Engagement: There is something wrong with this picture

August 1, 2009


I love the concept of employee engagement, so much so that I have included it in some of my own thinking on eustress.  Consultants are selling engagement like hotcakes, and we are lead to believe engagement “can have an almost magical effect on the bottom line” (Shellenbarger, 2007) and that fact is supported by “ground breaking global studies

Should we be surprised that studies done by folks that want to sell us something support the value of what it is they want to sell us?

In the peer-reviewed, scientific literature the evidence to support these dramatic claims about employee engagement is very preliminary. One of the best studies I could find on engagement was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 2005.  The study was conducted in Spain with 58 hotel front desks and 56 hotel restaurants.

My adapted diagram of the results of this very well done study is shown above.  Work engagement was evaluated with what I consider to be the best measures available, and employee performance was rated by customers.  The blue arrows show the statistically significant relationships and the numbers next to those lines give an indication of the direction and strength of the relationship.

The red dotted line between work engagement and employee performance indicates that the authors did NOT find a direct relationship between these two.  Work engagement is measured with three different sets of questions, and two of the three sets did NOT even show a statistically significant correlation with employee performance.  Wow!

This study suggests that work engagement creates a better service climate in the organization, which in turn leads to better employee performance.  I totally buy the logic behind that. But look at the 4 questions the authors asked employees to measure service climate:

1. Employees in our organization have knowledge of the job and the skills to deliver superior quality work and service

2. Employees receive recognition and rewards for the delivery of superior work and service

3. The overall quality of service provided by our organization to customers is excellent

4. Employees are provided with tools, technology, and other resources to support the delivery of quality work and service

Remember, we are being told that work engagement predicts these things.  Are we to believe, for example, that because employees are engaged, the organization provides them the tools, technology, and other resources to support the delivery of quality work (question 4)?  I think you see the problem here.

Philosophically, I am totally on board with the concept of employee engagement.  But in my opinion, the peer reviewed and publicly available empirical evidence behind this very popular concept does not support the claims being made about it.

The hype far exceeds the evidence, so proceed with caution if someone shows up at your door selling engagement.

About the Author:

Comments (8)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. David Zinger says:


    I appreciated your post. I worry about the hype and hyperbole of employee engagement elevating it to something that will crash as a fad rather than a reasonable and somewhat beneficial approach to work, organizations, and results.

    I always loved the line: It is good to have an open mind but not so open that your brains fall out.


  2. Hi Bret,

    I don’t believe for a second that we can “force” engagement, just like we can’t force motivation. But I do believe that there are some simple things leader can do to encourage it. Although I’m not a researcher, my experience, both as an executive and as a consultant and coach, leads me to believe there is are answers to the engagement issue. And they may be simpler than anyone can imagine.

    I believe that when employees feel included – i.e., part of a team, asked for their input, have their input acted upon – in a sincere and genuine way – engagement (and sometimes magic) can happen. We make it complex sometimes, when realistically, employees just want to belong – to feel as if their input matters and they make a difference (perhaps Gallup has it right with the Best Friend at Work concept?).

    Organizational impatience leads us to give up on these efforts at inclusion. It takes time to build that rapport. And we’re not willing to wait – the shareholders are nipping at our heels!

    Perhaps there is something good that will come out of this recession: some reflection on the simple things that work. A deep breath, a reminder that relationships are important, and a bit of patience on the part of leaders might go a long way toward encouraging engagement.

    Simple? Yes. Hard to do? Yes. Lets look for the simple things and turn over those rocks first. Then find ways to help our leaders prepare to act on them.

  3. David: Totally concur. Again, I LOVE the concept, buy it hook line and sinker, but like you I would hate to see it become another fad. The ones I worry most about are employees, that are quite skeptical. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    Mary Jo: Once again an extremely thoughtful post – would expect nothing less from you. All of what you say is supported by *different* steams of research. Organizational impatience – interesting concept. For employees, that unfortunately is probably seen as a lack of caring, which destroys trust, which is not good.

    I appreciate your thoughts and you taking the time to share them. Thanks! Bret

  4. I’m puzzled by this post.

    Let me summarize what I read:

    You like the concept of employee engagement. And so do I.

    Consultants claim benefits that support what they are trying to sell, which is normal in both your and my experience.

    The best peer reviewed scientific study you could find is flawed, which is normal in my experience.

    The consultants’ claims aren’t supported by the flawed study.

    You advise being cautious about engaging consultants in this area.

    We don’t have anything to support the concept that both you and I like. But as I interpret what I have read, we don’t have any solid study discouraging us from taking action on the concept.

    Should we wait for the arrival of solid empirical evidence that supports the concept before deciding to take action?

    What’s the cost of doing nothing about this concept?

  5. Steven: Your comment is exceptional. I am a strong advocate of evidence-based management, but I find it difficult to practice sometimes for a number of reasons.

    I personally continue to teach the concept of engagement to students in my classes. But I no longer talk about engagement when I am training for an employer. There, I stick to satisfaction, comittment, and trust because these have a much stronger empirical legacy. Regardless of what I talk about or what audience I am in front of, I always try to remind them that there is just no simple formula for performance.

    I remain very skeptical about engagement the way it is currently being sold. There are some powerful gatekeepers in my profession that have a strong financial interest in casting engagement in the most positive terms possible. It will be VERY hard for anyone to publish a study in a top journal showing that engagement does not lead to performance. I’ve done two separate studies that show just that, and I don’t think I will ever publish those results.

    Thanks for your contribution to this conversation. I sincerely appreciate your thoughts and time.