Better engagement means better performance – or does it?

Employee Engagement

Key points

  • The concept of employee engagement that is popular in today’s organizations lacks a clear definition and solid evidence to support its links with employees’ performance
  • Engagement surveys very often measure job satisfaction and organizational commitment, but these two variables are only weakly linked to employees’ performance
  • Interventions to increase job satisfaction and organizational commitment are important for outcomes such as employees’ health, but they are unlikely to lead to significant increases in performance

If you’re a manager or you’re working in HR, you’ve probably heard about employee engagement – it seems to be the flavour of the month . In 2012, 71% of companies surveyed by Bersin & Associates were measuring employee engagement, making it the number 1 metric in HR. In total, companies were spending $720 million annually trying to improve employee engagement. With so much money being spent, it’s easy to believe that engagement is the key to improving employees’ performance. However, if you look more closely at the evidence, the employee engagement hype loses its shine. One issue is that the engagement surveys used to monitor employee engagement measure many different variables at the same time, and these concepts differ widely between organizations. Another issue is that two of the most often measured variables, job satisfaction and organizational commitment (see Gallup’s Q12 measure), are not as important to performance as the engagement industry would like us to think. 

Using a scientific approach to look at the engagement-performance link

Michael Riketta published a 2008 meta-analysis of individual studies looking at the link that job satisfaction and organizational commitment have with performance. He focused on longitudinal studies (measuring job satisfaction and performance at least twice, with a time lag in between). These longitudinal studies allow us to observe better whether changes in job satisfaction happen before changes in performance. 

A happy employee is not always a productive employee

Contrary to popular belief, the meta-analysis found that employees who are satisfied with their job and committed to their organization do not perform much better than their peers who were not. In fact, job satisfaction and organizational commitment are weakly linked to employees’ performance when they are all measured at the same point in time. And the link becomes even weaker if time passes before measuring performance. If employees’ job satisfaction and organizational commitment increase by one unit, their performance after 7 to 12 months goes up by only 0.02 units. And this is true for both employees’ task performance and extra-role performance (behaviours that are not directly expected or rewarded, such as helping colleagues with their work). 

In conclusion, changes in employees’ job satisfaction and organizational commitment result in very small and barely measurable changes in performance.

Employee Engagement

How can the engagement industry be wrong?

If you look for “employee engagement” on the internet, you will find statements like “We know that engaged employees lead to higher performing, more resilient organizations”. How can this be such a widespread claim, when the scientific evidence behind two variables often measured through engagement surveys does not support it? 

What happens is that organizations and consultants measure both engagement and performance at the same moment in time. Even if the data shows engagement and performance are highly related, it is misleading to conclude that engagement causes performance. Even worse than this, some consultants and organizations simply assume it is true that engagement improves performance, without any data to back up the claim. They base their beliefs on the consultants’ perceived expertise or on the fact that the claim makes intuitive sense. However, these are not good reasons by themselves to invest in an organization-wide survey or intervention.

A second issue with the claims about employee engagement is that they’re not referring to the same thing. Engagement is defined very differently by consultancies and organizations. Often, the surveys are very similar to measures of job satisfaction and organizational commitment, and sometimes they refer to something completely different like physical conditions of work. This means that when someone claims that “engagement increases performance”, you can’t tell what the person is referring to, despite having evidence to support their claim, because it all depends on what they put under the “engagement” umbrella. But this ambiguity creates space for people to make general claims about engagement that are not clearly supported by evidence. 

Takeaways for your practice

Engagement is at the centre of a big industry, but the most widespread concepts under the “engagement” label, job satisfaction and organizational commitment, are only weakly linked with task performance and extra-role performance. The evidence does not in itself justify investing in interventions that increase employees’ job satisfaction or organizational commitment to improve employees’ performance. Instead, other interventions might work better to improve performance, while focusing on job satisfaction and organizational commitment might result in other important outcomes. So, when it comes to engagement:

  • it is likely that your organization either runs an engagement survey or someone will propose it at some point. Before investing (more) resources into measuring and improving employees’ engagement, answer these key questions:
    1. What do we mean by engagement? An easy way to answer  this is to look at the question you are using to measure employees’ engagement. By identifying the variables you’re actually measuring, you can make more specific claims and predictions and evaluate if they’re true.
    2. How do we know engagement, as defined in our organization, is a good predictor of performance? Whether you’re talking to an external consultant or to a colleague who claims the engagement survey reveals the key to your organization’s success, ask for the evidence behind those claims, both in terms of data and how it was obtained. Strong claims require strong evidence. To properly support a cause-effect claim, data needs to be collected at several points in time, and two randomly assigned groups (low engagement vs. high engagement) must be compared in terms of performance. 
    3. What outcomes are we trying to improve? If the answer is employee performance, focusing on job satisfaction or organizational commitment won’t make much of a difference. However, both factors are key for other important outcomes, such as voluntary turnover, employee burnout, and health

Notes

In this article, we use the terms “employee engagement” and “engagement” as it is frequently understood by HR practitioners. This is a different concept than “work engagement”, a concept developed by Schaufeli, Bakker and colleagues (https://limo.libis.be/primo-explore/fulldisplay?docid=LIRIAS1952407&context=L&vid=Lirias&search_scope=Lirias&tab=default_tab&lang=en_US&fromSitemap=1).


Trustworthiness score

We critically evaluated the strength and quality of the study we used to inform this Evidence Summary. We found that the study design – a meta-analysis of longitudinal studies – is highly appropriate to demonstrate a causal relationship. Therefore we can conclude that it is shown that job satisfaction and organizational commitment have a weak causal effect on performance.

Learn how we critically appraise studies to assign them a Trustworthiness Score.


ScienceForWork is an independent, non-profit foundation of evidence-based practitioners who want to #MakeWorkBetter.

Our mission is to provide leaders and decision-makers with trustworthy and actionable insights from behavioural science.


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References

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About this Evidence Summary

This Evidence Summary was created thanks to the contributions of:

  • Iulia Cioca – writing
  • Mark Seabright – editing and quality assurance
  • Wendy Hirsch – visuals
  • Lorenzo Gallì – critical appraisal of the meta-analysis

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4 comments

  1. The engagement industry has a huge self-interest in perpetuating the myth. Spurred on by studies like Gallup, even though Gallup never says what the EE industry quotes. Gallup’s writings state they noticed companies who are successful, by whatever measure Gallup used, appear to have more highly engaged employees. Their studies do not state that the performance is a result of the engagement, The survey science has evolved for decades, and the investments have followed without so much as a tick mark of improvement. Lulia, you have it exactly right, the industry is aiming at the wrong target. Looking at it from the CEO’s level, whatever label you chose to hang on it, improving business performance is the ultimate goal, and no studies indicate current approaches are achieving that goal. The complexity of the surveys obfuscates the simplicity of the problem. I have 20 years of results to back this up, let HR sit the next one out, have the CEO ask a simple question allowing employees to say whatever it is they think is getting in the way of enjoyment and the company’s performance. Then a third-party reporting to the CEO collects the data and fights for the employee’s ideas challenging the blockers in the politics, culture, and silos. Engagement is measured then measured by the two things, the degree to which employees became engaged in the process and the actual business results they delivered. In one case several hundreds of millions in only ten weeks. Somewhat unsophisticated but highly accurate, this approach tackles the bullshit that gets in the way of employees happiness and performance. Stop with the silly “my survey is better than theirs”. The survey is the least impactful aspect of any employee engagement initiative.

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  2. Pingback: Employee Engagement – why bother? – Aspire HR

  3. Melissa Narron

    While I fully enforce this study into the connection between engagement and performance, I think it is still important to discuss the affect that lack of engagement can have on turnover. I do also struggle with the term engagement because different factors motivate each worker. We put these factor analysis projects under this engagement umbrella because we aren’t quite sure what to call it and in a global company people at least have a basic understanding of the topic when you use this term. Better use of big data gives us better understanding of the factors leading to performance results and flight risk. I believe we must define the category differently and help build the analytical capabilities of our HR professionals to help sniff out the wasted money and effort that doesn’t truly add value to the business.

  4. Pingback: Meta-analysis: Better engagement means better performance – or does it? – HPT Treasures – for Evidence Based Performance Improvement