Employee Engagement: A Relative Thing

I recently wrote a post discussing the annual ebb and flow of employee engagement research results - one of the issues is that some research firms will suggest engagement has remained stable while others suggest engagement has gone down. This phenomenon has been discussed in some detail in other engagement forums (e.g. David Bowles provides a nice account and discussion here). I stated previously that this is no great surprise; different firms often use different questions, or different samples, or different methods (or all of the above).
Another issue recently posed by Aubrey Daniels is that with all of the attention and focus on employee engagement in the last 20 years why hasn't it gone up? Why does Gallup keep finding engagement levels are relatively stable when their clients are paying them big money to improve it? It should be going through the roof right?

But what if the relationship between work conditions and employee engagement is similar to the relationship between wealth and happiness?

The Easterlin Paradox, although not irrefutable, is based on substantial data showing that despite great leaps forward in terms of income per person people are not really any happier on average. Individuals with more money tend to be happier, but the average level has remained quite consistent - and the increase in happiness with rising income gets smaller the richer you get. The answer to this seeming paradox, based in both economics and psychology, is that people mostly care about where they are relative to other people (social comparison) and where they are relative to their own past position (habituation).

How might this apply to employee engagement? Well, if your company has been offering cheap gym memberships and flexible hours for the last few years this may have improved employee engagement. But, if your major competitor is now offering free gym membership and personal nap spaces for employees - then your benefits may not look so great for much longer.

Overall then, in a changing workplace landscape, we probably shouldn't expect average employee engagement levels to go up over the long term; and in our own companies we might find we have to stay focused just to maintain our relative position. And yet, at the same time there will be companies improving engagement faster then their competitors and some being left behind. Which would you prefer to be?

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