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 decades, researchers have studied the relationship between attitudes and work behavior. Literally, tens of thousands of studies have been done. The results show clear patterns of relationships and causation. Despite the definitive results of these studies, there are many articles in the popular press and professional magazines touting exciting new discoveries and insights concerning how worker attitudes relate to their performance.
I am afraid that I may sound a little bit like a curmudgeon when I say this, but nevertheless here goes: There is nothing new with respect to how attitudes and performance are related. Article after article puts old wine in new bottles, in many cases this does more to confuse than clarify.
What is new is the frequent the use of the term "engagement." Over the last decade, engagement has become the most frequently used term to describe how employees relate to their work. Unfortunately, adding this term to our vocabulary when we talk about attitudes and behavior has done more to confuse than to clarify.
Rather than spend time identifying and correcting the most common misstatements with respect to attitudes and performance, I would like to briefly review what we know and have known for a long time about the relationship between work attitudes and performance.
- Employee job satisfaction sometimes is related to employee performance but in most cases it is because performance causes satisfaction not because satisfaction causes performance. 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.
- Dissatisfaction causes turnover, absenteeism, and positive attitudes toward joining unions. Not surprisingly, when people are not getting what they expect from work they are dissatisfied and they look for ways to correct this condition. Quitting, not showing up for work, and joining a union are all viable methods for improving their work-life. The key point here that it is wrong to assume that by making employees happy, organizations can improve their performance. It may reduce turnover, absenteeism, and union elections and as a result lower some costs, but it will not cause employees to be more productive.
- 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, what psychologists call "intrinsic awards", that is things that people feel such as increased self-esteem or a sense of accomplishment, or by "extrinsic rewards" such as promotions, pay increases, and praise from others.
Because of the relationship between motivation and performance, organizations need to focus on individuals performing well if they want to increase individual and organizational performance. They need to create attractive work environments that reward individuals for performance. If they do this, they will have motivated and satisfied employees. It is as "simple" as that.
What about engagement? It is hard to make a definitive statement about the importance of engagement because the way it is defined and measured in surveys differs greatly from one situation to another. In some cases, it is largely discussed and measured in terms of employee job-satisfaction. In other cases, it is defined as putting forth extra effort (i.e. as motivation). When it is defined by whether individuals put forth extra effort, from a performance point of view it is a performance positive. When it is defined by satisfaction, it is unlikely to cause good performance.
Perhaps, the most common way to measure engagement is by a group of survey items that include measures of satisfaction, effort, and commitment to the organization; in other words, a potpourri of items looking at different types of attitudes that have different relationships to performance. As a result, it is often difficult to make a definitive statement about whether engagement is the cause, consequence, or just a correlate of individual and organizational performance. It also is difficult to know how to improve engagement and what the results of improving it will be.
It will be interesting to see whether the term engagement continues to be broadly used. Personally, I am ambivalent about it. I believe we need a general term that describes how individuals feel about their work situation, in essence, a counterpoint to profits; but I am not sure that engagement is the best term for this. It does not provide the kind of information and data that organizations need to effectively manage the motivation and performance of their employees. In order to do this, organizations need to know how satisfied, motivated, and committed their employees are to the organization. They can only know this by looking separately at measures of these attitudes. Having done this, it is possible to diagnose the work situation, provide change advice and insights about how individual organizational performance can be improved.