Too Much Engagement Can Be Bad

In light of the hot topic of “Engagement” that has been commanding the attention of HR managers today, I was provoked to think about the extent of focus managers are placing on raising engagement levels. Although there is no one agreed definition of employee engagement, according to MacLeod and Clark (2009), it is “a positive attitude held by the employee towards the organization and its values”. Studies have shown how engagement leads to higher performance, more innovation, and overall profitability for the organization. So we can establish that engaged employees are good for the organization, but it is crucial to bear in mind that there are always limits.

I was intrigued to read about Google’s success in building engagement through culture and its benefits package. Google remains successful in improving employee productivity by using qualitative and quantitative data as a basis of finding ways to optimize its people.

For instance, an excerpt from the article states:

Lunch Lines: You know by now that Google offers free meals and snacks to all of its employees. So what’s the optimal lunch line? At what point is it too long where people waste time and too short where people don’t get to meet anyone new? What’s the prime happy medium? According to Google it’s about three to four minutes. Any longer and they may waste time, any shorter and they don’t get to meet new people.

A warm greeting for new employees: A warm greeting for a new employee turns out to have a big impact. A manager greeting a new employee with ‘Hi nice to meet you, you’re on my team, we’re gonna be working together’ and doing “a few other things” leads to a 15% increase in productivity over the following nine months.

googleplex-office

Googleplex Office with various perks for employees

 

Engagement at GooglePlex

 

However, are organizations executing efforts to increase employee engagement correctly? Do they know when and where to draw the line? When does the effect of engagement become too much and hence disadvantageous?

Here are some of my thoughts:

  • Integrators vs Segmentors. Many organizations have been quick to copy Google’s perks and wonder why didn’t these programs work to improve their organization’s performance? Well, basically there are two types of employees: Integrators – people for whom work life and home life have little distinction; who check office e-mail frequently at home on nights and weekends; and who like child-care facilities at or near their office so that they can bring a part of home with them to work. Segmentors, by contrast, like to maintain distinct walls between work and home. These are people made uncomfortable by a workplace filled with perks related to one’s personal life. Even employees with children can dislike the fact that their employer provides on-site childcare. Perks like Google’s works for Integrators, whereas an integrationist workplace results in less job satisfaction and commitment for Segmentors. Instead they are able to be more engaged in their tasks because they know that they need to finish their tasks in the allotted office hours to avoid working on them at home. Therefore, depending on the type of employees in the organization, different engagement strategies have to be taken.
  • Byproduct, not a cause. Some studies connect engagement with productivity, retention, and customer satisfaction etc. using statistical correlations. Other correlational studies have shown that firms with high engagement scores can have higher revenue per employee, high company growth rates, and earning higher shareholder returns. Ultimately, correlation does not prove causation. An alternative explanation for the apparent connection between engagement and productivity is that when employees are productive, well rewarded, recognized, well-managed, and when they produce a great product, then it is those workplace factors that eventually increase their engagement. Therefore, organizations may be too quick to pour their resources in to raising engagement levels in assumption that it caused the improvement in company performance. Engagement may be a byproduct of other more impactful people-management factors. More studies need to be conducted in this new area.
  • Double edged sword. Engaged employees are attuned to aspects of their work environment that will either facilitate or thwart their job performance. Research has shown that if they are not getting the resources they feel they need to perform at their best, their engagement diminishes and they become frustrate and may blame their supervisors. Given the higher proactivity and energy levels of engaged employees, this frustration could lead to turnover as they begin to look for more supportive work environments. This becomes more important given the cost cutting measures organizations are facing today. (There is a sharp distinction between employee engagement and organizational commitment. They are different – engaged workers are more likely to place importance on being able to perform well because their performance matters to them ahead of corporate loyalty (Christian, Garza and Slaughter, 2011). )
  • Burnout. Another limit to engaged employees is work overload, which can lead to lower levels of morale and job satisfaction. Workers who care most about their work feel they are not performing to their full capability because they have so much to do that they cannot do anything well, leading to burnout. Highly motivated employees are willing to go beyond the call of duty to help the organization, but when temporary overload continues and they repeatedly fail to meet their own high expectations, their motivation becomes directed at locating other job possibilities, leaving the organization at risk of losing key talent.
  • Bounded individuality. Too strong of an emotional tie may actually cloud individual performance and result in groupthink, causing employees to act on emotions rather than facts. Too much “engagement” may cloud decision-making and cause employees to discount external threats and the need for change. Corporate culture “antibodies” may also attack new hires that have yet to prove their loyalty.

 

In conclusion, organizations should be wary of the associated risks of developing too high a level of engagement. While I would encourage following in the footsteps of successful organizations such as Google, it is important for managers to not simply copy engagement activities blindly, but consider how their own diverse employees and different generations are engaged by different things, before coming up with their own relevant engagement programs. Ultimately, high engagement levels are good for organisations, but more research needs to be done to monitor the detrimental effects of surpassing the “healthy limits”.

 

Hope this provoked deeper thoughts on the subject and you guys managed to learn something. Thank you for a great semester! It was fun! 🙂      – Stephanie

 

References

  1. Main article: Inside Google’s Culture of Success and Employee Happiness. Retrieved from http://blog.kissmetrics.com/googles-culture-of-success/
  2. David MacLeod and Nita Clarke (2009) Engaging for success: enhancing performance through employee engagement
  3. Boutelle, Clif (2013) Engaged Employees Are Good for the Organization, but There Are Limits. Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP).  Retrieved from http://www.siop.org/Media/News/engaged.aspx
  4. Perk Place: The Benefits Offered by Google and Others May Be Grand, but They’re All Business. Knowledge@Wharton (2007, March 21). Retrieved from http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/perk-place-the-benefits-offered-by-google-and-others-may-be-grand-but-theyre-all-business/
  5. Sullivan, John (Feb 23, 2012) What’s Wrong With Employee Engagement? The Top 20 Potential Problems. Retrieved from http://www.ere.net/2012/02/23/what%E2%80%99s-wrong-with-employee-engagement-the-top-20-potential-problems/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *