When Buzz Lightyear uttered the immortal phrase, ‘To Infinity…and beyond’, I wonder what your response was? Did you giggle at the idea that there was somewhere beyond infinity?
Well, I wondered just this the other day, when someone said to me…’It’s employee engagement that makes the real difference, isn’t it?’
Sometimes we are so used to a concept or a phrase that we rarely stop to imagine whether there is any evidence behind this, whether its correct or that there may be another way?
Well during the last year, I have been undertaking research into what is beyond employee engagement. Is there in fact life beyond engagement? Does it even exist? Dare I even venture to question that employee engagement may not be the answer to peak performance.
Employee engagement has been held up as the holy grail for many HR practitioners over recent years and as a true practitioner, I was certainly one of those who chased it and diligently measured it every which way. Indeed, annual surveys are still the go-to mechanism for many organisations and measuring employee engagement is said to cost businesses millions of pounds annually.
In the Civil Service alone, 400,000+ civil servants are surveyed annually and have been for the last decade. What a considerable sum in terms of conducting the survey and in terms of the discussions that follow on about the right interventions that will make a difference to ‘engagement’. But should the question simply be ‘what will help you perform better?’
But we know that engagement leads to performance – right? Well, there are many studies which have suggested there is a link between employee engagement and high performance, but can the link be really that simple? Either way, isn’t it a good thing to implement workplace initiatives that create a better employee experience?
Well, not so quick. There’s a big difference between controlled motivation (‘I have to be here’), autonomous motivation (‘I choose to be here’) and employee engagement (‘I like being here’). Some organisations I have studied, shared their view that engagement was on the increase (good), yet they were not seeing commensurate increases in either individual or organisational performance. They were creating nice places to be, but were not facilitating the satisfaction of needs that meant people felt autonomously motivated.
This year, I conducted a workplace study in a public sector organisation. The participants answered a series of questions which were drawn from the Utrecht Work Engagement Survey (Schaufeli et al) and the Psychological Satisfaction of Needs at Work survey (Ryan and Deci, 2000). Results showed that the interventions that actually made a difference to performance were not in fact engagement but were enabling the feelings of autonomy, competence and relatedness (Self Determination Theory, SDT). So, there is indeed life beyond engagement….
Let me unpack that a little and give you an example.
In simple terms, if we exercise, we consider there will be a positive relationship with losing weight. Often times, we can work hard on the exercise but not see any results – why? Because we have carried on eating a poor diet, drinking alcohol etc. The exercise needs to be ‘moderated’ by good diet! Exercise + good diet = weight loss
It’s the same with engagement. Just acting on improving engagement may or may not get you good performance – it all depends on what else is happening in the workplace. You cannot assume that Engagement = Performance. My research showed that it needs something else to be added into the mix to really bring about the magic. If you are facilitating autonomy, feelings of competence and relatedness in the workplace then you are likely to get that high performance you are seeking. So, Engagement + SDT = High Performance
So, how you can move beyond engagement?
Facilitate Autonomy: You could create roles and teams that are able to take some control in how they undertake tasks, contribute ideas, drive forward and deliver. You could reduce management control and intervention and instead have managers who coach, question and support. Reduce control and you can increase autonomy.
Increase Competence: It’s in us all. That need to grow and feel that we are accomplishing something and moving forward. This isn’t always about career progression but is very much about receiving all kinds of feedback so that we know we are doing a good job and how we can get better. Improve the quality and frequency of feedback and you will increase competence.
Enable Relatedness: The original theory of self-determination, on which my research was based, goes back to the core description of what it means to ‘relate’ in the workplace. We can’t all have purpose and meaning in life or in our job roles, but we can all be encouraged to feel a part of something bigger, even at team level. It is as simple as connecting with others and harnessing the feeling that you are making a contribution.
So, have I given up on engagement? Has the ‘buzz’ died down…?
Not at all. I still believe improving the employee experience must be the way forward in terms of getting the very best performance from our people, but I’ve moved on in my thinking and in my practise…creating autonomy within roles, fulfilling the need for growth through feelings of competence and realising the human need for relatedness are where it is at now.
Just like exercise alone won’t cut it on the scales, working for engagement alone won’t make a material difference. But add in a sprinkling of autonomy, competence and relatedness into your employee experience, and your organisation will really tip the performance scales.
Sally is a Business Psychologist and Organisational Development Consultant.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation
of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American
Psychologist, 55, 68–78.
Schaufeli, W. B., & Bakker, A. B. (2003). UWES – Utrecht work engagement scale: Test manual. Utrecht, The Netherlands: Department of Psychology, Utrecht University.
Schaufeli, W. B., & Bakker, A. B. (2004). Job demands, job resources and their relationship with burnout and engagement: A multi-sample study. Journal of Organizational Behaviour, 25, pp.293–315.