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.