In the first two episodes of this podcast I mentioned the idea of employee engagement a few times, specifically the impact of continuous conversations and learning and development opportunities on employee engagement. But I didn’t really define engagement or go in-depth on it. That’s what this episode will be devoted to.
As a manager you’ve likely heard about employee engagement in some form or another. Your organization might have an engagement initiative, a strategy for enhancing employee engagement. You might’ve taken an engagement survey, which is arguably the most common form of measuring employee engagement. Or you might follow certain websites or get emails that reference employee engagement quite frequently. You might’ve also heard that employee engagement often has a number of benefits, such as increasing employee productivity and innovation, as well as decreasing turnover, absenteeism, and workplace injury. Despite all the things you might have heard about employee engagement, you still could have questions about it, maybe you need a refresher, or maybe you’re just curious.
So I’ll be going over two mysteries throughout this episode. The first is what employee engagement is. The second is what employee engagement is not. This episode will be a bit different than the first two because it’s more conceptual. Some episodes will be a little more research heavy with stats and results, others will be heavier on kind of check lists or do this/don’t do this, and others still, like this one, will be more about the idea of something. In this episode, that idea is employee engagement.
Well, what is engagement? I’ve been talking about it for several minutes now and I haven’t defined it yet. Ask yourself: what is employee engagement? How do you define it? I’ll give you some time to think it through or write it down.
Now that you have something in your head, whether it be a full-on definition, some phrases, or even one or two words, here is how we define employee engagement at Quantum Workplace: employee engagement is the strength of the mental and emotional connection employees feel toward their jobs, teams, and places of work. How does that differ from what you thought about? Was it pretty similar? Worlds apart? Did you focus more on behaviors or feelings? Either way, the definition I provided is definitely a mouth full, so I’ll unpack each part.
The first important part is “strength.” It may not sound like much, after all it’s just one word. But that one word implies a spectrum, low to high, very weak to very strong, and so on. That’s crucial because I see the following question asked way too often: Are your employees engaged? That’s not the right question to ask. Engagement is not a light switch. It’s not on or off, all or nothing. Instead, it’s a spectrum, like having a dimmer switch that can make a room really dark or really bright, and everything in between. Or a different analogy is a car. Asking “Are your employees engaged?” is like suggesting that a car’s only functionality is being on or off, and that’s it. The better question is “How engaged are your employees?” This gets more into quality, like how much gas is in the tank, how fast can it go, is the motor running fine, are there any issues with the brakes? One word, such as “strength,” can be very powerful in how it shapes our perceptions, as well as the questions we ask. I believe we need to change our outlook on engagement from one of being engaged or not being engaged, to one of “How engaged am I?” Are you a little engaged, really engaged, even...disengaged?
The definition of employee engagement starts with “the strength of the mental and emotional connection.” That’s the second important part – that mental and emotional connection. Employee engagement is fundamentally related to connecting, like topics such as motivation, trust, confidence, pride, inspiration. At Quantum Workplace we frequently use certain labels to describe how connected employees are to their places of work. These go from highly engaged to moderately engaged to barely engaged to disengaged. You can hear the spectrum, the strength, in those labels – of going from high to low, or even high to none. The beauty of those labels is that you can replace the word “engaged” with “connected” and they still make perfect sense. Highly connected, moderately connected, barely connected, and disconnected. Connection is about alignment, linkage. Having a stronger connection, much like an internet connection, means more information can go through more rapidly with fewer delays and errors. But having a weaker connection means less information can go through, and what information does get through is processed more slowly. And there are more errors that pop up, kind of like getting a 505 or 404 error when trying to load a webpage. And being disengaged is like having no internet connection – nothing loads, nothing really gets through. So higher engagement is, in a way, a foundation for stronger, better, and easier communication within teams and organizations. If the foundation is rocky, then anything built on top of it may fall apart.
The full definition of employee engagement is, again, the strength of mental and emotional connection that employees feel toward their jobs, teams, and places of work. That last part is the final important aspect of engagement. You can feel differing levels of connection to your job, your team, or the organization as a whole. For example, how connected do you feel to your day-to-day tasks and responsibilities right now? Does your job inspire or motivate you in any way, or is it…just a way of getting a paycheck? Same for your team or immediate coworkers. How connected do you feel to them right now? Do you get along with them, feel accepted by them, trust that they’re dependable and have the team’s best interests in mind? Or has there been some friction lately, some changes, some words exchanged that’s making you feel less connected? And the same goes for your organization. How connected are you to the company you work for right now? Do you think it’s a great place a work? Do you speak highly of it when talking with others? Would it take a lot for you to leave your organization? You could have high job engagement, moderate team engagement, and be disengaged with the organization, and all other combinations of highs and lows that change from month to month.
Now that was all probably much more detail than you’ve ever heard, or maybe even wanted to hear, about employee engagement, but I felt it important to devote a large chunk of time breaking down the definition instead of just saying it and moving on.
The main takeaway from this first topic is that employee engagement is a spectrum of connection, and that connection can feel different depending on whether you’re thinking about your job, your team, or organization overall.
As with a lot of ideas that become popular in the business world, several related concepts tend to get bunched in with the core idea until it becomes a jumbled mess. So to clean out the cobwebs of confusion, I’ll briefly review two topics that are related to, but not the same as, employee engagement.
The first related idea is employee satisfaction. Satisfaction is about being content from something being fulfilled. It’s a baseline, the bare minimum positive feeling that you could have about aspects of your work. But it’s cruise control. It’s non-motivational. A job might fulfill your expectations and preferences, but that doesn’t mean it’s pushing or driving you toward greater levels of productivity or investment. I believe employee satisfaction is a prerequisite, a doorway, for higher engagement. You need to be satisfied with your job, team, or organization to have the possibility of feeling more engaged, to open the door to potentially become more engaged. So even though I think satisfaction is needed for engagement to thrive, that doesn’t mean they’re the same thing.
The second related idea is happiness. There’s almost an obsession with employee happiness nowadays. Not as a strategy like engagement, but rather some unquestioned ideal that a happy employee is a productive employee, and organizations should aim to maximize happiness no matter what. Now I’m very aware that some people have the exact same outlook about employee engagement, that it’s some unquestioned ideal and all that. But with happiness...I don’t know, I just take a more cynical approach with the idea of happiness, in terms of how it’s generally portrayed in businesses. All that cynicism aside, we can think about happiness as a somewhat elevated form of satisfaction. To build on that, just because a mood or emotion is generally positive does not make it engagement. Happiness is often a short burst of positive emotion that people feel when they’re especially satisfied with something. Happiness is when we feel good at a particular time. But this positivity, this goodness, doesn’t necessarily translate into connection, of inspiration, pride, or even motivation. You can feel happy about closing a big deal or finishing an important project at work, but that doesn’t mean you feel more engaged with your job just because you closed a deal or finished something. The ideas are certainly related, in that if you’re consistently happy when you’re around your coworkers, you’ll probably end up feeling more connected to them, but that doesn’t mean happiness is the same as engagement.
The main takeaway from this second topic is that employee engagement is not the same as employee satisfaction or happiness. Satisfaction is more of a baseline, non-motivational positive emotion, whereas happiness is an elevated form of satisfaction. Happiness is more similar to engagement than satisfaction is, but just because two ideas are related doesn’t mean they are the same and can be used interchangeably.
As a recap, I discussed the mystery of employee engagement, specifically of what it is and what it’s not. It is a spectrum of connection, and it’s not the same as employee satisfaction or happiness. I hope you now have a better understanding of employee engagement, and that my more in-depth approach has clarified some things for you.
I encourage you to learn more about employee engagement from other sources. I’m just one person offering the philosophy of just one organization, so think of this episode as one step toward having a better conceptual understanding of employee engagement. Look at how other organizations define and frame it. And as a good exercise, talk with your team about engagement. Ask them how they think about it. Or even better, ask them when they feel most engaged and least engaged at work. This can offer you a great barometer, a measuring stick of the kinds of things you can do, not do, support, or provide to maximize higher levels of engagement and minimize disengagement.
And that’s it for this episode! Join me next time on Manager Mysteries & Mishaps, where I’ll discuss the best work environments.