Employee Engagement – Do You Really Know What You Are Measuring?

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A variety of studies find a solid relationship between the degree of employee engagement and outcome measures of all sorts – profitability, total return, revenues, safety and even customer service. Engaged employees tend to promote the company, have significantly lower absenteeism and turnover rates and contribute discretionary effort. Disengaged employees, on the other hand, miss an average 4 more work days per year, are less productive and cost the US economy an estimated $355 billion a year in lost productivity.

So what is engagement?

Employee engagement is the emotional commitment an employee has to the organization and the organization’s goals. Employees who are fully engaged will exert discretionary effort, going above and beyond the responsibilities outlined by their job descriptions. Using this definition, we can describe three different levels of engagement in the work force: those who are engaged, those who are neither engaged nor disengaged, and those who are actively disengaged. While estimates of the relative distribution varies from author to author and study to study, it is not unrealistic to suggest that the distribution is a normal curve with about 20% actively disengaged, 20 % actively engaged and the balance neutral.
There are four sets of conditions that affect engagement. Two of these may be thought of as precursors to engagement while the second two may be thought of as catalysts of engagement.

The Precursors

Let us first examine the precursors. In his classic Harvard Business Review article, “One More Time – How Do You Motivate Employees” Fred Herzberg laid out a theory of motivation consisting of two separate and distinct factors that he called “hygiene factors” and “motivators”. The first set is called hygiene factors because they are like washing your hands – this will not make you healthy but will prevent you from becoming ill. Hygiene factors focus on the context of the work such as physical environment, nature of supervision, relations with co-workers and perceived equity of rewards and punishments. These context factors will not make workers engaged, but the absence of them will cause them to be disengaged. When hygiene factors become so overwhelmingly negative as to outweigh satisfaction with the job content or the company, workers become disengaged and begin to look for alternatives. At best, they become merely transactional workers putting in their time without passion or enthusiasm.
The first two factors that we consider fall into this “hygiene” thinking. In and of themselves they cannot create engagement, but the absence of them can prevent engagement. These factors are role clarity and work context.

Role Clarity has to do with the employee understanding job expectations and having the resources to do the job effectively.  Statements from employees who are experiencing role clarity might look like this:

  • “I know exactly what is expected of me in my job”
  • “I know where to go to get the training I need for my current position”
  • “The expectations of my job are clearly stated”

Work Context focuses on the employee’s physical environment, nature of supervision, relations with co-workers, and perceived equity of rewards and consequences.  Having a good work context will not by itself cause an employee to be engaged, however having a bad work context will cause an employee to be disengaged.  Workers who have their work context conditions met may make statements like these:

  • “I find my co-workers to be friendly and pleasant.”
  • “The work environment I work in is physically comfortable.”
  • “People here get what they deserve based on what they produce.”

Catalysts of Engagement

The second set of factors are catalysts of engagement.  Assuming that the precursors are met to a sufficient extent, these conditions then generate engagement.  There are also two levels of these – job satisfaction and organizational commitment.

The first of these is satisfaction with the job itself (Job Satisfaction).  This factor focuses on the content of the job rather than the context of the job.  Richard Hackman of Harvard University, a thought leader on how work motivates employees, has identified the core job dimensions that a person needs in order to be motivated by their work.  These are:

  • Skill variety
  • Task identity
  • Task significance
  • Autonomy
  • Feedback

When these five dimensions are present, employees experience the three critical psychological states needed for engagement: experienced meaningfulness of the work, experienced responsibility for outcomes of the work, and knowledge of the results of their work.  These states lead, in turn, to organizational outcomes we are seeking: high internal motivation, high quality work, high satisfaction with the work, and low absenteeism and turnover.

The final condition is commitment to the organization (Organizational Commitment).  Jim Collins, author of the bestselling “Good to Great” and “Built to Last”, found that organizational commitment is a function of what we call focus and alignment.  Focus means that the organization has a clear core ideology consisting of a purpose for existing and a set of supporting core values that guides their daily behavior.  Alignment exists when everyone in the organization knows and lives the core ideology and understands how their individual contribution helps the organization succeed.

In order to be fully engaged, employees must have all three conditions met.  One of the often quoted examples of this is “people don’t quit jobs – they quit bosses.”

We have derived three levels of engagement

Level 3 consists of those who are actively disengaged (the “seeking”).   Those who are in Level 3 are turnover merely waiting to happen.  Probably the most common cause of disengagement is hygiene factors – people feel that they are not recognized, their salary is not equitable, they do not like their supervisor and so forth.  In fact, in exit interviews the most commonly cited reason for leaving a job is dissatisfaction with one’s immediate supervisor.  Of course, hygiene factors may be satisfied yet people may still be disengaged based on one of the other two conditions.  For example, the person might love their job but become disenchanted with leaders’ ability or willingness to live the core ideology.  Conversely, the employee could believe in the cause but have a job that is so lacking in the core job dimensions that they may seek alternative employment opportunity.  The critical thing about the disengaged group is that leaders spend a great deal of time trying to get them motivated, often without success. Because of their active levels of disengagement, this group intentionally avoids giving discretionary effort.  “That’s not my job”,  “That’s why he gets paid the big bucks” and “No matter – I get paid Friday anyhow” may be typical expressions of workplace engagement that comes from this group.

Level 2 is those who are neither engaged nor disengaged (the “silent majority”).  More than fifty percent of workers are in a situation where they are neither engaged nor disengaged.  They are fundamentally not dissatisfied with the hygiene factors but are not job motivated or committed to the organization.  These are transactional workers.  They work for what they consider to be an equitable wage and are not actively seeking alternative employment but are also not averse to leaving if a better situation in terms of either job or organization comes along.  They are conscientious and hardworking but only to the limit of what they consider “fair”.

Employees in this category may also be satisfied with their job content but lack affiliation with the organization or may be highly committed to the organization but dislike (or at least are indifferent to) their specific job.  Examples of the former may be teachers who love to teach but have no long term loyalty to a particular school.  If their subject were deleted from the curriculum they would merely look for another teaching venue.  An example of the latter category is the person who is working for an organization with a clear and commendable core ideology (vision plus values) but whose specific job is meaningless but necessary.

People in Level 2 are a moderate flight risk.  They will not change for the sake of changing, but probably would move to a different opportunity if the deficient condition could be improved.  They provide an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, but no more and no less. This group is the most fruitful in terms of creating employee engagement because it is the largest.  Creating engagement at this level has big payoffs.  In the words of Dallas football coach Tom Landry, “Super Bowls are not won by making your star players superstars – they are won by making your average players stars”.  This is the group that contains the potential stars.

Level 1 contains the fully engaged (the “strivers”).  The Conference Board defines engagement as “a measurable degree of an employee’s positive or negative emotional attachment to their job, colleagues and organization that profoundly influences their willingness to learn and perform at work”.    When people are motivated by the work they do and committed to the organization, they are in the 20% of the workforce that is fully engaged.  As in other Pareto situations, we could expect that this 20% of the work force puts forth 80% of the effort required for the company to be successful.  Similarly, this 20% may be responsible for 80% of the positive outcomes.  These engaged employees provide discretionary effort – they give their all.  They are not tempted away by marginal raises or promises of better things – they are where they want to be and will stay there absent some major sea change in the conditions.  For example, a colleague just got a new boss who chooses to “spin” information to reflect herself in the best light rather than just report the objective facts.  Our colleague finds this unacceptable, and despite being highly engaged and a high potential employee is seeking a new position.

How can we tell whether the work force is engaged or not?  On the macro level we look for those indicators of disengagement – low motivation, poor quality, high absenteeism and turnover and a general sense of malaise and on the opposite side the corresponding indicators of engagement.  We can also look at the individual employees and try to estimate who is at which level based on their behavior.


Engaged employees: Disengaged employees:
·   Attentive ·   Lazy
·   Responsible ·   Can’t be trusted
·   Energetic and passionate ·   Passive
·   Accountable ·   Irresponsible
·   Finish work on time ·   Slow to get work finished
·   Never miss work ·   Show up late to work
·   Help others in the workplace ·   Responds slowly
·   See the positive ·   Complains about the work


The best way, however, is an employee engagement survey.  A survey of this type will not only reveal patterns of engagement or disengagement, but can also identify many of the underlying causes and indicate actions that may be taken to correct the situation.

Taking steps to improve engagement

Once we determine the overall state of engagement and our target population, the question becomes how to create engagement.  Simply conducting and announcing the results of a survey does not increase engagement.  Action must be taken and the solution must be based on the root cause.

We must address hygiene factors (precursors) first.  From Herzberg’s original study and subsequent research, we find that the major dissatisfiers of the job are:

  • Company policies and administration
  • Nature of Supervision
  • Relation with supervisor
  • Environmental work conditions
  • Equity of salary
  • Relationship with peers
  • Status
  • Security

Obviously, some of these are more in the control of the leader than others.  While leaders may reassure employees that they have job security there is often a sense that these assurances are not real.   Likewise, there may be opportunity for leaders to drive immediate change on policies and administration.  There is an opportunity, however, to directly influence what appears to be a major cause for disengagement and turnover – nature of supervision and relationship with supervisors.   While these may seem the same, one is concerned with the nature of the task and the other with interpersonal relations.  Nature of supervision consists of issues such as “I was micro-managed”, “I get contradictory instructions” and “there are no clear metrics around my job”.  Relation with supervisor concerns whether or not supervisors have a genuine concern for the well-being of employees, appreciate and protect work-life balance and treat employees with dignity and respect.  Leaders can not only model these behaviors, they can also teach them.

The second set of Herzberg’s factors is job motivation, the flip side of the hygiene.  The characteristics that create job motivation, according to Herzberg and subsequent studies, are:

  • Sense of achievement
  • Recognition
  • Nature of the work itself
  • Sense of responsibility
  • Opportunity for advancement
  • Opportunity for growth

There are many easy and inexpensive ways to increase these motivating factors.  As mentioned above, Richard Hackman has specifically expanded the characteristics of the nature of the work itself.  Strategies for improving these are also relatively straight forward and fairly easy to implement.  They fall into three fairly large categories – job rotation, job enlargement and job enrichment.

Job rotation may be thought of as “cross training”.  Rather than keeping an employee doing the same specific task over and over, they are rotated into parallel positions that they have the skill to do.  This may increase both skill variety and task identity.

Job enlargement means increasing the number and variety of tasks that a person might do.  Instead of merely sorting mail by department, for example, the employee might actually deliver it to the various departments.

Job enrichment is the vertical expansion of jobs.  It increases the degree to which the employee controls the planning, execution and evaluation of his or her work.  It increases task identity, autonomy and feedback and helps create a meaningful “chunk” of work.

The third grouping is those who have satisfactory hygiene factors and high work satisfaction but lack organizational commitment.  Creating engagement, in this case, is a function of organizational alignment – that is making sure that the organization has a core ideology (purpose plus values), a clear vision of what it is trying to achieve in the short term, and ensuring that everyone knows the purpose, values and vision and how their individual efforts helps the company achieve them.

So, what are you really measuring?  You cannot create engagement without an understanding of the complexity and the underlying conditions influencing it. Regardless of the actual state of engagement of your workforce, the first requirement is an awareness of the importance of engagement and a willingness to assess it and to take action to improve it.  Someone once said “Prescribing without diagnosing is malpractice”.  The first step is analysis – how engaged is your workforce overall?  What are the reasons for disengagement?  Do you have major differences across functions, locations or departments – and can you find the best practices in those who have high engagement and leverage them in other areas?

There is hardly anything more discouraging than creating excitement about making conditions better followed by an absolute lack of action.  Those who win the engagement battle will do so by acting quickly on the results.  No one expects a major turnaround in 30 days, but in 30 days we can identify and begin to deal with some of the “low hanging fruit”.  The main purpose is quick victories.  For example, in one company an engagement survey showed dissatisfaction with the remote work policy.  The human resources leader took immediate action and at the town hall meetings giving feedback to participants announced the policy would change.  This had a major impact on morale and showed employees the company was serious.

The final step is inspiring employees.  While a major focus should be on correcting things that cause low engagement, it is equally important to celebrate those things that are being done well.  Engagement surveys create a perfect opportunity to share the good news.  No matter how low the state of engagement in a company is, we have always found areas of strength and practices that are working well.

Analyze, act, inspire – with a certain amount of effort and a surprisingly little amount of resources you can move the engagement curve for your organization.  Remember that those companies with high engagement also have higher profitability, retention and satisfaction – and you CAN control it.



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