HR Insights, Talent Management

Managing For Engagement: It Won’t Work Unless Performance is the Goal


My 4-year-old daughter recently took up playing her first team sport, soccer.

As any parent who has had a young child in soccer knows, it’s quite a spectacle to behold when you turn loose six youngsters on a soccer field.

They play three-on-three games, no score kept. It’s all about teaching and getting the kids some experience playing on a team and learning about soccer.

Being someone who works with employee engagement for a living, I found some really interesting parallels between engagement and my daughter’s experience with soccer.

Great engagement, not-so-great performance

Primarily, I think she would qualify as a highly engaged soccer player. She’s excited to be there and to be part of the team. She gives a lot of energy and effort when she’s on the field. She is very attentive to coaches and always does her best to do whatever they ask her to do.

She will play as much or as little as she’s asked. She concerned about her teammates. And, if you were to ask her, she would tell you how much she loves soccer and how fun it is to play with her team. By almost any definition of engagement, she is highly engaged.

There’s only one problem: Despite her high level of engagement, she’s not productive as a soccer player – not even a little bit.

While she’s now played in four soccer games, other than the uncontested kickoffs that follow a scored goal, she has kicked the ball once during actual game play. She runs around with her teammates and is often near the ball, but she’s not terribly interested in actually kicking the ball to the goal or taking it away from an opposing player.

The good news is that she’s adorable, she’s nice to the kids on the other team, and she really has fun. But, she’s not really playing soccer.

Not necessarily the gateway to better results

Much of the talk these days about employee engagement focuses on the happiness and satisfaction of employees. We define it in terms like extra effort, passion for the company, and intent to stay (retention). These are all important and valuable things, particularly if you are the employee. But, where is the focus on results?

For years, we’ve been promised by HR and those with an engagement survey to sell that employee engagement is the gateway to company performance.

The story we’ve been told is that if we measure engagement, put a number to it and then increase that number every year, we will see a corresponding increase in company results. But many organizations just aren’t finding that to be the case.

If you surveyed my daughter about her engagement relative to her experience with her soccer team, it would be off the charts (assuming she could read the survey). She trusts her coach, loves her co-workers, enjoys the game, and feels good about the experience. But, she’s not helping her team score goals. Granted, the objective of 4-year-old soccer isn’t to outscore your opponent, but I suspect you get the point.

Employee engagement isn’t about people feeling good about work and enjoying their experience, at least not when you run a for-profit business. Employee engagement must first be about impacting and improving company performance.

The conversation needs to change

Is your objective to get more effort out of your unproductive, but very happy, employees? I hope not. We need more productivity and performance out of employees at every level and in every situation.

The conversation about (and practice) of employee engagement also needs to change. It’s time to refocus our efforts on what our organizations really need: performance.

Employee engagement surveys, at the end of the day, are just opinion surveys. The good ones are designed to collect information that will help us better manage our organizations for results.

One of the ways we need to refocus is to realize that while engagement is an important thing, it’s more important to make sure we are engaging the right employees — those who are scoring our goals. We need to use our engagement survey to ensure that our best and brightest talent is getting what they need to do their very best work.

But this begs the question: how do you know who you are listening to in your employee engagement or any other employee survey?

What do our best employees think?

If you survey everyone and treat all votes as equal, how do you know whose opinions you are listening to and acting upon? Are you hearing from your best or worst employees?

In order for the practice of engagement to become more powerful at driving results, we must begin to differentiate the opinions of our best employees from everyone else. These are the most credible and important perspectives to capture. Then, when we invest time and money in action plans, we can know that those plans are impacting the very people who more significantly affect our company’s performance.

While managing for employee engagement is a good thing, it’s a means to an end. We cannot forget that without performance, we won’t have a company to employ people in the first place.

Employee engagement for the sake of engagement is wasted energy. Focus on performance and use engagement as it was intended in the first place — as a tool to collect information that helps you drive better results.

This was originally published on the Switch & Shift blog.

Jason Lauritsen is a talent strategist and innovator who will challenge you to think differently about talent and the workplace. A former corporate Human Resources executive, Jason is today the Director of Best Places to Work for Quantum Workplace where he leads a program that collects data from 2 million employees each year to identify, celebrate and promote some of the best workplaces in the world. He is the co-author of the book, Social Gravity and some people may know him as the tall, dancing guy with Talent Anarchy.
  • H Risher

    Jason is absolutely correct.  The ‘happy’ worker focus dates to the 1950s.  Actually if you follow Gallup’s argument, performance is the focus of engagemnt.  Of their Q12 survey questions, 9 or 10 focus on day to day issues related to their performance (depending n how you interpret the questions).

  • TNoebel

    A fairly simple litmus test – Just what are your employess engaged in?  The answer had better be some version of delivering the work needed to make the business successful.

  • Matt Jackson

    This is spot on!  An employee is never more engaged then when they are productive and contributing to a winning team.

  • Sudipto chakravorty

    Hi! Jason .
    you have given a wonderful example of a situation which explains that one can  be  extremely passionate & engaged in the team & job  , yet not able  to deliver  result . 
    To deliver result one  needs to have requisite skill & of course clear vision or clarity of goal . , apart from passion & engagement .

    Your observations/ recommended precautions      are very true from the  perspective of  employee engagement surveys  conducted by HR . you have cautioned about taking a general view of the surveys & not listening specifically to the people who delivers . you have also suggested about more care being taken of those who produce result.

    All said & done , there is something very crucial  in your article seems to missing or you may have overlooked . I do understand what you have tried to drive home.

    the age old thought / wisdom is that passion/ intention  is more important than skaill & knowledge . You have the first , The rest automatically flows over time to produce just not result , but wonders .

    So if your daughter has the perfect passion & engagement to football , but lacking in skill & direction at present  , you should actually be very happy to have fathered & raising a future  Maradona  or Pele

    the engagement surveys should also be careful not to look at the immediate present only. It should be able to look through the future possiabilities.