and experiences, that said it is probably safe to say that employee satisfaction probably should not be too high on a company’s wish-list (we all know that 2pm slump that hits us as our bodies try to deal with the repercussions of lunch!). Satisfaction is a state of stasis, it is not an active state of engagement, and indeed, research shows that while satisfaction is a related construct to engagement, it is a weak predictor of it. Also, studies into longevity have suggested that always being just a little hungry can add years to your life.
Employee motivation is a little less clear cut than satisfaction, as while it would be difficult to confuse a satisfied employee with an engaged one, highly motivated employees do actually “look” like highly engaged employees (see comic). The fact is, an engaged employee is a motivated employee, but a motivated employee is not necessarily engaged. In his 2010 book “Carrots and Sticks don’t work“, Dr.Paul Marciano explains that motivation is a temporary state (often connected to a set of explicit rewards), whereas engagement is a sustainable, long-term state, highly intrinsic, and connected to the value system of the engaged employee. Engaged employees fight for the kindom, motivated employees fight for the cheese. Satisfied employees might at most pick up a sword, and then throw it to one of the more engaged or motivated employees.
Ultimately, if you want to engage your employees, you may have to stop motivating them with treats every time they press a lever, otherwise that lever will be lonely indeed the day you really need them to go that extra mile, but you have no cheese to offer.