Employee engagement has become the Holy Grail of talent management. After all, every organization wants employees who are committed to its success and willing to go the extra mile to help it get there.
But there's a flip side to engagement that many organizations don't consider: Engaged employees can quickly become disengaged if they feel taken advantage of — and formerly engaged employees can do more harm to the company than those who were never engaged to begin with.
That's a key finding in a new study by Wayne Hochwarter, Professor of Business Administration in the Florida State University College of Business. Hochwarter surveyed 1,000 people, in both blue- and white-collar occupations, to gain a clearer picture of the concept of employee engagement, its benefits for the employer, and its possible dangers when not managed well.
"Engaged employees work harder, are more creative and more committed, and they represent an important predictor of company productivity," he said. "Unquestionably, organizations with engaged workers have weathered recessionary pressures more successfully.
"However, those same organizations have to be sensitive to the fact that even model employees can 'give up' if they sense that they're being asked to do more and more, and with fewer resources, while comparatively little is being asked of their less-engaged colleagues."
Hochwarter's study found that employees who felt engaged reported a 50 per cent higher rate of job satisfaction, a 45 per cent higher rate of job performance and a 40 per cent higher rate of life satisfaction. They were also 33 per cent less likely to want to leave for another job and were 30 per cent more committed to their employer.
But the tricky part comes in keeping those employees engaged. And if employees feel that they are being taken advantage of – if they don't receive the support and resources they need to do their jobs – they can begin to exhibit a number of undesirable attitudes and behaviors.
"Engagement often means taking on more tasks than one's less engaged co-workers, but with the expectation that the company will provide more of what is needed to assist along the way," Hochwarter said.
Without those additional resources, once-engaged employees began to display some distinctly negative behaviors. These included a 50 per cent decline in helpfulness, a 35 per cent increase in anger at their supervisors and a 33 per cent increase in the belief that what is expected of them is beyond their capabilities. In addition, their levels of stress were 30 per cent higher and overall productivity 25 per cent lower.
In other words, engaged employees can easily become disengaged if they are not managed properly.
Business leaders, Hochwarter added, are learning more about how to build employee engagement, but seem largely ignorant of how it should be maintained and cultivated.
"First, understand that getting employees engaged isn't like flipping a switch," he said.
"Often, it takes a while for engagement to kick in, but it can be lost in only one incident. Second, realize that once-engaged employees who are now disengaged can cause more harm to a company than those who were never engaged.
"Third, getting employees engaged is like planting a tree: If you walk away from it, it's unlikely to grow. And finally, many leaders feel that managing engaged workers is easier than managing those who are not engaged. This is simply not the reality in most companies."