The Two Sides of the Employee Engagement Crisis

By  Clara Von Ins, Human Capital Specialist

The Good

Two-thirds of employees are reportedly disengaged. With numbers so low, organizations of all sizes are working on different initiatives to help boost morale. And why shouldn’t they? A study by Gallup found a connection between employee engagement and nine performance outcomes:

  • customer ratings
  • profitability
  • productivity
  • turnover (for high-turnover and low-turnover organizations)
  • safety incidents
  • shrinkage (theft)
  • absenteeism
  • patient safety incidents
  • quality (defects).

The study also confirmed that employee engagement is a key driver for company performance even during times of economic recessions.

The Bad

Despite these findings over the last decade, a Harvard Business Review article provides a new twist on studies promoting employee engagement. The article agrees that higher employee engagement scores are correlated with increased employee well-being, performance, and retention. Yet despite these outcomes, engagement does not always connect to higher performance. According to the article, there are four downsides to high employee engagement.

First, while engaged employees are often thinking of lots of innovative ideas, they are likely to be satisfied with the way things are working and won’t challenge the status quo. Challenging processes often takes a dissatisfied employee. Engaged employees may become complacent, which could hinder long-term company performance.

Companies seeking to boost engagement scores also may be unfairly hiring people with certain personality traits. Engagement is not just driven by situational factors but also individual personality traits; several of which are naturally linked with extroverts. Companies should make sure they’re not excluding the introverted for the sake of increased (potentially artificial) engagement scores.

Similarly, employee engagement efforts often aim to put everyone into a positive state of thinking. This downplays the impact that negative thinking can have on organizations. Not only can moderate amounts of stress be beneficial for worker productivity, but those with a more pessimistic outlook may bring different vantage points to challenges that their peers may overlook, or avoid considering at all.

Finally, highly engaged employees may suffer burnout quickly. Because these individuals are so passionate about the work they are doing, they may neglect other aspects of their life. It is critical that companies consider the long-term well-being of their employees, and not just the short-term profits.

The Initiatives

While too much engagement comes with consequences, a good balance has positive results. With all of these different considerations in mind, there are several initiatives companies have used to boost engagement and productivity.

First, hold your leadership accountable. If you want to see your line-level employee engagement go up, their leaders better appear to be engaged. Leaders who act in an authentic and engaging way will naturally cause their employees to do the same.

Second, provide career development opportunities. Some organizations have found that career development is the number-one driver to increased employee engagement. Why? If your employees know that your company cares for them and that there is room for them to grow, they will be in it for the long haul.

Third, focus on employee well-being. As mentioned, employees who are overly engaged may quickly burn out as they focus too much of their energy on their jobs. Help employees meet all their core needs, including physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional needs. When employees have a high quality of life, they will be able to put in productive hours at work.

Lastly, encourage innovation. Give employees the space to come up with new ideas and work on projects they are truly interested in. For example, Cisco has developed a program that enables employees to think of innovative ideas, and they battle for the spot of best idea in the organization. The results? More than half of employees participated, with three winning ideas in a single year! Employees were given the space to work on passion projects and engagement increased.

When taking a look at your company’s engagement scores, be mindful of what the results are really telling you before implementing an engagement initiative of your own.

authorClara Von Ins, Human Capital Specialist
Clara Von Ins is the Human Capital Specialist at the Association for Talent Development (ATD). Prior to working for ATD, Clara worked for the American Red Cross as the disaster program coordinator in Santa Barbara, California.