Feature Article - May/June 2010

The ABCs of Engagement

Taking Employee Recognition Back to Square One

By Heather Racansky


What does it mean to have an engaged workforce? Over the years, the definition of the term, "employee engagement," has been muddied. It has been thrown around as a buzzword in companies, at workshops and at management training seminars as the key to corporate success. And while it is very true that having an engaged workforce is crucial for survival—especially now—the true meaning of engagement seems to have been lost.

So, let's bring it back to basics. Engagement, in simple terms, is an employee's willingness to give discretionary effort. Discretionary effort is the difference between the level of effort that an individual is capable of, and the level of effort required to "get by." Engaged employees feel an emotional bond to their employers. Those individuals see the company's goals as their own and are willing to put in additional time and effort to see those goals met, explained Michelle Smith, vice president of business development at O.C. Tanner, a Salt Lake City-based company that provides employee recognition awards and programs for service, sales, performance and employee motivation services.

Meanwhile, Patty Saari, vice president of client services for engagement and events for Minneapolis-based Carlson Marketing, a global marketing services company, said that engagement is the emotional connection that an employee has to an organization. This emotional response translates to the employee being more productive. In addition, she said that an engaged employee with a positive emotional connection benefits from an enriched work-life balance while the organization benefits from increased productivity.

"The emotional connection between an employer and an employee is the most valuable and meaningful component to driving business change," Saari said. "And as a result of that commitment, the discretionary effort and productivity is what the organization is able to see as a positive consequence."

The biggest point of confusion, though, is that people often substitute the term "employee engagement" with "employee satisfaction." Engagement and satisfaction are two completely different mindsets. Smith suggested equating engagement with the output of additional and discretionary effort rather than with employee satisfaction.

For example, an employee may be perfectly satisfied with strolling into work late each morning, pretending to read e-mails while surfing the 'Net, and turning in one or two mediocre projects a week. That individual is gliding through the workday, slipping through the cracks and certainly not giving any discretionary effort—and possibly not giving any effort at all—toward the company's overall goals.