Happy Employees are not Engaged Employees

(Editor’s Note: Today’s post is sponsored by SilkRoad technology, a leading provider of cloud-based social talent management solutions that develop engaged employees who drive exceptional business performance and agility. Creating a world-class employee experience is SilkRoad’s passion and drives everything they do.)

Ultimately, we want happy, motivated employees who are also engaged. The trifecta of employee success. So, the question becomes – how do we make that happen?

In just a few weeks, I will be speaking about employee engagement at SilkRoad technology’s annual users conference. I’m on a panel with fellow HR bloggers Alexandra Levit and Lisa Rosendahl to discuss the trends and share critical insights.

With the event coming up, I’ve been doing my research and thinking a lot about the subject. Employee engagement is a hot topic. It made me focus on the true meaning of employee engagement. I sometimes wonder if engagement has turned into this catch-all term for everything that has to do with employees.

You know me, when in doubt…pull out the dictionary. Or in this case, Wikipedia:

Employee satisfaction deals with happiness. Are employees happy at work? Simple enough.

Employee motivation is about getting something. Does an employee receive those things they are looking for at work in return for their efforts on the job?

Employee engagement is a little different. It’s about connecting with the company. Because when employees are connected, they understand what it takes for the company to be successful, want to see the organization succeed and are willing to do what it takes to help the business get there. That’s a very important distinction.

So, it’s very possible that an employee can be happy and not connected to the organization. The employee who comes in, does their job and goes home. They love it when no one bothers them. And, they will tell you so. “Just let me come and in do my job. Don’t make me talk to anyone.” Happy – yes. Engaged – no.

And then there are those employees who are insanely motivated. Motivated by money, motivated by an employee perk or benefit, possibly even motivated to take on new roles and responsibilities so they can eventually get promoted. They are motivated by what they want not necessarily what’s best for the company.

In both cases, these employees can be excellent performers. It’s not to say they’re doing anything wrong. They are delivering what the company asks of them. But they aren’t engaged. An engaged employee is going to work toward moving the business to the next level.

engagement, employee, employee engagement, SilkRoad, SilkRoad technology, facilitation, engaged, trifecta

Ultimately, we want happy, motivated employees who are also engaged. The trifecta of employee success. So, the question becomes – how do we make that happen?

The first thing we need to do is let employees own their career. It’s their professional life and they deserve to have control over it. It also means our role as managers and leaders has to be one of a facilitator versus director.

Managers wanting to incorporate facilitation into their relationships should focus on two skills:

Process development – Good facilitators can walk thru a logical, well thought out process.

Just because an employee is in control of their career, doesn’t mean they won’t need help or guidance along the way. Managers have a great opportunity to help their employees reach decisions by asking questions and walking them through a process. Instead of telling someone what to do…employees are able to figure it out on their own. (Well, at least with a little help.)

Neutral positioning – A facilitator is non-judgmental and respectful of others. Their role is not to provide an opinion but to draw information out of others.

Every employee has their own career goals. Some people might think they are awesome. Others might feel they are worthless. If a manager weighs in on an employee’s career aspirations and either criticizes them or is wrong about them…it will damage their working relationship with that employee.

This doesn’t mean that as facilitators we aren’t allowed to share information. In fact, being able to convey experiences and expertise will only empower employees more when it comes to taking responsibility for one’s career decisions. The key is to use those moments as two-way conversations not one-way instructions.

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts about employee engagement. What does it mean in your organization? And how can we get employees more engaged with our businesses?


  1. Lee Burbage says

    What you have here is the common sense take. It seems so correct when you say it, right? This is the mistaken view many employers and employees have. It is a view people want to be true partly because it is easy.

    It turns out that pretty much the opposite of this article is true. Employees are happy when they are 1) connected to the purpose of the business 2) challenged every day 3) love the people they work with every day. There is no happiness or motivation without engagement (The red, yellow, and orange areas of your graph would be empty). Your three circles fit exactly on top of one another.

  2. says

    I love the chart. Why? Because I can be happy, motivated and engaged outside of the work as well. But when I go to work, I want the three to overlap. Great article.

  3. says

    We agree completely that happy employees are not necessarily engaged employees. And we would add that engaged employees are not necessarily optimally effective employees.

    In our view, there is a silent killer lurking in many companies. We’re talking about workplace frustration, which can undermine the energy, enthusiasm, and performance of your best talent. Based on our research and experience, there are a lot of frustrated people in today’s organizations. We’re not referring to demotivated or turned off employees. That group is likely to be too checked out to experience personal stress or conflict over their inability to get things done. Rather, we’re talking about employees who are engaged with goals and objectives and enthusiastic about making a difference—but are held back by jobs that do not suit them or work environments that get in their way. From a motivational perspective, managers have these employees where they want them. But when it comes to ensuring that they are as productive as possible, managers are missing out.

    The problem is all too often overlooked. Insofar as employee opinion surveys and other employee feedback programs have traditionally focused on employee satisfaction, commitment, and engagement, they commonly fail to highlight issues related to the supportiveness of work environments. And frustrated employees are often reluctant to voice their concerns in other ways. Highly committed to their employers and their jobs, they may be disinclined to make waves by complaining about their situations – and those who do speak up may be unlikely to press the point if work arrangements are seen as unlikely to change. As a result, many suffer in silence.

    The commitment and discretionary effort offered by engaged employees can be squandered if managers are not careful to ensure that roles and work environments allow them to channel their extra efforts productively. Instead of concentrating exclusively on fostering higher levels of motivation, managers need to take better advantage of the motivation they already have. That is, the modern emphasis on engaging employees has to be matched with a similar commitment to enabling them.
    Mark Royal and Tom Agnew, Hay Group Insight recently posted..We’ve been behind winning teams for over 60 years

  4. says

    I think motivation is personal (internal) and people do need to see some personal gain for being at work, taking a particular job and choosing to work for a particular employer. I also agree that we, as adults, are responsible for our own happiness. I think many, if not most, employees starts out happy, motivated and engaged with a new job.

    So I wholeheartedly agree that a manager should be a facilitator and a coach, guiding their team to success, growth and ultimately greatness. In my experience, sustained engagement is really determined by a manager’s actions. Engagement falls when management’s actions dis-empower their staff rather than empower them by failing to leverage the talents of his or her team and by failing to support initiatives and innovations the team has about how the work could be done better, faster, cheaper, etc.

    When this happens the only way to stay happy and motivated at a job is to disengage.

    I’ve come to the conclusion too that empowerment = engagement.

    Great post Sharlyn! I’m picking up what you’re putting down! :o)
    Stacey Olson recently posted..Every Job Can be Engaging and Empowering

  5. Emma Gregg says

    In regards to Hay Group Insight’s comment regarding engaged employees who are motivated, but frustrated:

    I’m an undergrad student, so my working knowledge is shaky, but I have been mulling over a possible organizational/societal shift that might be necessary when it comes to employee surveys and feedback programs.

    To find out what really causes the key employees frustration I’m hypothesizing a system that allows them to freely express what frustrates them DURING the time of frustration.
    Our current system of surveys, luncheon “touch base meetings”, and comment cards, have skewed data. in a positive light…organizations may inadvertently bias these outcomes by sending survey and comment cards out during festive weeks at the office, at a free lunch employees are enjoying a (hopefully) nice meal so when it comes time to discuss, they are subconsciously aware that they were just treated to a gift, and who wants to ruin that with negativity. That is part of our ingrained culture.

    Most often, though, surveys are sent out when the employee is “blank:” It’s been a bland day, nothing on the radar. It may be hard for those employees, who are aware of frustrations negatively impacting their engagement and motivational standing in the back of their mind to recall them on the spot.

    I’m hypothesizing that it would benefit an organization to develop a culture that positively embraced the “I’m frustrated and here’s why” idea through promotion of the concept: “It’s okay to be mad! We’re a working unit and, like family, things break, we aren’t always aware, let us know what’s going on.” (In a respectful manner)
    Toss out the idea that being upset in the workplace is a bad thing!

    In happy homes, there are arguments, some raised voices, but then, once the venting is done, the truths can be ferreted out, and the dialog starts. We currently don’t embrace that venting is helpful.
    But this shift has to be a three step process: Vent, Dissect, Discuss.

    Most employees come to the gate motivated. The system fails them, and that is when they lose engagement and happiness. Find a way to let employees know that they are really heard, in the good times, and especially during the bad and engagement follow.

  6. says

    People get engaged in any activity when they believe they can affect its outcome. Fans start cheering when the score gets close. You really start to concentrate on the crossword when you only have a few words left to solve. You get engaged in your work when you can see how it helps the organization succeed… progress… thrive… stave off extinction. To some others’ comments, if I don’t have the tools or autonomy to feel that my work has meaning, then I begin to disengage. “What’s the point?” I wonder. And if my manager points me to resources that will enhance my ability to impact the organization (e.g., new skills, new responsibilities), all the better. Lastly, I have to care about what happens to the organization. I won’t put forth the effort if I don’t give a fig whether the enterprise lives or dies. Make me care about the success of the organization and I will move mountains.

  7. says

    What other companies lack is an orientation for employee engagement and you’re right! If employees do not know what it takes to raise a company and know what the company’s worth (not financially), it’s more likely that a company and its employees won’t succeed together.

  8. says

    Wow! Thanks for all of the great comments. This is a terrific discussion about engagement. It just proves the point that engagement is tough to define. And if we can’t define it…how can we do anything about it.

    I’m looking forward to writing more about engagement. Hope you’ll stick around and add your thoughts to the conversation.

  9. says

    We should inspire our employees to work happily, committed and engaged in the company they are serving. This can be done if the can feel that they are treated right, like a family and something related to that. The managers should set a good example for employees. If the manager is friendly, always smiles, engaged good relationship with his followers, then you can expect a happy, committed and engaged employees.
    Ben Rugler, Restaurant Forms recently posted..Free Restaurant Employee Handbook: Tips On How To Avoid Risks

  10. says

    Great article, although Lee Burbage made a great insight as well. I work with company TalkFreely, who provide software for employee engagement management, so what I’ve found in my own experience is that most managers care about employees engagement just by asking “do you have any ideas” and hope, that suddenly, somehow, employees will start to pour best possible ideas for business improvement.

    The reality is, most people won’t give any ideas at all. The ones who will do, their ideas will be how to solve their personal work problems rather than ideas for business improvement.

    Another problem is that managers hear all those things about employee engagement, but doesn’t understand that the motivation comes first, then comes happiness and therefore employees became engaged with the company, otherwise, they can’t be engaged if they are not happy, and they cannot be happy if they are not motivated.

    We have another article “8 steps to employee led innovation” where we discuss on this subject much further: http://www.talkfreely.com/solution

  11. says

    Thanks for the comment Justinas. I agree with you and Lee that engaged employees are happy and motivated. But I do think it’s possible to be happy and/or motivated without being engaged.

    Your point about offering ideas raises an interesting question: If fixing a personal work problem also benefits the company as a whole, then is that representative of engagement?

  12. says

    I really like your employee trifecta model and the way you differentiate satisfaction, motivation, and engagement. I agree that employees who are happy and motivated aren’t necessarily engaged. I would add two points to the discussion:

    (1) It takes engaged leaders to create truly engaged employees. Make sure your leaders are engaged and that they know how to connect-the-dots for their employees.

    (2) Unhappy employees are rarely engaged. If you want to start somewhere, create a little happiness at work. Happiness in any compartment of our lives can spill over and form the seeds for engagement.
    Scott Carbonara recently posted..Engagement Via Appreciation

  13. says

    If an employee is engaged at work then both their motivation and happiness levels increase. And it is the employer’s responsibility, directly and through their leaders, to engage the employee and keep them engaged. It begins with hiring the right people whose values match those of the company. Onboarding, mentoring, career development, reward systems (formal and informal), open communication and executive involvement all help to facilitate the engagement process. As far as a career goes if you’re engaged, you’re committed. If you’re committed you’re motivated. And if you’re motivated, hopefully you’re happy in your work.

  14. says

    @Scott – Lots of companies who want to focus on engagement are looking for a place to start. I like your thoughts about happiness at work. Thanks for the comment.

    @Jerry – Thanks for sharing. Totally agree that company programs (when designed well) can facilitate engagement.

  15. Nicole LeBlanc says

    I’m a little late in stumbling across this post, but I’m so glad that I did. There is a subtle yet important nuance that differentiates satisfaction, engagement and motivation – and one that becomes even more muddled in many mainstream articles and industry content. Your venn diagram is the perfect depiction that all three of these things are really at the heart of a successfuly employee. I think your point about “owning” your own career is also a good one – and I think its something that younger generations are starting to demand.

  16. says

    I just finished reading a new book on who owns employee engagement, the employee or the boss. It has some fascinating insights based on years of research. It’s called The Employee Engagement Mindset by Dr. Timothy R. Clark. His findings suggest that many leaders feel like they own the engagement process but that all highly engaged employees say they personally own the process. Clark gives six drivers: connecting, shaping, learning, stretching, achieving and contributing. In a world that seems to want to point fingers, blame others, and be entitled, it was interesting to read about “I” am responsible for my own engagement. Good read.

  17. Brian Hughes says

    Alisa I would suggest you treat employees how they would like to be treated. A great book to read is First, Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham – it will cause a pause for reflection. It is one of the best books I have read in 10 years on great management, not just conventional good management.

    I agree with many comments about the employee has a huge role to play to engage. Managers need to create the right environment and provide the needed support to help employees engage.

  18. says

    Thank you so much for the comments and sharing another resource on engagement. I’m a big fan of the Venn diagram as well. My apologies for the late reply.

  19. says

    Great article and loved the “trifecta” of engagement.

    We believe managers can create more engaged employers by finding out what truly motivates each employee, and making small tweaks to the role to provide the right kind of experience, and opportunity that would result in employees being happier, more motivated and engaged.

    Understanding what will motivate and engage each employee is the key. So managers asking (and shutting up and listening as the bartender might suggest) “what aspects of your work are most enjoyable for you? Most motivating? ” should give you some insight on what to give them more of. Our recent Career Engagement research showed that nearly 75% of employees actually do want to contribute more to their organizations. We just need to find out what it is they want to contribute?

  20. says

    Sharlyn, this is very interesting and I am glad to see someone else take a stand on happiness and engagement! There has lately been so much focus on happiness that we are getting to fad status: you are right, people can be quite “content”, or happy if you want, doing almost nothing. The more they have to do the more they complain! Some professionals in the field will deny this by saying that, according to their definition of happiness, one cannot be unproductive and happy at the same time, which is a crafty way around this issue, but which in my mind fails….don’t we all know very unproductive, quite “content” people?

    I am with some of your other commentators here though that the Venn Diagram doesn’t really tell the whole story for me. Such a small space where the ideal worker is to be found? So few of them? Surely there are quite a few people where all three circles are together in one…well what color is it?….one blob. Let me add the EGO here as a factor; ego is one of the most destructive things in an organization (or anywhere there are relationships, like at home!) If we take out those possessed by ego from those motivated and/or “happy”, then we have a much better (and bigger) group of each to draw on and the Venn becomes almost one single circle. This is because engagement and ego are like oil and water, they do not mix, so that is a low-ego group by definition.

    One final thing, I don’t agree with your statement that those purely motivated (by perks for example) are “delivering what the company asks of them”…..not at all, sorry. If I have an airline worker whose sole motivation is just to hang on there 40 hours/week so she can fly to Paris on weekends for almost nothing….while treating passengers like crap most of that 40 hours because she doesn’t give a damn….she is not delivering what any airline that I know of would expect of her!

    Great topic, thanks for the chance to add my 2 cents!

    Co-Author, “The High Engagement Work Culture: Balancing ME and WE” (July 3rd 2012, Macmillan)
    David Bowles, Ph.D. recently posted..Hows Does Physics See the Financial Crash and What Does That Mean for Us?

  21. says

    Thanks for the comment David. I think there’s a difference between what companies expect from employees and what they accept. Using the airline example, I’m sure the company doesn’t expect employees to treat passengers badly. The question is do they accept it?

    That’s not really a motivation issue – the employee might still be motivated by flight benefits. It’s about accountability.

  22. says

    Hi Sharlyn, thanks for the reply. Well your actual wording is “delivering what the company asks of them….”. I was responding to that, by saying that if they are selfishly motivated (perks, promotions, etc.) that is unlikely to be aligned with what the company asks of them….whether they accept it or not is another issue. What most companies I have consulted for “ask” of their workers is to do things which require engagement, not ego-based behavior. In fact ego and engagement (one of my favorite topics: http://wp.me/pEDK3-cV) are not good bedfellows. Ego destroys engagement, at the individual worker level, manager level, and especially! the CEO level.

    Love the stuff you have been covering lately, thanks!

    Co-Author, “The High Engagement Work Culture: Balancing ME and WE” (July 3rd 2012, Macmillan)
    David Bowles, Ph.D. recently posted..Hows Does Physics See the Financial Crash and What Does That Mean for Us?

  23. says

    I agree. But how do we get people engaged ? The need for happiness or the lure of personal motivation easily trumps any requirement to be engaged. I’ve been studying literature on GenY for the past few weeks. And it seems to me that most of the descriptors of GenY fall in the ‘need for happiness’ and the ‘lure of personal motivation’ categories. And it also seems to me that most of the advice about how this generation needs to be managed fall in the ‘engage them’ category. Then how’re things going to work ? My submission is that, in a social world, contracting in space-time, everyone who shares the world, from any generation, can see and hear more and more of the saame many things, and hence can say, think and do more and more of the same many things. Because they share the dots of the world that keep moving closer to one another as time progresses. Hence, if we can understand and manage the GenX and BabyBoomers of today, we can, in effect, understand and manage GenY. And that goes for engagement too. If you wish, you could read more about this in my post ‘Understanding and Managing GenY, relatively speaking that is’, at http://eyeseework.blogspot.in/2012/07/understanding-and-managing-gen-y.html
    Parag recently posted..Understanding and managing Gen Y, relatively speaking that is

  24. Stace Rierson says

    I agree, at my last job I was unhappy within three weeks of starting, disempowered, and eventually unmotivated. After 5 months of feeling belittled and unvalued, I stood up in a meeting and said, “This isn’t working for me. I’m… not… happy, and I realize I can quit.” It was great. I’m no longer employed there…but I learned a great deal about what I will and will not tolerate from a job where I’m overpaid (!!) with such low expectations for performance.

  25. says

    Thanks for sharing your stories. We have so much to learn about what drives employee engagement. Companies need to realize that it’s deeper than money and it’s always a moving target.

  26. says

    Wow this is the first time to read this blog.. This totally awesome topic.. All of those words are very mind focusing it may help other people that are lost in motivation.. It is like I am watching a inspirational movie or something that can carry my heart away.. Hope to see more kind of this post.

  27. Michael says

    External gratification is no substitute for internal satisfaction.

    The bottom line is happiness is a choice.