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As we meet with organizations around the world, it’s clear that the theme of “employee engagement” is discussed in the boardroom, the conference room, and the classroom. And with little wonder as to why. Countless studies and anecdotal experiences document the clear ties between employee engagement and business performance.

When DecisionWise first started down the engagement road nearly 15 years ago, it was clear that the concept of “engagement” was very different from the idea of “employee satisfaction.” However, even today those lines are blurred by most organizations. The fact is, even though the terms engagement and satisfaction are used interchangeably by many organizations, they are really quite different.

Satisfaction relates to those factors that are required as the foundation for the employment relationship. Satisfaction occurs when these basic foundational elements are in place. However, although they are required elements, they do not necessarily promote engagement. The lack thereof, however, certainly contributes to disengagement. As Herzberg would say, these elements are hygiene factors—they must be present, but do not necessarily result in engagement. Such elements include appropriate compensation, safety, basic recognition, and appropriate working conditions, to name just a few. However, it’s difficult for me to be engaged simply because I feel safe at my job, or because my supervisor isn’t yelling at me. These elements don’t engage me, per se, but when they go afoul, I become disengaged.

When I, as an employee, have my basic needs met, I am satisfied. You’ve fulfilled your end of the bargain, and I will fulfill my responsibilities—commensurate, of course, with what I feel your contribution to our arrangement is worth.

Many organizations today are still struggling to meet even satisfaction needs, let alone reach a point of employee engagement. Many organizations may be fully content with a group of satisfied employees—they typically get the job done. They are our strong-and-steady employees, which make up the bulk of our workforce.


Why Employee Satisfaction Does Not Always Result in Employee Engagement

Satisfaction is based on a transactional relationship. It’s an implied (or explicit) contract—a this-for-that exchange. In a satisfaction-oriented environment, I work because I receive adequate compensation. When I don’t feel that compensation is adequate, my commitment to the job or the organization wanes. My effort will be commensurate with what I receive.

Engagement, on the other hand, involves discretionary effort. The term “discretionary” implies that there is additional effort available on the part of the employee that he or she can CHOOSE to apply. However, the choice to apply this effort is something not stated in the satisfaction contract—it’s up to the employee. In essence, satisfaction is a feeling of satiation, whereas engagement is a feeling of activation.

One of the issues we commonly see in confusing satisfaction with engagement is that many organizations attempt to promote engagement by throwing resources into the satisfaction pool.

As satisfaction is very transaction-focused, it’s similar to a bank account. As long as I have “funds” in that account, I can continue to make withdrawals. Once there is imbalance, dissatisfaction on one side or the other (employer or employee) occurs. For example, an employer may believe they are increasing employee engagement by giving a 5% pay increase. Nice gesture, and it will likely be appreciated. It is a significant deposit into the satisfaction transaction account. The employer now has more leverage with the employee, and can continue to make withdrawals on that account. However, when that account either zeros out or that 5% raise no longer holds the value it once had, additional withdrawals made by the employer result in a commensurate drop in contribution on the part of the employee.

Take, for example, the organization that is struggling with engagement. The annual employee survey is filled with comments relating to employee disconnect with the mission of the company, inability to make an impact, and inability for departments to work together—engagement factors. Among the comments are several about installing soda machines in the break rooms. The company sees an easy win, and installs soda machines in each break room. Employees are elated! Credits are added to the employer’s satisfaction account.

Fast-forward six months to the follow-up employee survey…

Engagement remains nearly the same. In fact, in some areas it’s declined. The only real difference? $7K in soda machines and more overweight, sugar-buzzed employees. The soda machine perk is now seen as an expected part of working for that organization. The company has tried to solve an engagement problem through a transactional, satisfaction gesture. Satisfaction temporarily increased, but engagement factors were untouched.

Engagement is not based on a transactional relationship. While both the employee and the employer have a role in engagement, it is not dependent upon a number of transactions. It involves discretionary effort—a choice, not an obligation or debt repayment.

Employee Engagement Survey Sample Download

Related Post: MAGIC: The Five Keys of Employee Engagement

Related Post: When Engagement Replaces Satisfaction

Related Post: Employee Satisfaction vs. Motivation and Employee Engagement

Tracy Maylett
Tracy Maylett

Tracy is the Chief Executive Officer and President of DecisionWise, and is responsible for guiding the overall strategy of DecisionWise, as well as leading large-scale change efforts for clients throughout the globe. View Bio

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7 comments — View
  • This is a great article. Hits the nail on the head. Over time transactional relationships erode trust and confidence (thus engagement). Employees feel more like commodities and less like people. Employers feel more like a parasitic host.

    Taking time to clearly articulate vision and mission and clarifying how each person contributes to moving the vision forward and carrying out the mission on a daily basis are passed over for seemingly “more urgent” matters. Unfortunately, companies who choose the easy way out – buying more soda per se – end up paying the training and experience costs for the company where the engagement-focused employee eventually lands.

    Can’t wait for the next blog. Keep the wisdom coming.

    Thank you.

  • I agree wholeheartedly. It seems so many companies are so fixated on throwing valueless perks at employees (I’m not complaining about the perks, mind you) that they forget to address the areas that promote engagement. They claim to have addressed the engagement issues, but have only, as Barack would say, “put lipstick on a pig.”

  • So why do so many companies refer to satisfaction and engagement interchangeably? Are they really different or do we just use the same name to cover two completely different areas?

  • Rama:

    I’d say the main reason companies use these terms interchangeably is because most companies don’t realize the stark difference between satisfaction and authentic engagement. While satisfaction refers to meeting an employee’s needs, engagement involves creating a unity between the company’s mission and the employee’s goals and objectives. Engaged employees actively impact and add value to their companies.

    Great article; excellent points.

  • Exactly! So many surveys become a waste of employee time and nothing is done about it. When the employee satisfaction issues ARE addressed, it’s usually not the cause of the actual problem. When will companies finally learn that most of the time you can’t solve an engagement problem with money and that it’s also an employee responsibility as much as it is a management issue?

  • If you want to know how well you do on employee engagement, just start measuring employee engagement on a regular base, allowing you to find out which topics in employee engagement require some extra attention.

  • You really make it appear really easy with your presentation but I to find this matter to be actually something which I feel I might never understand. It sort of feels too complicated and extremely extensive for me. I am looking forward on your subsequent post, I will try to get the hold of it!

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