Employee satisfaction and engagement are deceptively similar sounding attitudes when seen superficially. Many people tend to use these terms interchangeably but there are clear differences between these two and it is important for business leaders to know the nuances. In fact in some organizations, shaking up satisfied employees might be the key to growth!

It is not uncommon to hear leaders say that they have nailed employee engagement challenges since the last Employee Satisfaction Survey (ESS) came back with high scores. Confusing between Employee Engagement and Employee Satisfaction is very easy but in reality there is quite a bit of difference between the two.

This one’s about anyone who does it differently
This one’s about the one who cusses and spits
This ain’t about our livin’ in a fantasy
This ain’t about givin’ up or givin’ in (We weren’t born to follow, Bon Jovi)

You could have (say) a nice Mr. Mehta who is pretty satisfied with his job. He comes in on time, finishes the tasks assigned to him carefully following the time old processes that have been set, is pretty nice to his subordinates and gets along well with almost everyone at work. Mr. Mehta here scores very high on the ESS survey that his company carries out once a year and yet the Business Unit head isn’t quite happy with him.

What gives?

A person exhibits a multitude of work-related attitudes. The standard Employee Satisfaction surveys and polls that companies do usually touch upon one or couple of three basic attitudes.

  • Job Satisfaction
  • Job Involvement
  • and Organizational Commitment.

Let’s start with Organizational Commitment first. Most of the research on this attitude has focused on the emotional attachment to the organization. While organizational commitment has a positive impact on employee satisfaction, it is not a very good predictor of productivity. A review of 25+ studies indicated that the correlation between organizational commitment and performance is strongest for new employees and is substantially weaker for those who have been around for a while. This observation can be reconciled with anecdotal evidence of demonstrated behavior as well. The new employees who are proud of having joined an organization they are proud to work for (this is Dad’s employer), put in extra effort to prove themselves. The ones who have been around for a while, are proud to be associated with the organization that has “taken care of them” for a “long” time, but they aren’t quite cutting through the wild-growth to find new ways to meet organizational goals.

Then comes Job Involvement. This attitude is a measure of the degree to which employees psychologically identify with the job they have. Those with a high level of job involvement naturally identify with and care about the kind of work they do. Research and studies seem to indicate that those with a high degree of Job Involvement tend to show a positive correlation to job performance. The area where this attitude seems to have a clearer impact is reduced absenteeism and attrition.

Which brings us to the attitude that is often misunderstood for engagement: Job Satisfaction. When people are surveyed to measure their job satisfaction they are responding with their feelings about the job based on their evaluation of its characteristics. An employee’s perception of her satisfaction with the job, is a complex equation involving assessments of several individual discrete elements like the nature of work, empowerment, supervision, pay, growth opportunities, work culture etc.

Employee Engagement on the other hand can be seen as the attitude demonstrated by the employees are seeking to ‘take things to the next level’.  This attitude is a measure of the degree of the employee’s involvement, satisfaction and enthusiasm for the work. Highly engaged employees demonstrate a passion for their work – the psychic energy I referred to in a previous post. They will solve issues proactively and continuously expand the boundaries of their “role” and skillsets. These employees persist in the face of obstacles or roadblocks and adapt to change.

While OB researchers have struggled in the past to establish clear distinctions between the impact of various attitudes – new research is now working on establishing the dimensions of employee engagement distinct from job satisfaction and involvement. Most of the attitudes show substantial overlap and a lot of it has to do with employee personality and perceptions. Thus surveys and internal research often resorts to proceeding with ‘good enough’ information rather than statistically perfect correlations.

A employee engagement survey, distinct for the Employee Satisfaction survey helps establish (and predict) the job behaviors that are considered critical by the leaders to fuel growth. Being ‘satisfied’ can at best help maintain status quo, being ‘engaged’ is what will help Mr. Mehta to deliver organizational growth that his BU head wants!



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