Has Employee Engagement Gone off the Rails?

You know the idiom, “a camel is a horse designed by a committee”? This is how I feel about employee engagement in its current form; almost like it has become Frankenstein’s weirder sibling. I should note that I was fascinated by employee engagement in graduate school; yet I’m concerned that, despite good intentions, it has morphed into something unrecognizable. I won’t spend time parsing whether engagement is different from satisfaction, but I will say I believe engagement is important and valuable. As an organizational psychologist and coach, I consider it one of my primary responsibilities to assist in people’s happiness at work. And I believe an engaged employee is (more or less) a happy one. Thus, if I can help an employee become more engaged, I’ve done my job well.


But as the concept of employee engagement became institutionalized and mass-produced, it seems it has less and less to do with happiness. Often, engagement is mentioned in the same sentence as onsite gym, free snacks, or car service. This take on employee engagement places emphasis on surveys and numbers, organizational engagement scores, global workforces, and the like. It seems far less about…um…the employee. I struggle to see the value in employee engagement when it fails to put the employee – and his or her happiness – front and center.


In my opinion, the first component of an engaged employee is alignment between their own and the organization’s values and mission. Without harmony there, it’s difficult to get a completely engaged employee. Some may posit that the next set of priorities is at the organizational level, but I don’t buy it. I feel the next critical component is leadership – and not just at the top of the organization, but from the executive level on down. One might argue leaders who are closer to individual contributors play an even greater role in engagement. The role leaders play in an employee’s organizational experience is paramount, and their engagement is one facet of this experience.


We recently conducted a study utilizing the LEA 360™ to understand the behaviors utilized by leaders who effectively engage their employees. While some of these behaviors may seem obvious, others may surprise you. I encourage you to check out the full report. And the next time you hear someone say engagement is about free lunch and foosball tables, gently remind them it may have a little bit more to do with leadership.

About the author

Drew is MRG's resident I/O psychologist. When not at MRG, he's either with his family (most likely) or in his workshop (less likely). His stack of unread books is commendable.

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