Employee Engagement - It is what we think it is. Or is it?

Blog Post created by Champion on Apr 15, 2015

I recently read the provocative Pat Galagan article Employee Engagement - An Epic Failure in the March issue of Talent Development Magazine. The article discusses the rampant disengagement of employees, the dismal return on investment in many corporate engagement initiatives, some of the prevailing fallacies and truths and included some quotes which made me think about what this means in an organization.


Several research studies in the U.K and the U.S. are referenced that show conflicting results about the success of many engagement programs and offer some provocative statistics and observations which, consequently, I have also observed on many occasions.

  1. “…research that shows that in 42 percent of organizations, low performers are the most engaged. Less capable employees scored higher than high-performers on three traditional measures of engagement: likelihood of giving 100%, recommending company to others, fair treatment from managers.”
  2. “…employees who do the minimum to achieve a result are more pleased with their own work than those who strive for the best possible outcome.”


I have seen the adverse effects of that second bullet repeatedly, creating situations where great employees with huge potential for innovation become frustrated and leave simply because mediocrity is tolerated, if not outright rewarded ,while their efforts are taken for granted, overlooked or even discouraged. Meanwhile, with this small exception of retention, the engagement metrics are looking good. But more importantly, are we innovating? Creating differentiation? Is all of this helping our bottom line? I dare say it isn’t but it does offer food for thought and a huge opportunity to improve.


Galagan acknowledges that the definition of and criteria for measuring employee engagement is all over the place but includes a quote from First, Break all the Rules that defines an engaged employee as "working with passion and finding a profound connection to one's company". This prompted me to wonder if a profound connection to one’s
company is a realistic expectation? What impact does it really have on an individual’s performance? Is working with passion sustainable under the circumstances
described in the previous paragraph? I have not seen it to be so except on rare occasions.


Further cementing our lack of understanding and effective employee engagement are two fallacies and three truths generally accepted to practitioners but not so widely accepted by their workforce or their organizations. Galagan finds these in the 2013 Edward Lawler III Forbes blog "An Idiot's Guide to Employee Engagement" stating that “these fallacies about employee attitudes, beliefs and behaviors get in the way of understanding and interpreting the engagement surveys we conduct in order to measure and improve our engagement ROI.”

    1. Fallacy: "Money does not motivate people>" (in fact it does motivate some people)
    2. Fallacy: "A happy worker is a productive worker." (performing well makes employees more satisfied; however employees do not work harder because they are satisfied)
    3. Truth: "People differ in what they value-and understanding those differences is critical to motivating people." (we mistakenly assume managers are equipped to do this)
    4. Truth: "Expectations lead to motivation; people engage in behaviors that they expect will lead to rewards they value." (See 3)
    5. Truth: "Satisfaction leads to membership, not performance." ( I think many would find this statement interesting, if not enlightening)


How we accept and utilize this information in the context of equipping and transforming our people and our organizations, as opposed to revamping our engagement surveys which are, after all, a means rather than the end, will determine whether we are transformational or simply compliant. Is ‘happy’ a factor? I think it can be an early marker but within the context of our larger demographic and tied to a much better method of marrying motivation with expectations of excellence.