Satisfaction or Engagement: Understanding the Critical Difference

For the past decade, engagement has been a corporate buzzword.  Surveys attempt to measure it.  Leadership tries to effect it.  Employees crave it.  Some organizations have it down pat.  More grossly misunderstand it.  And their efforts to achieve it typically fall short.

David Zinger, who has built a tremendous online network of “engaged” professionals interested in the topic, uses words like passion, connection, and energy to describe engagement.  Oh sure, he mentions satisfaction in his 10 Principles of Employee Engagement.  However, engagement goes much further than satisfaction in regards to its overall benefit to organization.  Satisfaction itself is not enough to drive performance.

Think of it this way…Ever worked within a happy, entitlement culture?  In the ‘40s and ‘50s, companies sprung up all throughout America promising loyal, lifelong employment.  High school and recent college graduates flocked to their doors for the security, stability, and comfort of climbing the corporate ladder.  Forty years later, they’d sashay out the door, pensions and retirement pocket watches securely grasped.

Many of these corporations no longer exist, or certainly have transformed themselves away from their entitlement cultures.  Why is that?  It’s because mere satisfaction with corporate benefits was not enough to sustain long-term performance.  Satisfaction typically only addresses the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy.   By contrast, sustained competitive advantage requires the self-actualization that engagement provides.

As organizations attempt to get lift from their engagement desires, a first step is often to target benefit enhancements.  They introduce casual Fridays and promote those programs that show “we care for our employees,” like vacation policies, pension plans, and health and wellness programs.  And they are surprised when engagement doesn’t rise.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love jeans days, and I certainly have always maximized the vacation, educational assistance, and wellness programs of the companies for which I’ve worked.  Those are important for building a satisfied employment environment (or more importantly, an attractive employment package in an increasingly competitive battle for talent).  But it’s not enough, and it won’t ultimately move the engagement needle far.

Instead of focusing on additional perks, leaders would do well to focus on cultural drivers.  The perk mentality oozes transactional leadership, a quid pro quo exchange in which I as leader provide additional jeans days, and in return, you work harder.  Folks, just as transactional leadership typically leads to sustained mediocrity, so too do engagement efforts focused on perks and benefits.  They build satisfaction, not engagement.

Strong engagement cultures instead focus on changing trust levels, the empowerment of employees at all levels, building a sense of common purpose amongst all workers.  It’s transformational, tapping into the emotional core of employees and leveraging intimate relational components to help individuals reach Maslow’s pinnacle of self-actualization.

So, if your engagement efforts are being driven by HR, with a focus on simply providing more benefits, let’s stop calling that engagement effort.   There’s a big difference!

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