The Conundrum of Engagement

  • Cynthia Johnson

One of Cynthia's abiding interests is employee engagement, which HR people have long known is highly correlated with a variety of measures such as productivity, absenteeism, retention, and customer satisfaction. Some excellent work has been done by organisations to lift employee engagement, which has resulted in improved organisational outcomes, but Cynthia noticed that this work was mostly organisationally driven. This makes sense when you consider that most of the models of engagement put the responsibility for employee engagement not on the individual themselves, but on either the organisation (for example, 'I feel I am working for a successful company'), or the manager ('my immediate manager provides the support I need to succeed'), or on other people ('my co-workers are committed to quality work').
Perhaps the only clear exception to the top down approach is David Rock's 2008 SCARF model (Status; Certainty; Autonomy; Relatedness and Fairness), in which he argues that it's people's perceptions of threat or reward which drives them either to engage or to withdraw.  For example, if we perceive our status is under threat we may withdraw by withholding our ideas, and if we feel our work environment is an uncertain one we might resist the mental effort of decision making.  Worse still, if you know there's a planned restructure but have no idea when it will happen or who will be affected, motivation may be entirely sapped.  By contrast, if we feel relatively autonomous in our role,   or that we have been treated fairly, we're likely to respond in a much more resilient way when there are significant organisational changes.

The question that follows from the SCARF model is what determines people's perceptions, and does it have anything to do with resilience?  Curious about how resilience and engagement are related and what could be done to put tools and techniques into the hands of employees when they feel disengaged or ambivalent, we surveyed 160 employees, 61 men and 99 women, across eight NZ organisations.  They were all participating in Challenge of Change Resilience programmes being implemented in their organisations, and in addition to providing their age and gender they were asked to respond anonymously to four engagement questions on a 6-point Likert scale ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree: 

  • 'I think my present job makes good use of my skills'  
  • 'There are opportunities for career advancement in my present organization' 
  • 'It is very clear to me what I am meant to be achieving in my present job' 
  • 'I think I will stay with my employer for the next few years at least'.   

The correlations amongst the four questions were modest, which means that they access slightly different facets of engagement and can be analysed independently.  However, the correlations were all significant, indicating that they nonetheless have enough in common to also be pooled into a single summed score; indeed, the correlations between each of the questions and the summed score ranged from .768 to .803.  To explore the relationship between engagement and individual behaviours, the employees were also asked to provide their scores on the eight Challenge of Change Profile scales: Rumination, Emotional Inhibition, Toxic Achieving, Avoidance Coping, Perfect Control, Detached Coping, Sensitivity, and Flexibility.  Our research has shown that the lower the score on the first five, and the higher the score on the last three, the more resilient people are, and controlled case studies have shown equally clearly that these are all trainable skills.   

When the scores from the engagement questions were correlated with the Profile, the results indicated that low engagement was associated with ruminative, toxic achieving behaviour, but these results were at best only trends.  By contrast, the relationship with Perfect Control was substantial and consistent across all of the questions, and applied equally to men and women.  People high on this Profile scale are perfectionists who are unable to see the threshold of added value: anything you work on has a threshold beyond which it doesn't matter how much you keep working at it, you're adding nothing. 

What seems to drive these individuals beyond the threshold is anxiety about not producing the perfect piece of work, which doesn't actually exist.  Everything can be improved upon.  What's more, with the workloads people generally have there isn't the time to spend trying to perfect things. Perfectionism is not just unrealistically trying to meet others' expectations either – perfectionists set standards for themselves and others so high that they can never be achieved.  Perfectionists also tend to be controllers of the universe, and unfortunately for them there's a lot that happens over which we have no control.   

For these people, work only gets done properly if they do it themselves, or it's done their way.  They may feel that they are the only ones who are doing quality work and that others can't be trusted to do it properly, and in addition to low engagement the cost of perfect control is spending a disproportionate amount of time on projects.  They are also likely to feel frustrated with the organisation, its policies and practices.  They want the organisation to be perfect, which of course is impossible.  All of this thinking and behaviour builds disengagement.  Part of being resilient is being able to accept that there are degrees of autonomy and certainty: change, dependency and limits on time and resources are inevitable features of working life.  Individual employees and the organisation itself endeavour to do their best, but neither will always be perfect.  

So how can their sense of engagement be enhanced?  It can be difficult to achieve, but perfect controllers need to learn perspective, to view their work with distance, and this is something they can explicitly be encouraged to do.  They can be helped by clearly defining what the standard is, what falls within scope and what falls outside of it, and how much time should be spent on a task. Perfect controllers also need to be encouraged to seriously review how much they actually need to do, by introducing them to the concept of added value. They may need to learn to delegate and to remind themselves that it is the outcome that matters most – people may have other ways of approaching a task that are just as effective. They need to let go of the need to be right and to let go of the 'what if' anxiety that comes with perfectionism.  To help with this, they can be coached with questions like: 

  • "What is the best use of your time right now?"  
  • "How much do you think someone would pay for this?"
  • "Is what you are proposing going to add momentum or a noticeable difference to the end user?"  
  • "Will this add simplicity or complexity?"

Of course, the ideal employee engagement programme is neither solely a function of the organisation/manager/other people emphasised in much of the work on engagement, nor is it solely the individual employee's attitudes and behaviour, but rather the interaction between them.  Responsibility has too often rested at the organisational/manager level, and this research begins to redress the balance and point the way to how employees' thinking and response to pressure can help or hinder their engagement.

Note: A version of this blog has been published elsewhere: Johnson, C. & Roger, D. (2014) The conundrum of engagement.  Human Resources 19 (1), March/April, 14-16

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