The language of employee engagement is growing in HR and training circles.  Engagement is being used both as an explicit goal and measure of successful interventions.  But what is the relationship between engagement and performance?  Can we assume that more engaged employees perform better?  Taking it further, can we assume that  engagement causes improved performance?

Edward Lawler from the  University of Southern California, Marshall School of Business wrote an  insightful piece (Engagement and Performance: Old Wine in a New Bottle)  for Forbes recently targeting the  assumptions behind engagement and it’s connection to performance.   He writes:

 Let me start by making a fundamental point about behavior at work. People’s attitudes are caused by how they perform, and they determine their performance. In short, they are both a cause and a consequence of behavior.

For some in training and HR (and most managers) engagement is becoming the defining factor for improved performance. Fix the attitude (the person) and you fix the performance. Lawler’s research (among many others) has repeatedly found a reverse relationship; that performance actually determines attitude and engagement. If we truly belief this, it should shape our interventions. In the article he also lists what we know and have known for a long time about the relationship between work attitudes and performance.

1. People who perform well tend to be rewarded better and feel better about themselves and their jobs. As a result of the impact of performance on attitudes, there often is a relationship, although a weak one, between satisfaction and performance.

2. Dissatisfaction causes turnover and absenteeism… Quitting, not showing up for work…are viable methods for improving their work-life…It is wrong to assume that by making employees happy, organizations can improve their performance. It may reduce turnover, absenteeism and as a result lower some costs, but it will not cause employees to be more productive.

3. Motivation is caused by the beliefs and attitudes of employees have about what the consequences of good performance will be. When employees feel that they will receive rewards that they value as a result of their performance they are motivated to perform well. This is true whether the rewards are…“intrinsic awards”…or “extrinsic rewards” such as promotions, pay increases, and praise from others.

His general conclusion is that engagement as a focus is doing more to confuse than to clarify. Organizations need to create supportive work environments that reward individuals for performance. If they do this, they will have motivated and satisfied employees. As Lawler says– It is as “simple” as that. This rings true in my experience. Strategies targeted at diagnosing the work situation, and providing tools and structures that improvement performance will also improve employee engagement. And we know a lot about how to do that!

What do you think? Does job satisfaction improve performance or does excellent performance produce improved job satisfaction and engagement?

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2 Responses
  1. When folks say “engagement problem”, what does that really mean? Does that mean folks aren’t happy? Aren’t challenged? Aren’t involved / included? Are in a dead-end job with no growth potential?

    There are plenty of expressions in the workplace that are great conversation starters. “We have an employee engagement problem” is one of those expressions.

    Much like “I don’t have time to enhance my skillset”, these expressions are indicators of some other underlying issue (an indicator of something that **might** be a problem, not a cause). I don’t see a problem with expressing these as long as we aren’t chasing signals or indicators and using valuable energy to treat symptoms that may not be symptoms at all. It’s a conversation starter and a conversation is the gateway to the aha-moment.

    I like to use this illustration when talking about performance problems. This is based on Hartt’s 8 buttons which was inspired by Binder’s 6 boxes which was inspired by Gilbert’s BEM.

    When engaged in the assumption realignment conversation, I like to encourage folks to “illuminate gaps here and solve these things first.” Once the core issues are fixed, I’ll be surprised if we still need to use happy dust.

  2. Thanks Steve. I like your “radar” map of the BEM variables. Do you use some kind of measurement tool to generate them? Yes, the engagement “problem” is a byproduct of the performance issues you describe. I liked the clarity with which Lawler simply states peoples attitudes are caused by how they perform. It seems counter-intuitive but it’s anything but. Check out some of Lawler’s work in org design if you’re not already aware of it.

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