Is Engagement Overrated?

Have we overdosed on the notion of engagement, the elusive workplace elixir that the federal government has been chasing since 2003?

Have we overpromised on the illusion of engagement since the reality of engagement has essentially been non-existent in the public and private sectors since the Great Recession of 2008?

Is engagement really what it is cracked up to be when the engagement winners of the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government are year after year predominately white workplaces?

Did Google, a mostly male and white organization, commit the unpardonable sin when they released a study on teams this summer that failed to mention engagement as a requirement for group health? Instead they found that psychological safety, dependability, structure, clarity, meaning and impact are the pillars of a good team.

Are good leaders necessary for engaged employees when disengaging leaders like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos led their organizations in ways that changed the planet?


Lewis Garrad, a chartered organizational psychologist at Sirota, a research and industrial/organizational psychology consultancy firm and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a Professor of Business Psychology at University College London, claims there are four ways that engagement may harm an organization:

Embracing the Status Quo
The positivity that results from engagement can get employees too comfortable in their own skin. They get fat and happy and tend to resist new and better ways of doing their work. Real innovation and creativity comes from dissatisfied workers who are uncomfortable with business as usual.

Engaged employees bring so much discretionary effort to their work that they often become workplace martyrs. As workaholics, they end up ignoring their physical, spiritual and psychological selves which over time diminishes their performance.

Personality Bias
Engaged employees tend to see the glass as half full. These more optimistic employees while scoring great on engagement surveys may not be high performers. For example, an engaged customer service staff may produce high levels of customer satisfaction. Yet these same workers when asked to solve challenging problems or be innovative and creative may struggle since they think their current circumstances do not demand change.

Ignores Negative Thinking
Criticism can get the organization’s attention by narrowing its focus. Negative people while bothersome are persistent which holds the organization’s feet to the fire. If there were no jerks in the workplace, our organizations would crumble under the weight of volatility, uncertainty, constant change and ambiguity.

While positivity can increase engagement and morale, negative thinking has its benefits as well since pessimistic employees tend to try harder and more inclined to target their objectives.

Let’s search for a more realistic picture of employee engagement. Could it be that we need both engaged and disengaged employees for true engagement?

Do we need a new term to replace engagement? For those who say yes I feel you. That way we can finally agree on what we are talking about which allows us to finally do something about what we are talking about.

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Mark Hammer

If one is very very fortunate, circumstances will allow one to be fully engaged in one’s work and role on a regular basis.. But truthfully, a great many jobs, particularly in government, don’t always permit the sense of fulfillment and justified effort, that sustains that work motivation that gets called “engagement”. That’s not a criticism, or a sin, simply a reality.

Consider how many people will find themselves in jobs they don’t particularly care for or about, because it provides them a point of entry into an organization so that they can pursue other more desirable jobs/roles only available to internal candidates. I suppose we can expect some degree of demonstrable effort out of them, because they DO want to appear marketable. But “true” engagement is not supposed to be instrumental or mercenary. It’s supposed to involve getting lost in the task for the task’s sake. And people who are merely trying to show you they’re hard workers, so that you’ll hire them for what they *really* want to do, are not exactly lost in the task for its own sake.

One of the quirks of government is that things you can throw yourself into can often get stalled or placed on the back-burner because of a change in middle or upper management or a new budget, or whatever. There are all manner of events that can lead one to feel “Well THAT wasn’t worth all the overtime and emotional investment”. In such circumstances UNjustified effort can lead to cynicism and disengagement. In other words, the *degree* of spontaneous engagement has to be matched to an acceptable degree by the *opportunity* for that engagement to lead/go somewhere. Otherwise it can backfire.

None of that is to say that engagement is a *bad* thing. Rather, it is a *risky* thing; risky for both the individual employee, and for the organization, if it doesn’t pay off adequately.