Employee Engagement and Productivity: Are These Really Related?
I always mean to write more on the topic of employee engagement. The topic is as important as it is misunderstood. As I have immersed in the HR Bloggosphere, I have come to learn that the topic can also be unexpectedly polarizing. Many in the HR community would claim that employee engagement is the most important development in employee productivity since the assembly line. At least as many HR professionals (ok, I didn’t survey, don’t ask for the data) think engagement is as important as those trust exercises where your co-workers catch you as you fall backwards- this is where you learn that broken trust sounds a lot like a human skull bouncing off a marble floor.
I have a bit of experience with employee engagement, having most recently been employed by an organization whose primary service offering was assisting organizations with their employee engagement surveys. I also have extensive training in human behavior in the workplace, coupled with a lifetime of both pleasant and unpleasant work experiences. As you might imagine, I have a few things to say about the topic of employee engagement and I think my view on the topic is the best EVAR. Thankfully, I am not deluded enough to expect anyone else to agree with my opinions- that only happens after my third beer.
So are engaged employees more productive employees? In my analysis, the answer must be a qualified yes. I qualify it because as every I/O psychologist knows (or maybe it was just my colleagues at NIU), the real answer to just about any question about the human condition is “it depends.” Human productivity is a complex phenomenon and is driven by a host of factors including job design, leadership, employee goals as well as attitudes and motivational states. Employee engagement is only part of the performance equation.
The question we should be asking ourselves is not whether or not employee engagement is important, but how important it is. When several variables impact performance, it is important to understand the relative import of each of them so we might focus our limited organizational resources on those that promise the most impact. Is engagement important enough to spend money boosting it? That depends on what else is going on in your organization. You have to fix the basics before you can fix the hard stuff. In the immortal words of Mr. Miagi, “First learn stand, then learn fly.”
To really understand the impact of employee engagement on performance, we must understand the nature of performance. I will keep it simple: I/O Psychologists and business scholars recognize two major types of performance, task and contextual (also called organizational citizenship behaviors). Some of the organizational interventions we can engage in impact task performance (training, selection, effective management techniques, job design). Other interventions focus on contextual performance- this is the domain of employee engagement, though other concepts also apply. Enhancing contextual performance can deliver return on your investment that improvements in task performance cannot. By the same token, improvements in task performance yield improvements that enhancements to contextual performance cannot.
Bottom line: if you want your employees to do their jobs and do them well, focus on task performance interventions. However, if you want your employees to go beyond their jobs, be creative and think about the organization and its mission, then you better make sure they are engaged.