Employee engagement: are your happy workers disengaged?


It trips businesses up when they get engagement and happiness confused, warns change specialist Penny Loveless. She considers the barriers to engagement and provides tips for sustaining and creating a culture of commitment.

In a world full of employee surveys and league tables, it is easy to get lost in the figures.

Research including the MacLeod Report Engaging for Success shows that organisations with top-quartile engagement generate far better business results than those with bottom-quartile engagement – twice the annual net profit, revenue growth 2.5 times greater and staff turnover that is 40% lower.

While these figures are impressive, we can lose sight of what engagement actually looks like and why it’s so critical to business performance.

Happily disengaged?

So is it possible to have a happy workforce who are disengaged? It may sound unlikely but the short answer is “yes”. Problems arise when businesses get engagement and happiness confused.

Typical employee engagement surveys question staff on how they feel about their company and whether they would recommend it as a place to work. Yet this is a measure of happiness, not engagement. If organisations focus on improving the scores that prove happiness, the result can be a stagnating organisation full of cheerful, agreeable people.

Let’s look at the Wikipedia definitions of happiness and engagement.

It defines happiness as “gladness or joy… a mental or emotional state of well-being defined by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy”. Picture a workplace full of happy, positive people, who love where they work and those they work with. They are loyal to the organisation, turnover is low and trust in the leadership team is high.

On the other hand, it defines an engaged employee as “one who is fully absorbed by and enthusiastic about their work and so takes positive action to further the organisation’s reputation and interests”.

It is this second part of the definition which really gets to the heart of the difference between happiness and engagement.

Recognising barriers

Engagement is an active state, whereas happiness is not. When employees are happy but not engaged, they often unconsciously resist change as they don’t want to upset the status quo or change the conditions that are making them happy.

But when they’re engaged, they recognise where change is needed and have the appetite, ambition and determination to push through barriers that those less engaged believe to be insurmountable.

There are generally three reasons why someone is happy but not actively engaged.

  • Lack of awareness – about the need for change and the consequences of no change. They may have been a high performer for many years but they’re not contributing in the way they need to now.
  • Lack of belief – they may be aware of all of the above but don’t really believe that it’s achievable or that extra effort from them will make a difference.
  • It’s easier to stay in denial and smile – they may be aware of the situation and believe it can change but are so attached to the past and / or fearful of the future that making the shift feels too uncomfortable.

The University of Bath School of Management found 59% of engaged employees said their job brings out their most creative ideas, compared with 3% of those less engaged.

When you consider the level of challenge, innovation and personal risk-taking this involves, it’s easy to see why engagement has such a significant impact on performance.

So how do you create and sustain this level of commitment to drive an organisation forward? What are the critical factors in creating and sustaining engagement?

    1. Everyone genuinely cares about the purpose and vision of the organisation – why it exists, what it wants to achieve and how it is contributing to the greater good.
    2. Every individual fully understands their role in bringing about the purpose and vision and feel they add value.
    3. Mutual respect and fairness – up, down and sideways.
    4. Leaders and managers nurture, stretch, challenge and support their people to grow and develop – staying the same is not an option.
    5. Information, ideas and innovation are sought from the front line and championed by leaders and managers, not just cascaded from the top down.
    6. Leaders walk the talk – they lead by example, take responsibility for their own engagement and that of the people around them.

Leadership commitment

Engagement is a cultural matter. Leaders create the conditions for engagement. It is down to the determination of leaders to go beyond the point at which employees appear to be content.

Start by establishing loyalty and trust and then push on to encourage, stretch, coach, support and insist that people operate at their best. Just stopping at happiness can mean workers slide into complacency, collusion and passivity.

Leaders who recognise their people for what they do well will make them happy. Those who inspire and listen to their teams, who urge them to raise their expectations and achieve more, will engage them.


About Penny Loveless

Penny Loveless is director of Pecan Partnership, which has designed change programmes for NatWest, Santander, Standard Life, Getty Images, Britannia Building Society and GlaxoSmithKline.
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