High engagement scores could actually be bad for businesses if the engagement is of the wrong type, CIPD research has found.
The counter-intuitive results revealed an important distinction between transactional and emotional engagement at work and the impacts of these different behaviours.
This distinction can be missed by simplistic, one-dimensional surveys that “mask the types of engagement at play”, said the research.
Employees that are transactionally engaged only connect with the task or job role at hand, but they may respond positively in engagement surveys giving a false positive. They can display behaviours associated with commitment, but are less likely to perform well and will quickly leave for a better job.
In contrast, staff that are emotionally engaged believe in the organisation’s mission and values. They are more likely to perform well, have higher levels of wellbeing and remain loyal.
Perhaps most worryingly, the research found that high levels of transactional engagement were potentially damaging for both individuals and their organisation.
This is because such employees report higher levels of stress and more difficulty in achieving a work-life balance than emotionally engaged employees. Transactionally engaged employees are also more likely to behave in ways that could damage the business, for example acting out of self-interest rather than in the interests of the organisation.
This potentially damaging type of engagement is shaped by an employee’s need to earn a living and meet minimal workplace expectations. Positive feelings about work come from the job itself, from the challenge, variety and autonomy of their role and the ability to see the fruits of their labour, rather than an affinity with the employer’s values.
Emotional engagement, however, is prompted by elements that go beyond the job role itself, including colleagues, line managers, the organisation and clients. It is driven by an employee’s desire to do more than is expected for which they gain a more fulfilling psychological contract.
Angela Baron, research adviser at the CIPD, said: “While we definitely encourage organisations to measure engagement, it’s not enough to focus on increasing scores without considering what type and locus of engagement is being measured. What people are engaged with, and the nature and driving force behind their engagement, also need taking into consideration - otherwise organisations risk misunderstanding the actual extent and nature of engagement.”
Baron added that defining the types of engagement is not as simple as an either-or because people may be emotionally engaged with certain parts of their job and transactionally with others. She said that HR and line managers have a key role in interpreting scores because they have the insight to identify the different interactions at play in the workplace.
The CIPD’s research was conducted in partnership with Kingston University Business School’s Centre for Research in Employment, Skills and Society.