100% engagement – is this what you’re really targeting?
Employee Engagement

100% engagement – is this what you’re really targeting?
Optimal engagement lies between “eustress” and “distress”

100% engagement – not necessarily the target

Engaged employees tend to stick around. Disengaged employees will search elsewhere for a position that engages them, because being engaged makes work more enjoyable (or at least less unpleasant!). How much you’d need to pay someone to switch jobs is strongly influenced by their level of engagement. Some highly disengaged employees will actually take a pay cut to move.

Of course, it’s not all about the pay. Before moving on, an employee might also consider:

  • career prospects
  • company culture
  • other tangible and intangible benefits
  • job fit
  • attributes of new manager
  • professional development opportunities
  • leave policies (especially if they’re planning a family or have significant external commitments)

The bottom line is that it will take more for your competitors to buy your staff out from under you if your organisation does all these things well. Running a good business is the ultimate staff retention strategy!

How much is too much?

The concept of employee engagement represents the degree to which employees will “dip into their reserves” to produce better outcomes for their company. We need to be a little careful with this concept, the ideal employee is not one who routinely uses all their “reserve” for the benefit of their company. In fact, 100% engagement, like 100% commitment is a myth, anyone giving 100% to their company probably fits the criteria for Obsessive-Compulsive Behaviour Disorder. These are not the perfect employees!

One must also question whether giving 100% is a worthwhile goal for either the employee or employer (don’t get me started on 110%!). If you give 100% to your job, what % do you give to yourself, your family and friends? Companies who strive for 100% cannot simultaneously support work-life balance, they are both attempting to tap the same finite reservoir of discretionary effort.

All of us carry a “reserve”, additional energy to be called upon when needed, usually in exceptional circumstances. We’ve been doing this ever since we began cramming for exams at school. It’s a well-worn path, but it is one that needs to be managed. The only thing that makes the final year of school bearable is knowing it will end. A life lived under that level of pressure and expectation is likely to be a short one (but it will probably seem long).

The upside of pressure

We all know (or maybe we actually are) people who leave things a little late and then pull it all together when the pressure is on, and there’s a good reason it works, some of the time, for some people. It all has to do with one of the most famous concepts in behavioural psychology – the Yerkes-Dodson Law.

Robert Yerkes and John Dodson first described the relationship between arousal and performance in 1908__¹__. It wouldn’t have surprised anyone then, and it doesn’t now. It simply says that performance increases as the arousal level increases… up to a certain point. Beyond that point, performance declines rather than improves as we move from eustress (good stress) to distress (bad stress). This explains why, when you’re under pressure, you may struggle to recall something or perform a challenging task, only to find that 30 minutes later, when the pressure has eased, you accomplish these tasks with ease. You may not have been “frozen with fear”, but you were part way along the path.

It wasn’t until 2007 that researchers noticed that the shape of the Yerkes-Dodson Performance-Arousal curve (below) is the same shape as the cortisol-stress curve. Could it be that performance is impacted by cortisol, which rises and falls with level of stress, effort-reward imbalance and high demand low control jobs?

Optimal arousal-EE

It appears so. Memory formation is enhanced when cortisol is mildly elevated and is impaired when cortisol is high or low__²__. Many aspects of cognition follow the same path. Memory and cognition together underpin much of what we require to perform at our best.

Back to cramming for exams, or generally leaving things to the last minute. The Yerkes-Dodson law tells us that if the pressure we are under during this process is “Goldilocks-esque” (not too much or too little, but just right), then it will probably work, but leave it too late, the arousal becomes so high that you are pushed to the descending (distressed) limb of the curve where your performance is impaired.

Cortisol, and other glucocorticoids that impair performance and immune function, ensure your cognitive abilities are compromised and your memory is impaired. Both are poor conditions for a task requiring high performance. What’s more is your cold sore is likely to flare-up and if there’s a rhinovirus or influenza virus circulating, your compromised immune system is unlikely to protect you – expect a cold or the flu.

Managing engagement

The degree to which performance is impacted by various events depends on what type of events they are. The most problematic events are:

  • novel (you have no prior experience)
  • unpredictable
  • uncontrollable
  • likely to have negative social consequences (i.e. rejection)

There are many situations where managing aspects of the work environment more effectively can diminish this impact, most of them relate to a culture of openness and transparency, trust and respect.

The SHAPE Survey provides an Employee Engagement score for every employee who completes the survey. This data is aggregated up through teams, divisions, sites or even countries, allowing hot spots to be identified and targeted interventions deployed. SHAPE also looks at the related areas of Employee Commitment and Job Satisfaction, as well as providing measures of stress, anxiety and depression. This enables correlations to be teased out between measures of commitment/engagement and the mental health of employees.

__¹__Yerkes RM, Dodson JD. 1908. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology. 18: 459–482.

__²__Diamond, David M.; et al. 2007. Neural Plasticity.

Employee Engagement