The term “employee engagement” has been around for some time. Executive coaches, consultants and HR managers have been telling us for years that employees must be more than satisfied. In addition to satisfaction, we’re told, we actually need to strive to make employees engaged. If you’re unsure of the distinction – that difference between satisfaction and engagement – you’re not alone. But first, let us start with the difference between the two terms:

  • Employee satisfaction means exactly what you’d think: A satisfied employee is happy to clock in and out, doing what is asked of them and little more. A satisfied employee has their needs met by the organisation and may not have an incentive to go above and beyond.
  • Employee engagement, on the other hand, means something quite different. An engaged employee is emotionally invested in the mission of the organisation. They bring themselves to their job and have something that can’t be faked: commitment. An engaged employee looks for ways they can give back to the organisation and seeks to leave a legacy of high performance in their wake.

While the exact definitions of employee satisfaction and employee engagement may differ from organisation to organisation, HR professionals would generally agree that satisfaction refers to how employees feel – their “happiness” – about their job and conditions, such as compensation, benefits, work environment, and career development opportunities.

Engagement refers to employees’ commitment and connection to work as measured by the amount of discretionary effort they are willing to expend on behalf of their employer. Highly engaged employees go above and beyond the core responsibilities outlined in their job descriptions, innovating and thinking outside the box to move their organisations forward – much like volunteers are willing to give their time and energy to support a cause about which they are truly passionate.

Can an organisation have a satisfied employee who is not engaged and vice versa? Chances are an engaged employee is also a satisfied employee; few people are willing to go the extra mile for their employer unless they are fundamentally happy in their jobs. However, it is certainly possible to have a satisfied employee with a low engagement level – someone who shows up to work and goes through the motions, but does not demonstrate a lot of initiative or put in a lot of extra effort to further the success of the organisation. That’s why focusing on satisfaction without addressing engagement is unlikely to foster the kind of exceptional workforce performance that drives business results.

To put it more succinctly, the engaged employee asks not what their business can do for them – they ask what they can do for their business.

The key phrase to understanding the basics of engagement is “discretionary effort.” It’s the traditional definition and is used to identify those employees who deliver more than is expected of them to further the mission of their organisation. Want to find your high performers? – your most engaged employees – look no further than those with high discretionary effort.

But not even that fully encompasses what it means to be “engaged” in one’s work. Today, social scientists continue to discover that motivational drivers are far more complex than once thought and so engagement varies tremendously based on changing factors. Today, the buzzword among human capital thinkers is sustainable engagement.” Looked at through this lens, engagement is a long-term strategy and goal, not a one-time push to improve productivity by coaxing employees to work harder.

“Sustainable engagement” requires employees be driven by more than fluctuating variables such as interesting projects or extrinsic motivators like monetary commissions (though yes, in many cases monetary incentives do drive engagement). Knowing the unique challenges of being an employee and that mission is not achieved overnight, managers must see to their employees’ physical, social, and mental well-being to keep them motivated over the long-term. That is sustainable engagement; not just the willingness to put in extra effort, but also the capacity to do so.

This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein.

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