Employee Engagement: Nice to Have, But Productivity Should be the Goal

Editor’s Note: Dr. John Sullivan has been a provocateur and strategist in the field of human resources and talent management for over 30 years. His specialty is HR strategy and designing world class HR systems and tools for Fortune 200 firms, and he’s never been shy about telling it like it is.

That’s why TLNT asked him to share his thinking in a video series titled “$#*!@ Dr. John Sullivan Says!” Look for these videos twice a week here at TLNT.

Today’s topic: What about engagement?

Employee engagement is a hot workplace topic these days, Dr. John Sullivan says, particularly in the U.S. and it’s even hotter around the world. But, he asks, “is that a great metric? Is that something you should be measuring?”

His first issue with the issue of engagement is that it is a term that’s not used by CEOs. Given that their focus is on things like productivity or ROI, it is probably best to not use engagement because the CEO simply doesn’t understand it as a measureable business metric.

Dr. John also questions the premise of employee engagement: that it is a deeper attachment or commitment by the employee to their job. “Could you have an emotional attachment to the firm … love your job, love you boss, be committed, but not be productive? Unfortunately, the answer is ‘yes.’ … Having engaged employees is a nice thing to have, but it’s not productivity.”

Rather than focusing on engagement, organizations should look to how to increase productivity and innovation. He points to Apple as a good example for how to do that.

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“The new world of HR needs to say,” he says, ‘Not only are our employees engaged, but they’re innovative and productive.” THAT is the true measure of success.


Did you miss the last segment of$#*!@ Dr. John Sullivan Says!” on “What Roles and Activities Should be Added to HR?’ ” You can see it here.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


5 Comments on “Employee Engagement: Nice to Have, But Productivity Should be the Goal

  1. It was interesting to read this after your article: http://www.ioatwork.com/ioatwork/2011/05/want-ceo-success-then-focus-on-task-and-performance.html. Isn’t the point of engagement to get the most creativity and productivity from employees?. Isn’t the point of engagement to get the most creativity and productivity from employees?

  2. Thank you so much for this perspective. The world of HR has completely bought into “engagement,” and frankly, I don’t know why.  Read the questions that people use for the “magic” engagement questions.  They are the same items that were used when we focused on satisfaction.  Engagement as meaured is equal to people staying with their company, liking their jobs, doing “above and beyond” work (e.g. baking cookies?).  Performance and productivity are nowhere to be seen.  I keep hearing from people who tell me about their engagement scores going up while performance is going down.  Of course – no one is asking the important question, which is:  “engaged in what??????”

    See https://staging.tlnt.com/2010/11/23/energy-vs-employee-engagement-does-one-lead-to-the-other/  on TLNT to learn more about the “engaged in what” work.

    Thanks again! 

  3. I am surprised by this notion. While I have big respect for Dr Sullivan, maybe there is an issue with the definition what engagement really means – engagement is not loyalty or satistfaction – there are way too many satisfied under-performers  but in my view engagement is about increased productivity. Engagement must make business sense. There are enough hard research based evidence to support that engaged employees perform better. As a start, you’ve probably all read the classic First break all the rules that demonstrates increased productivity.

  4. I’m a huge fan of engagement and think it has tremendous potential to incrementally increase productivity.  But … 
    It”s helpful to keep in mind is that “engagement” is a creation of consulting firms, not a scientific construct. No researcher found something unusual happening in an organization, studied it, determined that it was different that anything we’ve seen before, precisely defined it and thereby gave birth to “engagement.” To Theresa’s point below, the items asked in engagement surveys are eerily similar to those I asked 15 years ago on “satisfaction” surveys. Another but . . . 

    While engagement is still a bit of a fuzzy thing, there is more academic research being done on it now and there’s enough smoke to suggest that maybe a fire actually exists.  So while probably not the panacea that it’s sold as, engagement (or commitment or satisfaction) can be a helpful indicator of precursors to good (or bad) things happening in organization. 

    To be honest, if we want to reduce the harm being done in corporations today, let’s focus on the completely-bereft-of-any-proof “strengths” movement . . . 

  5. Maybe the time to be most worried about engagement is during a hiring interview, since there’s very little evidence to say that most people can change subsequently.

    I’m reminded of an article I read in my teens about the recruitment of airline cabin crew. As part of the recruitment process every candidate was asked to give a five minute presentation in front of the assembled others. The airline weren’t interested in the content or delivery of the presentation, but in observing the audience reaction to it.

    Most people loathe public speaking, and they wanted to assess those who were the most empathic or encouraging in the audience. They reckoned these people would be the most likely to attend to the needs of their passengers. (If anyone knows the history of this, please get in touch.)

    Gallup have good data on engagement since 1991. Give or take, the ratios of the “engaged”, “disengaged” and “actively disengaged” have remained approximately constant, other than I’d suggest that in the A.D group we now have a small but growing subset we might label “anarchic”. They loathe the people they work with, and despise the people they work for.

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