You are here

Employee engagement definitions to use at your peril - and why

Published 11th January 2017 by Melissa Farrington

We all understand employee engagement, don’t we? Maybe not, if you’re still using one of these definitions...

Employee engagement is discretionary effort

What leaders will be thinking: “Engaged employees put in more time and do more ‘value-add’ things outside their job descriptions, which will make us more productive, and in more areas, than our competitors, and it won’t cost us more money.”

Why this definition makes no sense: It’s unsustainable. Where does discretionary effort start and end? Is someone that works more hours better than someone who is very productive until 5pm then goes home to spend time with their family? Is discretionary effort just overtime in disguise?

There’s evidence that overtime has a detrimental effect on home lives. In any case, discretionary effort has no boundaries, and that is bad for wellbeing. We need clear guidelines and well-defined jobs. It’s about working smarter, not harder.

Employee engagement is emotional commitment

What leaders will be thinking: “Engaged employees care more about their jobs and about the organisation. This is important because if they are more emotionally committed, they will spend more time at work, think more about how they can help the organisation and generally be more committed to performing at a high level.”

Why this definition makes no sense: The number of variables that goes into emotion is mindblowing and to attempt to create emotional commitment at scale, among very different people, is a tall order indeed.

Also, why do you want emotional commitment? For many employers it’s about increasing the chances of discretionary effort. But as we’ve seen above, discretionary effort is the wrong way to go about raising productivity. Productivity and effectiveness at work comes through clear goals, clear targets, well-designed jobs and wellbeing focused on reducing stress and improving performance.

Employee engagement is improving loyalty

What leaders will be thinking: “We’re worried about productivity dropping over time and we’re also worried about people leaving us for competitors. Engaged employees feel more loyal, they’ll work harder, and they won’t leave us for a competitor. This means we won’t have to recruit new people, which is expensive, and our existing workforce will end up being more productive.”

Why this definition makes no sense: Fair pay, interesting work, good training and development, trusting managers - these are the things that keep people with you. If you have to rely on loyalty, you are trying to cultivate an emotion which, by its nature, can be fickle. You should focus on reducing attrition by improving the richness and fairness of the organisation, rather than chasing loyalty.

Also, sometimes it’s time for people to move on, and they may be doing themselves and your organisation a disservice by sticking around through loyalty. As people develop portfolio careers and do more jobs, the idea of moving jobs more frequently becomes entrenched, and it’s questionable how much loyalty you can actually cultivate nowadays.

Employee engagement is improving employee satisfaction

What leaders will be thinking: “People aren’t satisfied and their work is suffering. We need people to be more satisfied at work because if they are, they will put in more effort to meet our goals. Engaged employees are more satisfied at work so that’s why we need to focus on employee engagement.”

Why this definition makes no sense: This is a more mature definition than the others because there’s a strong link between employee satisfaction at work and performance. The danger is that we confuse engagement with satisfaction. Satisfaction is a fine measure with a history of research that points both to the causal link with performance and proven ways to improve satisfaction. But if we muddy the water with engagement, it can lead to confusion.

Want to know what employee engagement really means and how to use it? Read Employee engagement strategy: key questions to answer.