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Employee engagement is like a couple’s engagement (sort of)

May 16, 2013

By Charley Morrow

Employee engagement is actually not so different from a couple’s engagement—it’s about a relationship. And just like in any type of personal relationship, good things can happen if you’re willing to put in energy and commitment.

But of course, people have different relationships to work and their employers.

Back in the day, employee surveys were called “satisfaction surveys.” And as someone who has been in the business for a long time, I know that “satisfaction” can be tricky measurement. Satisfaction with pay, working conditions, supervision, or senior management are all different things.

And as a result, there were lots of problems with these surveys. For one, personality predicts job satisfaction. Certain personality types, such as extroverts, tend to rate higher in job satisfaction. Studies of twins have also established that there’s a genetic element of job satisfaction. So, it seems that satisfaction is a trait and that if you want a satisfied work force, all you need to do is hire extroverts, or those with the genetic disposition for satisfaction!

Or not.

To businesses, satisfaction may not be the most important thing since satisfied employees won’t necessarily help you attain better results. In fact, I’d argue that dissatisfied people get more done! Most sales managers I know are looking for sales reps that are “hungry,” not those who are content and satisfied in life. Looking at history, dissatisfied people have made the greatest human innovations.

A satisfied employee may be nice to have, but what we really care about is having engaged employees—people who have energy, drive, and a psychological investment in the organization. They’re often pretty satisfied too.

And we care about engagement because it’s been proven that engaged employees generally produce better business results.

However, there are many types of engagement, and it’s important to know what type of engagement you’re looking for. It makes a big difference if you need your employees to be better engaged with safety, or customer service, or with the mission of the organization. I have an engineer friend who tells me he is always engaged. He loves his profession designing manufacturing controllers, but he’s had stormy relationships with employers. As a result, this skilled and valuable engineer is constantly changing jobs. If this talented, personable guy had closer relationships with his boss and co-workers, he might stick around. So the critical “engagement” for him is different than for someone else.

Different organizations also need different types of employee engagement. To some organizations, retaining employees is critical. To others, only a few years of intense effort is needed. And others rely on employee innovation and skill as their organizational strategy. The list goes on……

According to noted business writers Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema, the most successful companies lean toward one of three strategies: Low Cost Provider, Customer Intimacy, or Product Innovation. In the United States, you might think about different retail strategies: Low cost = Wal-Mart, Customer Intimacy = Nordstrom, and Innovation = Target (I say this is due to their emphasis on working with famous designers). And JCPenney might have had fewer problems if it had stayed with a single market discipline.

This three-level breakdown provides a great starting point for thinking about engagement.

  • Low cost providers need reliable employees and low turnover
  • Customer intimate organizations need employees who will obsess over customer satisfaction
  • Innovation based organizations need employees who can work to constantly improve technology and product innovation

These all require very different types of engagement (and employees). So remember, before you consider investing in an engagement survey, make sure to ask yourself what your organization really needs from its employees. And be careful of any survey that’s not aligned with your organization’s strategy.

How engaged are you, really? And just as importantly, how engaged is your team? Click here to learn how to enhance engagement.

More about Charley

Charley Morrow is Vice President of Assessments at Linkage. He has over 20 years of experience designing, implementing, and evaluating training, individual assessment, and organizational-transformation interventions, and he’s an expert in developing assessments and methodologies for individual, team, and organizational motivation and performance. Follow him on Twitter @CharleyMorrow.


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