Despite the Hype, There May Be a Downside to Employee Engagement

For a number of years, the workplace drumbeat has been loudly beating about the advantages of employee engagement.

That’s because it all sounds too good. Who wouldn’t want employees who are so connected to their job and their organization that they would go above and beyond the call of duty to do whatever is needed without being asked to do it?

For a number of years, improving engagement has been the Holy Grail of many organizations, fueling a giant cottage industry of consultants and organizations that supposedly could help you and your company improve engagement, and in turn, the bottom line.

Too much focus on engagement?

But as an article in the Harvard Business Review points out, it’s possible that there are some downsides to high levels of engagement. In The Dark Side of Employee Engagement, psychologists Lewis Garrad and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic make the case that:

The correlation between engagement and performance outcomes is far from perfect, which means that many engaged individuals and teams are not delivering the results that leaders expect. By the same token, some leaders will find that their best performing teams are often amongst the least satisfied. How can this be?

In my view, this happens because there is a relentless and overarching focus on driving better employee engagement, sometimes without any real sense of what benefits it will actually bring.

But still, it makes you wonder — just what is it about employee engagement that could be a bad thing? There are four potential areas of concern, the authors say. They include:

1. Embracing the status quo

From the authors:

Most leaders find that real innovation and change requires a restlessness and dissatisfaction with the status quo to drive people forward in a purposeful way. When it comes to engagement, it is possible that proud and motivated workers resist new ways of doing things because change seems counterintuitive  … Thus the danger for leaders is that an engaged workforce becomes complacent or arrogant if it isn’t self-critical enough.

2. Pushing employees into burnout

From the authors:

When encouraged, it’s easy for highly engaged employees to become so involved in their job that they stop being concerned about other important parts of their lives. … Even if companies would like employees to become spiritual workaholics, that prospect shows little consideration for employees’ long-term well being – and even the company’s own long-term health.

Workplace Culture

3. Giving unfair edge to certain personality types

From the authors:

Engagement is not just driven by situational factors; it is also the result of individuals’ personality. Our own research shows that employees who are naturally more optimistic, positive, emotionally stable, agreeable, and extraverted, tend to be more engaged – regardless of the circumstances. Hiring naturally happy people to (artificially) inflate engagement scores does not result in improved productivity or performance; but it does involve unfairly excluding people who are more pessimistic, introverted, demanding, or moody.  … But for those who are innovating or working on complex problems, higher engagement may be relatively trivial, and a degree of dissatisfaction might be more useful.

4. Undermining the benefits of negative thinking

From the authors:

While it’s true that positive mindsets bring openness and creativity, it’s also true that more critical ones can bring focus and attention. … So while the predominate philosophy in many companies is to focus on the positives to boost engagement and employee morale, we should be careful not to overlook the benefits of negative thinking. For example, defensive pessimists often perform better because they prepare more and try harder; and those who question themselves more often tend be more motivated to achieve their goals.

More focus on culture instead of engagement

My take: I have found my thinking on employee engagement evolving over the years, particularly because the big push to improve it has resulted in so little real change, as Gallup has pointed out repeatedly.

Now I believe that the real focus needs to be on building a strong and sustainable workplace culture, because if you get the culture right, better employee engagement will naturally follow. I have said that,

Good engagement is the product of a great workforce culture, and those just don’t get built up overnight. Building a strong and supportive employee culture, one where everyone feels encouraged to do their very best work with a bare minimum of bureaucracy and BS, can take years to construct and high-level focus to keep going once you do.

I think that psychologists Garrad and Chamorro-Premuzic are on to something, and I wish there would be a lot more questioning of the notion that employee engagement in itself is such a great thing for organizations to be striving for.

Yes, engagement can be a very good thing, but it’s not the only good thing. It has its place, but it may not be something you and your workforce need to be overly focused on. That’s what I take away from this HBR article, and it is something you might want to consider too.

What about increasing candidate engagement?

Even if employee engagement isn’t everything, organizations still need to engage candidates to best compete for hiring and retaining top talent. Here are a few ways that Harver’s automated solutions can help your company engage applicants:

Harver Team

Harver Team

Posted on:
July 25, 2023

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