The Fallacy of 100% Engagement

We tend to talk about employee engagement in absolute terms, as if it was wholly achievable, but nothing could be further from the truth.

100% engagement is a complete and utter myth

It is simply unattainable.

Not everyone is going to love what they do all the time; telling them otherwise is irresponsible and a downright lie. It does little more than build an unrealistic expectation of what is attainable.

Even Batman has to be Bruce Wayne

The harsh reality of the working world is that some of what we all do sucks. Case in point, I love traveling and meeting new people, but I hate having to fill out expense reports.

But, overall am I satisfied?


And that, my friends, is perhaps what we should all be striving for. Yes, it may lose some of its luster but being “engaged on average” is most likely the honest and logical endpoint of engagement efforts. At the very least it is a step forward from where the majority of public servants find themselves today.

And that’s okay

Because employee expectations shift over time. They are based on the zeitgeist, comparable (employment) market conditions, past experiences, and personal preferences.
That’s simply called progress, and I don’t know about you but I’ll take progress over complacency any day.

Originally published by Nick Charney at


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Jay Johnson

Everyone has a case of the ‘Mondays’ sometimes. It doesn’t mean they will set the building on fire. Being “too happy” with work would be naive and breeds complacency, and that could kills real improvement. It’s better to have a workplace where people feel free to speak up, especially if something sucks!

Mark Hammer

If you have hired well, then 100% of your staff start out engaged. That is, after all, why you hired them, right? Consulting firms like to pitch the idea that managers can create or foster engagement because that gets them contracts. In fact, no manager has ever really created engagement that wasn’t there in the first place. Never have, never will.

The challenge for the organization and its management is to figure out how to avoid doing the things that undermine engagement. Sometimes, it’s completely out of their hands; particularly in the public sector. And sometimes, the trick is to simply not create unrealistic expectations about the job.

And, truth be told, there are plenty of days when even the most gung ho employee simply isn’t “into it”.

Nicholas Charney

loling @T.Jay and Chris’s invocation of Office Space vernacular.

@Andy I’m fairly certain that Carol’s number is more reflective of the reality on the ground, that being said I’d love to see 80% of the staff engaged 80% of the time. That would be a crazy improvement to the status quo (methinks)

@Mark – I completely agree with your final statement, I have off days too and I’d consider myself fairly engaged. With respect to your first point tho, I disagree. The hiring system (at least in the federal government here in Canada) isn’t designed to select engaged employees but rather people who know how to apply to the process. The system is easily gamed and the focus is usually on getting past the automatic CV screeners =/

Daniel Crystal

Honestly, if you have someone who is 75% productive you probably have a top-notch employee. That’s why I think good managers worry about results (have you accomplished everything I’ve expected of you) more so than time spent at the actual office.

It’s also why I think AWDS is a terrible idea. Do you think people are really productive for that extra hour they’re in the office, or do you think they’re just looking at the clock until it’s time to go?

Mark Hammer

As one of the overseers of federal staffing (you’ve probably filled out my survey on some occasion), I think it is fair to say that there is what hiring systems are “designed for”, and what managers do and think when they hire.

What managers hire for is “promise”. The traditional notions of qualifications, training & experience, “merit”, etc., are part of that, but our data indicates that personality characteristics and “fit to the work team” are near the top of the list for them, in fact higher up than many candidates realize. What managers look for is the “promise” that, between the candidate as collection-of-relevant-KSAs, and the candidate as person with motives, goals, and energy, things are going to work out okay for their unit/group/directorate. Or, as a former DG put it to me “they aren’t going to blow up in my face”. Or, as a professional colleague working for Homeland Security put it so nicely, “a 30 year mistake”.

I view the construct of engagement not as a state (which the majority of writers in the field seem to do) that one aspires to in one’s employees, but rather as a loop. When the feedback loop is working, several things happen. First, managers see what I like to call merit maintenance. That is, the “promise” they looked for in the hire is realized and preserved over time, with little decay. The skills, the zeal for the work, the full-meal deal.

From the employee’s perspective, what they seek is justified effort. At its heart, it is simply a restatement of Thorndike’s Law of Effect, but spruced up to capture what is different about the way humans think, compared to dogs and rats.

What is justified effort? Every hire pursues work with certain expectations about what the job will entail, and enters the job with assumptions about what their role is within the job, but also within the organization. All of that will vary with job type, organization, and individual personality. But what does not vary is that there needs to be a match between the purpose, type and degree of the effort they expend, and what they do and don’t get reinforced for (that’s where the Thorndike comes in). What people think of as a positive outcome will, of course, vary by individual. I’ve heard people say “Hey, if the money’s not on the table, that means they don’t respect me”. And I’ve seen people go to the wall in their jobs because they simply thought they were making a difference.

When there is a disjunction between what the employee thought their role was, what kinds of effort they thought would be valued, and what does and doesn’t get either acknowledged, recognized, rewarded, appreciated, or have the desired consequence (whether because there IS no consequence or reward or because the “wrong things” are getting rewarded), then their effort is not justified in their eyes, and motivation decreases. Their discretionary effort has not been “engaged”.

Case in point. Lovely paper by eminent management guru Jeffery Pfeffer at Stanford ( ) in which he argues that constantly parachuting in “talent” from outside for management positions effectively undermines any incentive for internal employees to self-groom for such positions. It engenders a “Why should I even f***ing bother?” attitude. The employer may think they are doing everything to reward, recognize and “engage” their employees, but for those employees who see their role as learning enough abut the organizaton to be stewards of it and guide it into the future, that gesture of “importing talent” renders all that effort unjustified.

Changes in leadership can also render effort as seeming unjustified. New DG, ADM, DM, or cabinet minister, and everything

Mark Hammer

(Crap!! Didn’t realize there was a character limit. So much beautiful prose and time…wasted)

Changes in leadership can also render effort as seeming unjustified. New DG, ADM, DM, or cabinet minister, and everything ….that was important Friday afternoon is back burner on Monday morning. That will take the wind out of your sails.

I mentioned Thorndike’s Law of Effect, and will elaborate now. Thorndike postulated that spontaneously-emitted behaviour of organisms increases when followed by “satisfiers”, and reduced in frequency when followed by “annoyers”. We like to think of this as simply reward and punishment, but do our selves a disservice in limiting it that way, particularly with respect to humans. Certainly we share much in common with rats, pigeons, dogs, and macaques, when it comes to immediate consequences and their effect on motivational state and affect. But where we differ is that humans have the capacity to imagine futures, and have their motivational and affective state modified by imagined futures. People commit suicide and labour for decades over imagined futures. Those imagined futures are part of what tell us our efforts are either likely or unlikely to be justified. If you want to understand “engagement”, you first have to know what sorts of futures the employee is imagining, and how they think the organization will be assisting or appreciating that future.

In a great many cases, all the employee expects is fairly straightforward, concrete, and immediate. In many other cases, though, what forms part of the employee’s schema of “my efforts are justified” is long-range, and often well out of the manager’s control. Take a look into the research literature on “public service moptivation”. I suspect a great many keeners who score high on PSM enter public service with fairly unrealistic expectations about what they can do, how often they will do it, and how much help they will get to do it. I’d be curious to see how engaged they are a year or two after entering.

Lavon Hopkins

It’s tough to stay engaged when you have managers that focus on “busy work”. As an IT Security Professional, being engaged means finding ways to improve the security posture at my Agency, it doesn’t mean providing the CIO with “fluff” powerpoints. No job is perfect, but I think that striving for at least 70-75% valid engagement is attainable…

Kathy Nelson

I once read a poem called the “school of the animals”. It culminated with the distruction of the animal world–no one was good at or engaged in their own talents anymore because they were too busy being cross-trained or living up to the 100% engaged employee models. Engagement in my mind is assigning an employee a set of outcomes to achieve which fit their talents and strengths and provides challenge. Give them boundaries, give them a voice and let them help build and sustain their own engagement energy–and then let that engagement energy come and go like bursts of jet fuel before a sonic boom. And when the sonic boom is over, give them downtime to find the next idea. I like Angela’s comments on seeing a future in what they are doing. The truth is they see multiple futures if focused on outcomes instead of task fulfillment and number crunching. Outcomes may be harder to measure, but far more worth the effort than task measures.

Alicia Mazzara

I think Mark hits the nail on the head: the problem is “a disjunction between what the employee thought their role was, what kinds of effort they thought would be valued, and what does and doesn’t get either acknowledged, recognized, rewarded”. Ideally, you have hired someone who is engaged (though the federal hiring process has all sorts of issues), but people get disillusioned really fast when there’s this disconnect. When this happens, it’s hard not to take on a , “Why bother?” attitude. It’s also really tough to stay engaged when colleagues around you have thrown in the towel. (We used to call these people “the give-ups” at my old agency – they did the bare minimum to get by and generally made everybody else’s life difficult.)

To the point about AWS – when I had it, I often spent that extra hour staring at the clock, but there were days where I really needed that extra hour to get my work done. There are diminishing returns to productivity, like anything else. However, there are also benefits to giving people every other Friday off – more refreshed employees, greater overall satisfaction. As long as all the work manages to get done, I’d say it’s probably a wash.

Nicholas Charney

I agree with Alicia’s agreement on Mark’s assessment 😉

Also Mark – regarding public service motivation, I recall reading a report that essentially found no noticeable connection between people who had high levels of PSM and greater productivity. In the end the source of motivation mattered far less than the existence of some form of motivation. I wish I could find it now … shoot.

Also a while back I wrote about the connection between motivation and online social networks such as Govloop, it may be of interest to people watching this thread.

Dennis Snyder

One tool I use to test engagement (used widely in U.S. government) is to have employees write their own performance appraisals. The supervisor then correlates the appraisal with the job standards to see if the employee is doing what they are paid for. Most are spot on and they are as fully engaged as possible, understanding we all have occasional off days or need to disengage from a project to view it differently to achieve results from a fresh approach. Unfortunately there are those whose appraisal differs from the performance standard, and the self-appraisal works wonders to show someone specifically where they got off-track. This is a rehabilitative process to recover potential from someone who is well-trained and just needs new focus. Those who still don’t get it are let go.

This is a really great blog, thanks.

Deborah Johnson

We have a brand-new union, which includes my position. It suddenly dawned on me the union might have a different idea of what my level of engagement should be when I went to vote on the contract & met our new rep, who expressed what I interpreted as surprise/dismay that I was attending a different city’s planning meeting that evening. (He & I both live in that community, not where I work.) “Why are you doing that?!” he asked. “Don’t you care about the future of the [—–] property?” I responded. I have no family; I’m a policy geek; my work is what I do. I log into my work account on weekends. I send around articles that might relate at a broader level to our immediate issues. I’m now waiting for my new union to tell me to stop doing that.

Stephen Peteritas

Check out the WaPost Fed page tomorrow Nick, we’re featuring a write up on this post. Also see ya in 2 weeks!

Marie E. Hardy

Thanks for all of the wonderful conversation and insight. This is a topic I have been pondering for a while. Mark Hammer succintly summarized what I had been contemplating and now I think I can develop next steps to address the “discretionary effort” of my employees. Great conversation!!!

“When there is a disjunction between what the employee thought their role was, what kinds of effort they thought would be valued, and what does and doesn’t get either acknowledged, recognized, rewarded, appreciated, or have the desired consequence (whether because there IS no consequence or reward or because the ‘wrong things’ are getting rewarded), then their effort is not justified in their eyes, and motivation decreases. Their discretionary effort has not been ‘engaged’. “

Ed Albetski

Sorry, Nicholas, I get so much spam, I first read the title of your post as

The Fallacy of 100% Enlargement

And I wondered how THAT got on Govloop… Time for new glasses.

Nicholas Charney

Loling @ Ed. Great way to start Friday morning =)

Checked the Page @Stephen, no joy yet, also looking forward to hanging out again, been a while.

Agree w/@Marie – thanks for all the engagement around this post.

@Deborah – don’t let them put you down!

@T. Jay followed the link to the post and awesome’d it.