The Downside of Employee Engagement

Building the engagement that’s best for business

We all know that engaged employees are the best employees, however new research out of the UK suggests there is an important difference between transactional and emotional engagement and that high levels of one of these spell bad news for business.

The research, conducted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), found that employees that are transactionally engaged (engaged only with the job at hand) may respond positively to engagement surveys and display the outward behaviours associated with engagement, but are less likely to perform well and will quickly leave a company when a better offer comes along.

Employees who are emotionally engaged (engaged in the organisation’s mission and values) are more likely to perform at a high level, have higher levels of well being and are more likely to remain engaged through good times and bad.


The CIPD researchers identified transactional engagement as being shaped by an employee’s concern to earn a living and meet the minimum standards of the employer and co-workers. In the majority of instances researchers found that people’s positive feelings about their work stemmed from the job itself and from the challenge, variety and autonomy that their role bestowed on them as well as the ability to see the fruits of their labour.

Emotional engagement, meanwhile, is associated with different aspects of work that go beyond the job itself, including colleagues, line managers, business units, the organisation, clients and/or customers. Emotionally engaged employees are motivated by a desire to do more for their organisation than is expected and in return they receive greater psychological fulfillment.

According to the CIPD research high levels of transactional engagement are potentially damaging for both employees and the organisations they work for due to the reported higher levels of stress and difficulties associated with achieving a work life balance than for those employees who are emotionally engaged. In addition, transactionally engaged employees are more likely to indulge in behaviour which might damage the organisation than their emotionally engaged colleagues.

“For example, transactionally engaged employees are likely to answer survey questions positively or be willing to take on extra work because they believe that is how they will achieve their desired ends. Whilst not being disengaged, in deciding how they will deploy their efforts they are more likely to act in self-interest than in the best interests of the organisation,” said Ms Barron.

Another layer of complication is added by the fact that people may be emotionally engaged with certain aspects of their job and transactionally engaged with other areas.

“Someone may provide excellent customer service because they are emotionally engaged with the customer or organisation they work for, or simply because they are transactionally engaged and know it is expected of them. What’s more, someone may be emotionally engaged with their profession and perhaps even their clients, but only transactionally engaged with their current role and organisation.

This is why interpretation of engagement scores needs to be carefully underpinned with insight from line managers and HR practitioners with the ability to identify the different dimensions at play in the workplace,” said Ms Barron.

Boosting engagement

Making small regular efforts to boost the level of emotional engagement in your workplace will have a great impact on how your employee’s feel about coming to work each day. This will have a knock on effect of ensuring you retain the best staff and have a workforce of motivated and engaged employees.

Try some of the ideas below

Give your employees a chance to play
Google is held up as one of the best companies in the world to work for, steal a few of their idea by giving your employees the opportunity to plan during break times. Board games, a gaming console or even just a pack of cards offer employees the opportunity to focus on something other than work for a time and build friendships in the workplace.

Offer free food!
Keeping the office kitchen stocked beverages such as coffee and a selection of teas and healthy snacks is a tiny expense compared with the good feeling it will instill in employees.

Out of office activities
Consider taking team members out of the office for the day to do something unusual. Depending on your budget you could spend the day volunteering in the community, go white water rafting, bush walking or out for a day in the wine country. Activities like this provide a great opportunity for people to become friends.

Help employees achieve a work life balance
Encourage employees to leave early during the quiet periods to spend time with their family and set a good example by doing the same. Ensure staff are on top of their work loads and check in regularly to ensure employees aren’t being overwhelmed.

Say thanks
Always remember to give credit where credit is due. Publicly thanking employees during team meetings and personally thanking people on a regular basis has a great impact on emotional engagement and ensures employees know they are not working in vain.

Ask for input
Employees may become disengaged when they feel as though they don’t have a voice or when they are being left out of big decisions. To maintain engagement levels, ensure you communicate regularly and openly with staff. Ask for their input and ideas in regular meetings and when appropriate take them up on those ideas. Empower employees to implement ideas within their sphere of influence and thank them for a job well done.

Building a truly engaged workplace requires a top down approach and takes into consideration the unique talents and characteristics of your employees. Spending a little time keeping your employees happy and engaged will have a big effect on your bottom line and will ensure your workforce has a solid and loyal foundation.

1. Gallup

This Better Workplace Bulletin was First Published in October 2012