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 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



  1. Main article: Inside Google’s Culture of Success and Employee Happiness. Retrieved from
  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
  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
  5. Sullivan, John (Feb 23, 2012) What’s Wrong With Employee Engagement? The Top 20 Potential Problems. Retrieved from

Lead Like the Great Conductors

The greatest conductors actually do not conduct; they just keep time and allow their orchestra to play.

Similarly, leadership can be about the process, rather than people.

TED Itay Talgam: Lead Like the Great Conductors

In this TED video, Itay Talgam played eight different clips of conductors and their techniques. Borrowing an analogy from the orchestras, he showed how management could in fact learn something about organizational leadership from these great musical conductors. Effective leaders are like orchestra conductors: just as the conductor is tasked with optimizing and harmonizing the efforts of each musician to create something greater than discrete individual performances, leaders are expected to do the same.


Develop clarity through vision

The primary responsibility of both leaders and conductors is to make sure everyone is on the same page, knows the part they are expected to play, and have the skills to perform. They ensure that people know what is expected of them, are given the opportunity to practice to their part, and receive feedback to improve individual and collective success. This is leadership at its best.

Similar with company mission statements, the conductor treats the score as sacred, using it to guide his ensemble to successful performances. Although he may slightly adapt it to fit his interpretation or vision, the score essentially remains true to its original form and intent. The conductor’s then must balance the interplay between the collective orchestra and the individual musicians to produce a unified sound. Although the instruments vary in tone, color & playing technique, the conductor blends their unique timbres together into a single musical sound while giving each instrument the opportunity to shine on its own. Similar to the leader mobilizing others through a shared mission, the successful conductor uses communication and vision to unite the musicians through a collective purpose – to deliver exceptional musical performances.


Encourage trust by developing synergies

Talgam explains that the great conductors were successful because they enabled players to tell their own musical “stories” simultaneously, as a community. As Talgam puts it, the best conductors are “doing without doing it”, acting as Theory Y enablers rather than Theory X controllers. Trusting that their players know how to play their music correctly, the great conductors refrain from controlling 100%. They focus on optimizing the efforts of the group rather than trying to manage each section or monitor specific notes played by individual performers. Similarly, effective leaders should assume a coordinating role. This enabling process creates conditions in the organization where employees are engaged to become partners.


Non-verbal influence over the process

Conductors communicate musicality and direction through their gait, facial expressions, posture, breathing, and gestures. This non-verbal communication illustrates Hackman & Johnson’s[1] view of leadership as an interactive process through which leaders and followers develop a strategy to achieve shared goals. By matching their behaviors with their goals, successful conductors use goal-driven communication to benefit the collective orchestra and better reach their performance goal. Leaders should gain inspiration from the conductor’s ability to lead non-verbally. Similarly, leaders should remember not only to communicate vision but also to embody their vision and goals. To engage followers in their overall vision and, at the same time, offer them the independence to use their creativity and expertise to achieve that vision.

As the future of leadership lies ahead in networks and especially so of highly educated individuals, I feel that leaders should look to rely on collaborative leadership styles in order to fully tap on the talents of each individual. Compared to the traditional types of leadership, collaborative leadership focuses on the process, not the people. Leaders should learn to take a step back to create the conditions in the organization for processes to take place, thereby enabling employees as partners of the goal outcome.

Before I leave you to enjoy the video once more, here is some food for thought:

How would leading an organisation entirely comprised of “creative types,” such as musicians, be different and/or more challenging than leading a broadly diverse group of people?

What other theories and concepts does the conducting analogy bring to mind?

I hope you managed to learn something valuable from my sharing! 🙂



[1] Hackman, Michael Z & Johnson, Craig E. (Craig Edward), 1952- (1996). Leadership: a communication perspective (2nd ed)Waveland Press, Prospect Heights III

[2] TED Talks

Can culture go too far?

In light of the heated discussion over the Heros of the Taj case, I was provoked to think about the extent of influence culture has over the lives of individuals. Culture has undeniably emerged as a potential contributor to organizational success. Take the success stories of Southwest Airlines and Disney for example, we see how healthy organizational culture can impact a myriad of outcomes; directing behavior, encouraging cooperation and the ability to innovate. However, do organizations know when and where to draw the line? When does the content or strength of that culture become overpowering?


This reflection came about after reading the recent Wall Street Journal Article- “Facebook’s Company Town”. While I support the organization’s desire to create and an environment that encourages innovation and stress relief, by providing even more perks for its employees, I fear that this development could be a double-edge sword, leading to potential failure.




mage of Facebook’s planned Anton Menlo Community Housing.


An excerpt from the journal states:

(Facebook) said this week it is working with a local developer to build a $120 million, 394-unit housing community within walking distance of its offices. Called Anton Menlo, the 630,000 square-foot rental property will include everything from a sports bar to a doggy day care.

The development conjures up memories of so-called “company towns” at the turn of the 20th century, where American factory workers lived in communities owned by their employer and were provided housing, health care, law enforcement, church and just about every other service necessary.


While most of us are firm supporters of a strong and guiding culture, the article left me feeling vaguely uncomfortable. Of course, I can agree to a large extent with the value of work life integration since housing is an issue in this geographical area of Silicon Valley. In the IT industry there, employees feel less tied to a company and more tied to the geographical location, hence this move serves as a good retention tool for Facebook’s employees. However, at what point does involvement in employees’ lives become intrusion in employees’ lives?


Here are some of my thoughts:

  • Culture or culprit? A robust culture can indeed support employees and the work at hand. However, when does the intensity of that culture begin to feel stifling? (Although employees are not required to live near the campus, will this eventually become an unwritten more?) While this is ultimately a person-organization fit issue, will employees feel empowered to draw the line when they feel the need for space?
  • Met expectations. There is concern as to what will happen when an employee seeks employment outside of Facebook, or any other permeating culture). Developed expectations could limit free movement and opportunities for career development. For instance, it could become difficult to give up on-site laundry for potential career opportunities. Moreover, this may hurt employees as they become labeled as spoiled or indulged.
  • Separation anxiety. I have as much concern for organizations as a whole, as for the individual employees. How will management in today’s organizations respond to an employee who refuses to sign on for a 24/7 technologically linked lifestyle? Will developing cultures be capable of digesting independence? It will also be difficult to restrict the employee from over committing himself to work if he is fully submerged in the organizational culture/ environment.
  • Retaining personal Identity. When a defined culture operates, it can become increasingly difficult to “buck” the system, even if this is required for the organization to remain adaptive. Strong cultures can provide support — but they can also begin to bind or limit “diversity of thought”. Having different life experiences outside of work can lead to a myriad of creative ideas that can have true impact on work. Unfortunately, shared norms and practices can unintentionally encourage the opposite of what they were originally designed to accomplish, and this could be a potential downfall for Facebook.


To conclude, I feel that organizations should be wary of the associated risks of developing an overpowering culture. While we strongly encourage following in the footsteps of establishing successful organizational cultures, it is important for managers to take note of the downsides of having too strong a culture. Do share with me your thoughts on this topic! I look forward to reading your comments. 🙂




Reed Albergotti. (2013, Oct 3) The Wall Street Journal. Facebook’s Company Town. Retrieved from: