Employee Engagement Has Its Limits

by May 1, 2009

Study after study has shown that an engaged workforce is considered desirable in any organization and leads to greater productivity and profitability. Engaged employees are those valued people who invest themselves in their work and are committed to performing at a superior level. In short, employee engagement can yield numerous benefits for individuals and organizations. 

However, Thomas Britt, an industrial-organizational psychology professor at Clemson University, cautions there are some limits to employee engagement that managers should consider.

Engaged workers are highly attuned to aspects of their work environment that will either facilitate or thwart their job performance, said Britt. If they are not getting the resources they feel they need to perform at their best, their engagement may be diminished.

Barriers to engaged workers’ peak performance may include lack of budget and equipment support, access to important information, work overload, unclear objectives and goals, and assigning employees’ tasks that don’t fit their training.

“We found that employees were more engaged when their leaders provided clear guidelines for job performance, which gave the employees a greater feeling of clarity and control over what they were supposed to do,” Britt said.

“The benefits of employee engagement can be squandered if leaders do not position employees in roles that match their skills and provide the workplace supports they need to carry out their responsibilities,” he said.

These are critical times for managers, said Britt, citing the economy and organizations’ efforts to trim costs. Managers need to balance the high sense of urgency their bosses put on them to do more with less and at the same time motivating and keeping their employees engaged in their work and in the organization.

This becomes more important when workforces are reduced and employees are asked to increase their work output, especially work that reaches beyond the scope of their jobs and their capabilities.

Britt’s research shows engaged employees are likely to become frustrated and dissatisfied and may blame their supervisors if they do not have the systems and support necessary to be effective. Given the higher pro-activity and energy levels of engaged employees, this frustration could lead to turnover as they begin to look for more supportive work environments. “The ones who stay behind may well be the ones who just don’t care,” said Britt.

It would seem, though, that with job security at a low level, workers should just be happy to have a job despite the challenges in getting their jobs done effectively, said Britt. However, that doesn’t seem ring true.

Of course, when the economy is experiencing a general downturn, it may be unlikely that engaged employees low in organizational commitment can find another position. But, if they do have the opportunity to change jobs, Britt says they will.

Thus managers, who fail to position employees to be effective in their roles and provide organizational support, may lose their most talented and energetic people. 

Another limit to engaged employees is work overload, which can lead to lower levels of morale and job satisfaction, In other words, says Britt, the workers who care most about their work feel they are not performing to their full capability because they have so much to do that they cannot do anything well.

One obvious consequence of this, said Britt, is burnout. Highly motivated employees are willing to go beyond the call of duty to help the organization, but when temporary overload continues and they repeatedly fail to meet their own high expectations, their motivation becomes directed at locating other job possibilities, leaving the organization at risk of losing key talent.

Britt draws a sharp distinction between employee engagement and organizational commitment. “They are not necessarily the same,” Britt said. Engaged workers are more likely to place importance on being able to perform well because their performance matters to them ahead of corporate loyalty, he added. 

The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) is an international group of more than 7,800 industrial-organizational (I-O) psychologists whose members study and apply scientific principles concerning workplace productivity, motivation, leadership and engagement. SIOP’s mission is to enhance human well-being and performance in organizational and work settings by promoting the science, practice and teaching of I-O psychology. For more information about SIOP, including a Media Resources service that lists nearly 2,000 experts in more than 100 topic areas, visit www.siop.org.

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